The Humanist Dilemma: Someone Tell My Family It’s Okay if I’m not Observant!

Once A Jew: Although I was raised in a nominally Jewish family, I began rejecting religion when I was about eleven and stopped participating in anything religious even before I went to college (once my parents finally stopped forcing me). When asked, I would always say I was from a Jewish background but not religious. On forms, I would check “none.”

Now I’m married to a practicing Jewish man who insists that no matter what I say, I’m Jewish forever. The good part is that since he requires the mother of his children to be Jewish, he is satisfied that I am simply by virtue of having a Jewish mother myself. The bad part is he and his family just don’t get that I don’t want to attend services, observe the holidays, or teach our children about Judaism without also teaching them about other religions and nonbelief. Yes, I know if there were another Hitler, I’d be rounded up regardless of my stated views, but I find it a bit infuriating that nothing I say or do seems to excuse me from all the religious involvement my husband and his family push at me (even though I keep my participation to the minimum).

Does any other religion have comparable claims on their offspring? Is there some way I can get the well-meaning and loving people around me to respect my position, or at least back off?

—Please Accept My Resignation


Dear Resignation,

As someone in the same position, I truly empathize with you. I feel frustrated that no one can seem to hear me when I say, “No, I don’t want lifetime membership in the synagogue’s women’s league or to go on group missions to Israel.” I suspect if I were raised Christian or another religion, I might not be pressured to the same extent.  But the fact is my roots are Jewish, and people simply disregard my choice because they don’t acknowledge that I have a choice. They either deny my denial or pretend to forget, no matter how many times I may have reminded them. And it’s all the more difficult because I often accompany my husband to religious functions such as major holidays (out of family loyalty) or because some affiliated events promise to be enjoyable or enlightening (i.e., good speakers, films or entertainment, dinners). When participating in these, I don’t think it’s appropriate to go overboard announcing my nonbelief—any more than I’d expect non-Jewish spouses to inform everyone they’re not Jewish. But it would be nice if people close to me would acknowledge, if not honor, my decision not to participate in the faith.

I actually don’t know if other religions do the same thing, or to the same degree. Judaism is somewhat unique in the endless debate over whether it’s strictly a religion or also a culture or even a race. There are many people who strongly identify as culturally Jewish even though they don’t practice the religion in any way (unless consuming lox and bagels or using certain Yiddish terms can be considered practicing).

Although I haven’t found a perfect solution, I do try to balance being part of a family that is Jewish with being an individual who doesn’t support any religion. So I always participate in major holiday celebrations, along with our Christian family members who take their turns reading at the Passover seder. But when we’re with a kosher-observing couple at a non-kosher restaurant, I feel free to order pork or shellfish if that’s what I feel like having, regardless of whether it might ruffle anyone’s sensibilities. I refuse to join any religious-oriented groups, and make a point of supporting secular causes and charities. I walk a very fine line in discussions about Israel/Palestine and secular laws affecting circumcision and kosher slaughter,  and I excuse myself when my views are dismissed with the infuriating and nonsensical slur, “self-hating Jew.”

Do we have any readers who can chime in on whether other religions also claim members in perpetuity from birth, regardless of their adult beliefs? I know many lapsed Christians are told they are going to hell, and most faiths use some form of excommunication (or worse) to punish those who have fallen away and to prevent them from influencing those who haven’t (skepticism is highly contagious).

I’ve heard of people sending their churches letters of resignation that are not accepted. But the fact is, if you reject the religion of your origin, you also reject anything it may have to say about whether you can ever leave it. With a nod to Paul Simon, just set yourself free.