HARTFORD, Conn. (JTA) — My wife stared at me as if I were from another planet.
“What do you mean you don’t know if you can come to my cousin’s wedding?” she demanded.
She had been looking forward to a weekend getaway with her husband of 28 years.
“It’s on a Saturday afternoon, before Shabbat is over. It’s during the three weeks of mourning before Tisha b’Av, not to mention during my year of saying Kaddish,” I replied, knowing none of these reasons would resonate with her.
Julia and I had met in our mid-20s — unaffiliated, Jewish Catalog-kind of Jews loosely tied to our religion and tradition.
We forged our own way of doing things religiously. For our first child, a daughter, we crafted our own naming ceremony. We found a mohel and had a brit for our two sons. We joined a Reform temple because it was where most of our friends were joining.
About 20 years ago, however, I began taking classes from a rabbi who saw the Torah as a spiritual road map. His teachings spoke to me.
“Give me a modern-day example of Mitzrayim,” he asked, referring to enslavement in Egypt.
I saw how enslaved I felt in my job. I resonated with his definition of Shabbat as a daylong meditation focused on being instead of doing.
Soon I was going to Shabbat morning services almost weekly as I juggled our kids’ soccer schedules.
As I became more observant over the span of several years — keeping kosher and eventually joining an Orthodox shul — I longed for a circle that could enthusiastically participate in weekly Shabbat meals, Passover seders, and my religious journey.
Instead, Shabbat and Jewish holidays became points of friction when service schedules clashed with social invitations or Julia’s desire just to take in a movie on a Saturday night, even if Shabbat’s end had yet to arrive.
“Why don’t you just find an Orthodox wife to marry?” Julia suggested in her most exasperated moments.
Then one day, I saw our struggle from a new perspective. Ironically, it came from a real Hassid, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who said you are never given an obstacle you cannot overcome. That meant committing to finding a way to bring some kind of wholeness to my marriage.
I still did not know what to do about the wedding of my wife’s cousin. I did not think I should attend, but I knew this was my obstacle to overcome. I consulted a rabbi who’d written about what he called the sacred messiness of life.
“The only issue is whether you want Judaism to be associated with judgmental holier-than-thou energy. Obviously, you don’t,” the rabbi said, “or you wouldn’t be asking me what to do.”
I came to realize that for at least the past 15 years I had been acting holier than thou — to Julia, our kids, and to our friends.
I went to the wedding. In preparation, I envisioned how a more flexible and loving husband would behave. For that weekend, I also challenged myself to suspend my judgments and be the partner my wife had fallen in love with years ago.
That Saturday afternoon, we sat on folding chairs in the hot Florida summer sun. A minister and rabbi officiated. I held Julia’s hand. I sipped champagne and toasted the new couple. In short, I allowed myself to have a ball.
“I like the new flexible you,” Julia said over the band’s music, a smile on her face.
That weekend marked a turning point. I had taken a vow to honor my wife no matter how we changed. Despite what often seemed like my affair with God, I realized that I owed Julia a commitment and to be there for her no matter what life’s challenges.
I also realized that to hold her in my arms as we feel the joys and sorrows of life is a spiritual practice, too. It’s not always easy. But when I feel my inflexibility and holier-than-thou voice creeping back, I try to remember that having a sensitive heart is also one of God’s commandments.