My father is a nice man but extremely conservative. When we have dinner with my family, he'll often go on and on about some issue. I generally disagree with him, and family dinners have become a bit uncomfortable. Lately, he's been denouncing abortion and people who have abortions as baby-killers. I happen to know that when my wife was in college, she had an abortion, and my father's tirades are very painful to her. Should I tell my father about my wife's experience, so that he'll stop being so insensitive? Or could that backfire and cause a permanent rift between them?
In courtrooms, witnesses are obliged to swear to tell "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." Outside the courtroom, telling the whole truth can be unwise. Thus, I believe you are right to fear that if you inform your father about your wife's abortion, an act he regards as murder, you might well cause an irreparable rift between two of the most important people in your life. I would therefore suggest that you tell your father the truth--just not the whole truth--that your wife, and you as well, disagree strongly with his views on abortion. You might mention, for example, that you and your wife think it is wrong to forbid abortion to a woman whose physical or emotional well-being is threatened by a pregnancy. Convey to your father that speaking about this issue makes family get-togethers unpleasant for you and your wife, and ask him if he would be willing to agree for the time being to disagree on this issue and not talk about it. Make your conversation with him as loving as possible, and try to take as much sting out of your words as you can. Also, it might make sense to speak first with your mother. It's possible that she, not wishing to see family dinners become unpleasant--a pretty inevitable fate once an ideologue starts to dominate the discussion--can exert influence on your dad as well.
Unless your father is the sort of person who espouses a new cause every week or two, I'd act on this one pretty quickly, before your wife starts to feel totally estranged from a man who, God willing, will be a part of your lives for many years to come. And remember to keep your anger in check, no matter how unpleasant the conversation with your father becomes. As you note in your letter's opening sentence, "my father is a nice man." In other words, you are having a disagreement with a nice person, not an enemy.
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Joseph Telushkin, a rabbi and Beliefnet columnist, is the author of 10 books, including "The Book of Jewish Values," just out from Bell Tower/Crown.