Saturday, March 13, 2010

Jewish Marriage Lasts Because It's Not Forever

Elizabeth Gilbert’ and Ann Patchett have written extensively about modern marriage. A recent "conversion" between them brought into sharp relief for me the contrast between Jewish ideas of marriage and what Patchett and Gilbert  describe (and which is presumably representative of what many think). They speak of marriage as a “curious amalgam” of “a lifelong, unbreakable contract to God, sealed by a priest” and “a bond of love, an expression of individualistic choice.”Gilbert also notes that “Americans marry more – and sadly, divorce more – than anyone else in the industrialized world,” and considers a modern marriage “as a car strangely fashioned out of an old abandoned horse carriage, built upon the framework of a mule cart.

Jewish marriage is quite different.

Not Forever
For starters, Jewish marriage is not presumed to be forever. Despite Jewish marriages involving no undertakings of permanence (no “until death do us part” vows), Jews exceed all other ethnic/racial and religious groups in being married (65 percent of Jews vs. 57 percent of non-Jews), even though most Jews apparently marry at somewhat later ages than non-Jews do. Eighty-two percent of Jews vs. 71 percent of non-Jews grew up in an intact family. With 21 percent never having been divorced, the divorce rate among Jews is lower than all other groups except Asians (11 percent) and Catholics (20 percent) according to Dr. Tom W. Smith (Jewish Distinctiveness In America: A Statistical Portrait). The divorce rate is lower still among observant Jews. Judaism recognizes that marriage, like everything worthwhile in life, requires dedication, effort and energy. And even when two people are meant for each other, it is possible for them to ruin their marriage. That is why Judaism allows for “no-fault” divorce.Divorce.

Divorce Biblically Sanctioned
Divorce is Biblically sanctioned; (a sefer kritut, a bill of divorcement) is mentioned in Deut 24:1-3) and serves as a writ of manumission that frees the women to marry another man (except a cohen).- Judaism recognized the concept of "no-fault" divorce thousands of years ago. It has always accepted divorce as a fact of life, albeit an unfortunate one. Judaism generally maintains that it is better for a couple to divorce than to remain together in a state of constant bitterness and strife.
While technically, the husband must issue the divorce, known as a get, to the wife,  and it must be given of his “free will,” the wife may sue in rabbinical court to initiate the divorce, and the rabbinical court can order the husband to grant his wife a divorce.

In the olden days,  a recalcitrant husband who refuses the court's order to issue a divorce could be flogged until he says, “I want to;” nowadays he may be subject to moral suasion, ostracism, tort liability, and in Israel, to incarceration, until he agrees. There is even a possibility of a rabbinical court annulling the marriage ab initio in some circumstances. (In fairness, it must be noted that the wheels of justice can sometimes turn slowly, leading to a small number of women becoming agunot (anchored), prevented from remarrying because they cannot finalize a divorce).

Both Spouses Must Willingly Consent
From the days of the Biblical Isaac marrying Rebecca (Gen 24:57), in Judaism, both husband and wife must willingly agree to the marriage.
Originally, a husband could arbitrarily divorce his wife without her consent, even though he remained obligated to support her ( according to most opinions, for at least a year), or for longer, if the marriage contract so provides. However, about 1000 CE, Rabbi Gershom ben Judah, (c. 960 -1040) best known as Rabbeinu Gershom, “the light of the diaspora” called a synod that among other decrees, prohibited polygamy and required the consent of both parties to a divorce (it also prohibited reading of private mail).

Property Rights Respected
A married woman retains ownership of any property she brought to the marriage, but the husband has the right to manage the property during the term of the marriage and to enjoy profits from the property in return for his obligation to support her; in the event the marriage is dissolved, she takes her property back.

Sexual Relations Required
Regular sexual relations are expected between husband and wife. This obligation is known as onah. A sustained refusal to have sexual relations constitutes valid grounds for divorce.

Love Not Mentioned
Kabbalistically, marriage is understood to mean that the husband and wife are merging together into a single soul, and a man is considered "incomplete" if he is not married, as his soul is only one part of a larger whole that remains to be unified. In Judaism, marriage is not solely, or even primarily, for the purpose of procreation. Traditional sources recognize that companionship, love and intimacy are the primary purposes of marriage, noting that woman was created because "it is not good for man to be alone," (Gen. 2:18) rather than because she was necessary for procreation.
Nevertheless, the Jewish marriage contract (ketubah ) itself, (which has existed in essentially the same form at least for 2500 years - the oldest ones were found on Egyptian Elephantine Island -  is essentially a statement of undertakings; notably absent is any mention of romance or love.


Love, in the Jewish tradition, is something that develops over time, from shared intimacy, shared values, and shared aspirations. Therefore, it cannot be demanded, promised or legislated.  We  read that “Isaac brought her [Rebeka] into his mother Sarah's tent (Sarah was already deceased), and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her"  (Gen 24:67). Unlike the popular ditty, “first comes love, then comes marriage…” in traditional Judaism, first comes marriage, then comes love. As Sam Walton, founder of WalMart famously said, “expectations are the key to everything.” Perhaps it is the different expectations from a Jewish marriage that helps contribute to the high rate of marriage and low rate of divorce in the Jewish community.

(Thanks to my Professor Jonathan D. Sarna and to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky for their assistance)

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