Eat, Pray, Love, Then What?

February 17, 2010

8 min read


Why marriage matters. A Jewish response to Liz Gilbert’s new bestseller.

Contemplate the sad fate of a pretty girl growing up in the shadow of her Beauty Queen older sister. Now you’ll understand why I feel sorry for Committed, the sequel to Liz Gilbert’s wildly popular memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. While Eat, Pray, Love has been translated into more than 30 languages, is being made into a major motion picture starring Julia Roberts, and occupied the throne of #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List for a whopping 57 weeks, Committed, released a scant five weeks ago, enjoyed one glorious week in the #1 position and is already wending its way down.

In Eat, Pray, Love Elizabeth tells the tale of her one-year quest to find wholeness after a devastating divorce, a miserable love affair, and a deep depression. She travels to Italy, India, and Bali, masterfully recounting her inner and outer adventures. In Bali she meets a Brazilian man 17 years her senior, whom she pseudonymously calls “Felipe.” The book concludes with her and Felipe deciding to live together in America, Australia (where his grown children live), Brazil, and Bali.

Their love story picks up in Committed. They have settled in Philadelphia, and have pledged to each other lifelong fidelity. In addition, since they are both survivors of painful divorces, they have, as Elizabeth writes, “sworn with all our hearts to never, ever, under any circumstances marry.” The villain who wrecks their dreams then appears: the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security. One fateful day at the Dallas airport, Felipe is stopped by the authorities, interrogated for six hours, and then told he will not be allowed to enter the U.S. ever again. Felipe’s only hope of return, Officer Tom suggests to them, is to get married.

Why is Liz Gilbert so utterly opposed to the “institution of marriage”?

They spend the next ten months traveling in Southeast Asia, the cheapest place to live, since Eat, Pray, Love has not yet burst into stardom. Outwardly, they are “killing time,” waiting for the bureaucratic process to grant Felipe’s fiance visa. Inwardly, Elizabeth is going through an even more arduous process, trying to make peace with what she repeatedly calls “the institution of marriage.”

And here is where Committed turns off most of its reviewers and readers. The author launches into a historical and sociological exploration of marriage in the Western world. “I hoped that all this studying might somehow mitigate my deep aversion to marriage," she explains on page 22. "What I really wanted, more than anything, was to find a way to somehow embrace marriage to Felipe when the big day came rather than merely swallowing my fate like a hard and awful pill.”

She never really manages to sweeten the pill. The subtitle of the book is, “A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage,” but, alas, only after a couple hundred pages of resistance more virulent than Davy Crockett’s at the Alamo. At the end, her “Peace with Marriage” is like Egypt’s cold peace with Israel -- no blood shed, but no love lost. Even I, a fan who would read Liz Gilbert even if she wrote computer manuals, was losing patience by page 250. It felt like trying to get a cranky toddler, kicking and screaming, into the bathtub. I felt myself through clenched teeth saying, “Just do it, Liz, just do it.” After all, 75% of divorced people do get married again. Why all the fuss?

In that sense, the book is really a mystery, and the “Whodunit” question is: Why is Liz Gilbert so utterly opposed to the “institution of marriage”? I put that phrase in quotes because every time she used it, I bridled (no pun intended). Usually, the term “institution” is juxtaposed to the word, “home.” Children raised in an “institution,” which is by definition cold and unloving, turn out differently than children raised at “home,” a place of warmth and belonging. I have been living for 25 years in an observant Jewish community, a quite marriage-centered society, and I have never once heard the term “institution of marriage” used here. Instead, the Jewish idiom for marriage is “building a home.” The traditional blessing given to every bride and groom is: “May you merit to build a Jewish home.”

Is a person (especially a woman) diminished or enhanced by marriage?

This distinction is important, because while a “home” fosters growth, in Elizabeth’s mind marriage stifles, restricts, and inhibits. (Think of such “institutions” as reform schools, prisons, and mental hospitals.) The basic question with which Elizabeth grapples (and grapples and grapples!) is: Is a person (especially a woman) diminished or enhanced by marriage?

Giving It All Away

Indeed, the essence of Elizabeth’s stubborn, almost pathological, resistance to marriage is embedded in the story of her Grandmother Maude’s coat. Grandma Maude was born, on a farm in Minnesota in 1913, with a serious cleft-palate deformity. Even after surgery, she was left with a visible scar in the middle of her face that rendered her, in everyone’s estimation, unmarriageable. Since she would have to support herself through life, she was allowed to finish high school (a luxury her siblings on the farm were not granted). After graduating, while all the other girls in her society were hunkering down to marriage and motherhood, Maude embarked on a great adventure. She traveled to Montana all by herself, worked in a restaurant, got herself a haircut and a fancy permanent wave from an actual hairdresser, went to the movies, and read books. Returning to Minnesota, she got a job as a housekeeper and secretary to the wealthy Mrs. Parker, a socialite who threw parties with the best steaks, booze, and cigarettes.

Writes her adulating granddaughter Liz: “Her youthful independence is best epitomized by one symbol: a gorgeous wine-colored coat with a real fur collar that she bought for herself for $20… I believe you could pick your way through my family’s genealogy with tweezers and never find a woman before Maude who’d ever bought something so fine and expensive for herself.”

Then, to everyone’s surprise, Maude married a handsome, hardworking farm boy. She moved into a single, Spartan room in her father-in-law’s small farmhouse, and proceeded to give birth to seven children. “Her life after that was pretty much unremitting hardship and hard work,” writes Liz. The cruelest cut came when Maude’s first daughter was born. Maude cut up her cherished wine-colored coat and used the material to sew a Christmas outfit for the new baby.

Her anguished granddaughter writes: “That has always been, in my mind, the operative metaphor for what marriage does to … the women in my family…. Because what my grandmother did with her fine coat (the loveliest thing she would ever own) is what all the women of that generation (and before) did for their families and their husbands and their children. They cut up the finest and proudest parts of themselves and gave it all away.”

Elizabeth's core mistake is assuming that the purpose of life is self-expression rather than self-transcendence.

With that, Elizabeth unveils the fear that spawned this entire book, her desperate attempt to understand the purpose of marriage in the Western world. But asking what is the purpose of marriage requires asking what is the purpose of life, because marriage is just one course in the great curriculum called “life.” Elizabeth makes her core mistake in assuming that the purpose of life is self-expression rather than self-transcendence.

Why Marriage Matters

Elizabeth, who spent four months in an Indian ashram (chronicled in Eat, Pray, Love) on her hands and knees scrubbing the temple floors, surely learned there that the enemy of the Higher Self is the ego, which must be tamed, trained, trounced, and transcended. Liz’s guru would have considered the fancy-coat-decked-out Maude, enjoying hairdressers, movies, and sumptuous parties, to be a deluded prisoner of her own ego, and the married, mothering Maude, in giving and serving mode, to be cutting through a bar of that prison every time she put others first. (Indeed, Liz is flabbergasted when her grandmother tells her that the happiest period of her life was not when she worked for Mrs. Parker, but rather the first few years of her marriage.)

When self-transcendence is the goal, marriage is not the great spoiler, but rather the great facilitator. The daily discipline of relinquishing your preferences for your spouse, of going Chinese when you prefer Italian, of sleeping with the thermostat set to a frigid 64 when you prefer 68, can liberate you from the prison of egotism and self-centeredness.

Judaism, alone among the great religions, has always regarded marriage as the highest spiritual path. After documenting how early Christianity was pro-celibacy and anti-marriage, Elizabeth asserts: “So when modern-day religious conservatives wax nostalgic about how marriage is a sacred tradition that reaches back into history for thousands of uninterrupted years, they are absolutely correct, but in only one respect -- only if they happen to be talking about Judaism.”

According to Torah [Genesis 1:27], the first human being was created half male and half female. Then this androgynous being was separated, with God detaching one side (not rib, as often mistranslated, but side) to become a separate female being. The primordial wholeness can be restored only through marriage. When two Jews marry, something mystical happens under the chuppah; their two souls are fused into one. And this new, joint entity can become the resting place for the Divine Presence in this world. Indeed “bayit,” the Hebrew word for “home,” is the same word used for the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where the Shechinah or Divine Presence, the manifestation of the Infinite God in the finite world, dwelled. As the Talmud states: “No man [should be] without a woman, no woman without a man, and both of them not without the Shechinah.”

Rather than diminishing the self, marriage expands the self to include the spouse.

Rather than diminishing the self, as Elizabeth fears, marriage expands the self to include the spouse. In this sense her metaphor of marriage as relinquishing the fine “coat” is apt. A coat encloses the person and protects her from cold, wind, and other outside forces. A coat delineates the borders of the self; there is no room for anyone but you inside your coat. By contrast, a chuppah is a piece of fabric that protects all those who stand under it: the couple and their families. The chuppah symbolizes the home (there’s that word again) that the new couple is about to build. It is their shared garment and shared goal.

In Judaism, the purpose of marriage is to create a sacred space where the Divine Presence can dwell. Since the Holy Temple was destroyed, there is no other way to bond with God on all levels than through bonding with one’s spouse.

This process is difficult (as all worthwhile endeavors are) because men and women are so different in their physical, psychological, and spiritual make-up. That’s why commitment is necessary. As beautifully illustrated in's video “Burn Your Bridge”, as long as there’s an escape route, a person will take it when the going gets rough. When there’s no escape route, a person will tap every bit of his/her potential to fight for victory.

Relationships sans marriage have many convenient exits. Once a person commits to marriage, however, there’s only one exit: divorce. While Elizabeth, with her Christian background, regards divorce as “sinful,” in Judaism divorce is a valid exit offered by the Torah. Even so, the door of divorce is a tight, barbed wire trimmed exit; no one gets through it unscathed. Which is precisely why the married person is more apt to stretch, change, adapt, and grow in order to make the relationship succeed.

As Rabbi Nachum Braverman explained the Jewish view of commitment and divorce: “What is my commitment to my hand? I'm not committed to my hand. I AM my hand.” In a similar way, your spouse is part of you. And as you wouldn’t amputate your hand unless it became gangrenous and was threatening your life, so divorce, which is an actual amputation, should be considered only when keeping the relationship is killing you.

Greek vs. Hebrew

After conducting a mental debate with the author throughout Committed, I was startled to turn a page near the end and find my debate in print. Elizabeth comes to the conclusion that she is so stubbornly resisting marriage because she is “Greek,” as opposed to “Hebrew.” She explains:

    It has long been understood by philosophers that the entire bedrock of Western culture is based on two rival worldviews -- the Greek and the Hebrew -- and whichever side you embrace more strongly determines to a large extent how you see life.

    From the Greeks… we have inherited our ideas about secular humanism and the sanctity of the individual… “Hebrew” is shorthand for an ancient worldview that is all about tribalism [Her repeated references to Jewish “tribalism” make me feel like I’m wearing a tiger-tooth necklace with a bone dangling from my nose], faith, obedience, and respect… The collective is more important than the individual, morality is more important than happiness, and vows are inviolable.

    The problem is that modern Western culture has somehow inherited both these ancient worldviews -- though we have never entirely reconciled them because they aren’t reconcilable… Our [American] legal code is mostly Greek; our moral code is mostly Hebrew. We have no way of thinking about independence and intellect and the sanctity of the individual that is not Greek. We have no way of thinking about righteousness and God’s will that is not Hebrew.

    …The perfect Greek lover is erotic; the perfect Hebrew lover is faithful. Passion is Greek; fidelity is Hebrew.

In the end, with the Department of Homeland Security holding the shotgun, Greek Elizabeth marries Felipe. And this Hebrew reader hereby gives her a wedding gift in the form of this blessing: All that you were searching for in Italy (pleasure), in India (closeness to God), and in Bali (balance), may you find at home within your marriage.


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