The Jewish View of Marriage
Three ingredients of a successful marriage.
Most of us, if we aren't already, will end up getting married at some point in our lives.
How many of us plan on getting divorced? If statistics are right, there's a good chance half of us will.
The relationships in our lives largely determine the amount of happiness we have in life. Who we choose to marry is arguably the most important decision we will make in determining our happiness and our children's happiness (and even your parents' happiness).
We train and license people for almost every conceivable activity. Doctors, lawyers, plumbers, chefs, interior designers – they all have to prove their competence before we would dare use them.
But for the big issues in life, for the things that really matter, there really is no training – no degrees in parenting, schools for happiness, PhD's in relationships.
For most of us we approach the issues in love and marriage as orphans, without learning from the cumulative experience and wisdom of past generations. We approach the key questions – What is marriage? How do I find the right person? How do I ensure a happy, fulfilling marriage? – alone, making all sorts of mistakes as we try to figure it out and get it right. That method would work – if no one got hurt along the way.
Today, marriage seems to be a kind of evolutionary accident. After a period of getting acquainted, dating and becoming romantically involved comes the stage of restlessness. The couple confronts the terrifying question of: What next? The default answer puts them on the altar of marriage, vowing to live happily ever after. Hopefully.
Jews believe that God created the world for man to have a life of meaning and pleasure. He wants us to have it all. And He gave us an instruction book telling us how to get it. The Torah is Torat Chaim – literally, the instructions for living.
How do you think the Torah describes the state of being married? Eternal bliss? Chained?
The Jewish idea of marriage is two halves becoming one, completing each other.
"A man should therefore leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). Marriage is the process of becoming one flesh. Marriage is not two people coming together to form a partnership, nor an agreement to be roommates permanently. It’s not a method to get a tax break, or a way to share household chores. The Jewish idea of marriage is two halves becoming one, completing each other.
What does the couple need in order to accomplish this sense of unification? Imagine marriage as a journey down the path of life. Car, gas, food – we're ready to go. What is necessary for the two travelers in this car to “unite” for this trip?
- Destination: They have to know where they're going in order to commit to go together. If one wants to go skiing, he can't get there with someone who wants to go to the beach.
- Commitment: Two people won't arrive at their destination if one can back out at a second's notice.
- Affinity: If they can't stand each other, it’s going to be an intolerable ride.
The essence of marriage is the commitment to pursue life goals together.
Marriage needs to have clear goals shared by husband and wife. It's so obvious, but so often ignored. I know a couple who almost ended up divorced because after a few years of marriage he wanted children and she didn't want the burden of raising them. They dated for five years – yet never discussed if they wanted to have children!
Don't think this a far-out example. Couples break up over many issues: How to raise their kids, where to live, how much a part religion will play in their lives, giving priority to a career or family, whose career will come first if they're in conflict.
Shared values and priorities provide a structure which unites the couple and allows them to work on becoming "one flesh.”
Some of us think that marriage itself is enough of a life goal. We are fed the illusion that you don't need any goals outside of one another. “All you need is love.”
Not true. Marriage itself is not a life goal. It puts an unbearable strain on a relationship if the partners expect the relationship will satisfy all their needs.
Love is not all you need. Marriage is a powerful tool to help us pursue the things we care about in life with added energy, with an added sense of self. If you’re depressed, aimless and single, you'll be depressed, aimless and married.
Life goals are the things in life that mean everything to you, the values that you stand for, that you're willing to sacrifice for. If they're so easy to change, then chances are they're not so important to you.
What do we mean by values?
Honesty, integrity, loyalty, kindness. If she’s not nice to her own family, there’s a good chance she’s not going to be nice to yours, either.
This person is going to be the parent of your children. How will they shape your kids?
You can't delay discussing life goals, hoping you'll come to an agreement once you're married, expecting the other person to change. Ideas and tastes change, but character is something very hard to change. Don't expect her to change. You have to be ruthlessly honest.
For many people, the problem is the lack of clear life goals. We spend years going to college, learning how to make a decent living, but we are rarely challenged to confront the issues of what priorities supersede our financial goals.
Sure, we all have a vague sense of what we want in life: to be good, raise a family, make the world a better place. These are lovely sentiments, but in the words of Gloria Steinem, "We best know our values when we look at our check stubs." Our true values are most revealed – not by what we say, but by the way we spend our time and money.
If we aren't clearly defining our life goals, then they are being defined for us.
If we aren't clearly defining our life goals, then they are being defined for us. We tend to adopt society's values, and today society's main value is wealth and success. People magazine is filled with the lives of the rich and famous, not the wise and happy. There once was an advertisement that showed the sun setting behind a luxury automobile. The caption read: "You are looking at 3,500 pounds of life goal fulfillment."
We spend so much time and energy on becoming rich and successful, yet we all know that that is not what it's all about. We will never hear a eulogy of how he “was a very classy dresser, he always drove this year's model, and his house was enormous."
Besides this, success and career as life goals are not necessarily conducive to a good marriage. Success requires a lot of time and energy, and that often comes at the expense of one’s spouse and family.
Before you can contemplate marriage, you need to know your life goals: What do I want to do with my life? What are the things that mean everything to me? And why?
Here are two exercises that might help clarify things:
a) Life goals are those things you’d regret not having done if you died tomorrow. Rabbi Noah Weinberg zt”l said: “You don't know what you're living for, unless you know what you're ready to die for. Articulate the essential things that make life constantly purposeful. Go further and ask, "Why? Why am I ready to die for this?" Be clear. And then: If you're ready to die for it, live for it. What else could be more meaningful?
b) List three people you respect most in the world. Identify what you respect. Why do you value this?
Couples may argue over a stray toothpaste cap or whose turn it is to get up with the baby, but no matter how heated these run-ins become, they should never destroy a marriage.
Know your own goals in life. Then you can talk about whether or not the person you’re dating is moving in the same direction.
When it comes to the topic of marriage, many people wonder: Why bother? I'll just have the relationship without the marriage.
Let’s understand the Jewish idea of marriage.
In describing Adam, the first human, the Torah says, "Male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). We learn from here that originally Man was created as male and female in one complete entity. They were then separated, and brought together again as a couple. Marriage is the unification of two halves into one complete entity, described as "one flesh.”
It's not just poetics.
What is my commitment to my hand?
I am not committed to my hand. I am my hand. My commitment to my hand is one I'd reconsider if it became gangrenous, and I was left with no choice but amputation.
But I wouldn't reconsider my commitment to my hand if it were broken, or ugly, or if I met someone with a nicer hand. If your hand is killing you – then you get rid of it. The commitment of marriage is until it's killing you.
Divorce is appropriate when the marriage has become an abusive, destructive relationship that can't be cured. Amputation is never casual. Often people get divorced because they simply get bored with each other. The marriage goes stale and flat. "We don’t laugh like we used to anymore."
No one amputates his hand because "the fun went out of it."
If someone told you that he was amputating his hand because "The fun went out of it" you'd say he's nuts. Marriage is exactly the same.
If that sounds a bit extreme, it’s because we have a faulty definition of comfort and pleasure.
Comfort is not pleasure. Comfort is the absence of pain. Lying on the beach, a cold drink, falling asleep – this is nice and comfortable.
Pleasure, on the other hand, requires effort and work. In fact, all meaningful accomplishments and deeper pleasures necessitate the struggle to achieve them: Raising kids, mastering a sport or an instrument, getting ahead in your career. If it doesn’t require pain, if it comes easily without challenge, then it's not as pleasurable. It doesn't mean as much to you.
Make no mistake about it: Marriage is not comfortable. Marriage demands a lot of work and pain. You can't continue avoiding your weaknesses, living in your tailor-made world of illusions. Marriage requires confronting yourself and that is hard.
Marriage doesn't decrease demands and responsibilities – it adds to them in heaps and bounds. There isn't only “me” to think about anymore – there is a whole other person, who is surprisingly different than you. Marriage forces you to get out of your self-centeredness. It demands an emotional intimacy that for many of us is new and frightening.
Squeezing two people together to form one flesh is bound to create some tension. And there will come a point in the middle of a fight when you're ready to throw up your arms, thinking "This person is nuts – I can't take it any longer!” At that point the future of your marriage hangs in the balance. Take a deep breath and resolve to work it out. Then you're on the road to building a great marriage. If you feel like taking the easy way out, then it’s only a matter of time – maybe six months or six years – but eventually things will get too tough and the relationship will crumble.
Marriage requires work and the commitment to make it work. Without that commitment, do not get married! It's only a matter of time before it gets too difficult, and you'll be out the door.
So maybe you’ll ask (and many people are asking today): Why bother getting married? What makes the effort worth it?
Marriage makes a person into a full human being.
Commitment is the backbone of marriage. Without it, you're just roommates.
By oneself, a person is destined to remain a self-centered egocentric being, his main concerns in life being the fulfillment of his need for power, prestige and gratification. Marriage gives him the chance to overcome all that and become, instead, a giver – one who is concerned about another person's needs.
Marriage is the way to build a family and a home, share your life with someone you love, deepen your emotional capacities, and open yourself up to another like you never have before.
Those who ask, "Can't I have all this without marriage?" are really saying: "Do I really have to make the level of commitment that requires me to stick it out when the going gets tough?"
Without that commitment, you're roommates. It's not the same as marriage. Whatever you build together is built on quicksand. Because as long as there’s an exit, that exit, at some point in the relationship, will be taken.
Commitment is the backbone of marriage. Of course, if you want the other person’s total commitment, you have to make the same level of commitment yourself.
Love and Infatuation
So where does love fit into all this? How can we talk about marriage without talking about love?
When we talk about love we have to make a distinction between “love” and “infatuation.” Infatuation is: We met on the beach, I was struck by her beauty, it was so wonderful being with her, with the sunset shimmering through her golden hair. I knew this was forever."
Do you think this relationship is going to last?
Because it stems from desire, infatuation rarely lasts. Love, on the other hand, comes from a genuine appreciation of who the other person is. Infatuation is blind, love is a magnifying glass. If you think she's perfect, then chances are you're head over heels in infatuation. If you can't stand the way she says hello, then you're in love.
Love comes from really knowing a person and seeing his/her beauty, strength of character and what he/she is really made of. You can't love someone until you know them. It's like saying you love a book you haven't read. All you got to know was the outer jacket.
Which brings us to a shocker: True love comes after marriage. The Torah says that Isaac took Rebecca into his tent and he loved her (Genesis 24:67). Love should grow continuously as your appreciation of your spouse grows.
"Wait till you're married 25 years, then you'll understand what love is."
A friend of mine was sitting with his father and said to him, "Dad, after five years of marriage, I think I finally understand what love is."
The father said, "Wait till you're married 25 years, then you'll understand what love is."
The grandfather was also in the room and overheard this exchange. He told them: "Wait till you're married 50 years. Then you'll really understand what love is."
Putting It All Together
Of course, you need to be attracted. Intimacy is a foundation of marriage, the true “binding of one flesh” described in genesis. You can't develop a loving relationship with someone who repulses you. But the goal is not to win a beauty contest. What is important is that you have a basic attraction. This will grow as your appreciation of their inner beauty grows. The intimacy becomes an expression of the emotional closeness that you’ve built.
Of course, if you're seriously looking for a lifelong partner, it’s important to get to know the person while remaining as objective as possible. Now is not the time to get swept off your feet; now is the time to take a really honest look at who this person truly is. It's not enough that she's nice and attractive.
So remember: Look for a marriage partner with:
- Same destination – life goals
- Shared commitment
- Affinit y and attraction
Define your goals, and then commit to marriage as the vehicle to get you there together. It is life’s most precious journey.