Love Out of Marriage?
Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18 )
Frank Sinatra, the famous American singer, crooned that “love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage.” Assuming you're into marriage, chances are you agree with this.
But what order should they go together in? Most people feel certain love has to precede marriage. Could the opposite also be possible – first marrying and then falling in love?
Romance in the Torah
Let’s start at the beginning: Must marriage indeed be connected to love? Many historians claim that the pairing of love and marriage is itself a "late marriage", a match made by the Romantic movement only in the 19th century. Before that, people married for political or business reasons, and, of course, to produce progeny. Love was a bonus.
But if you look in the Bible, you’ll see it gives a significant place to the ideal of marriage with love. After Adam and Eve were created, it’s written, “and he shall cleave to his wife and they shall be as one flesh,” to cleave being a verb which, in the Bible, often goes together with love. The book of Ecclesiastes invites us to spend “life with the woman you love.” And, of course, there’s the great love story of Jacob and Rachel, in which Jacob falls in love with Rachel at first sight, and the seven years he works for her are in his eyes “like a few days in his love for her.” What could be more romantic?
So Judaism clearly believes in love before marriage, and even acknowledges the possibility of love at first sight. But, interestingly, that's not how the Torah first addresses the topic of love and marriage. This happens in this week's Torah portion.
The Tree of Love
After Sarah’s death, Abraham sends his servant to the land of Aram to seek a wife for his son, Isaac, and the servant finds the righteous Rebecca. When he brings her to Isaac, the verse tells us:
Isaac brought her to his mother Sarah’s tent, and he married Rebecca. She became his wife, and he loved her.
Notice the order of events here: First Isaac married Rebecca, and only afterwards did he love her. But does this really mean that he married her without any feelings for her? Look at what the Malbim, one of the great commentators of the 19th century (the pinnacle of the Romantic movement, incidentally) wrote about this:
[Jacob and Rebecca’s] love was like planting a tree, beginning with a small seed which, when watered, embeds in the earth, and every day grows and thickens… In the beginning, there was only a spark of love planted in the furrows of his heart, but through their actions, love grew from day to day. So the crux of the love was revealed only after marriage. (Malbim on Deuteronomy 24:1)
The Malbim is speaking here not of love created from nothing, but of love that exists as an initial seed or spark, and then through action – giving to the other, devoting oneself to him or her, investing in the relationship – is gradually built into a tree or large flame. The author of the Sefer HaChinuch describes something similar in saying that “after the deeds the hearts are drawn”: Actions don’t only flow from feelings, but can also strengthen them.
Many years ago, when I was a university student and very far from Judaism, I saw a documentary about an orthodox family from the Hasidic neighborhood, Meah Shearim. One of the most striking things in it was the description of how the couple, who married at a very young age and after only two dates, came to love each other. The woman explained it in the following surprising words:
If we think a bit more about it, we’ll see that love is created by giving. When one person gives to another, that causes him or her to love the other. We don’t marry because we love each other, we love each other because we married.
These words shook me up. At that time, I was taking a psychology course on “authenticity.” In it, we discussed at length the concept of the “authentic self” – the notion that we have one true self within us that cannot be influenced, only expressed or repressed. And then comes this simple Haredi woman, who never spent a single day in college, and suggests a radically alternative idea: that our “self” isn’t completely preformed, waiting to be discovered, but is rather a product of a two-way process, involving both passive discovery and active formation. On the one hand, we must listen to our heart (even this woman wouldn’t have married just anyone), yet, on the other hand, we mustn’t sit with crossed arms and wait to see if our feelings grow, but must actively develop them – and the result is no less authentic.
I might have suspected this woman of deceiving herself, if not for the fact that the true, heartwarming love between her and her husband was obvious.
Don’t misunderstand me: A wedding minus any feelings of love is a mistake, even dangerous. A marriage based on utilitarian considerations alone will most likely lead to misery and unhappy children. What I’m saying is that love is a bonfire we build: We need a true spark of love in order to ignite it, but not much more than that. Maintaining and enlarging the flame is up to us.
The more we internalize this, the more we can realize we don't need that long of a time to decide whether to marry someone. Of course, we must guard against hasty decisions, but we must also be wary of the illusion that a spark will turn into a bonfire on its own. It won’t, and while we wait, it is likely to fade and burn out.
Point to ponder: The expression “second nature” generally describes habits so ingrained in us that they have become part of our nature, so to speak. But according to Chassidic thought, the term “second nature” can refer also to something that’s truly natural, yet belongs to a second and higher order of nature, one that can be discovered and expressed only through inner work. In the context of authenticity, the regular “authentic self” is our first nature, whereas the higher one, the one we must actively take part in forming, is our second nature.
People locked into the regular model of authenticity think that the second nature self is something artificial, an illusion we’ve convinced ourselves is real. But Chassidic thought points to the interesting fact that, in Hebrew, “second nature” (teva sheni) has the same numerical value as “truth” (emet). This hints at the idea that second nature may be our true nature, and that the reason we need to put in work to attain it is precisely because it’s higher.