Sunday, July 16, 2023

Introduction to new book on the Jewish understanding of marriage and gender issues

When I started this work I thought it would be relatively easy. After all Jews are known for good and stable marriages. However it soon became apparent that there is a significant gap between common understanding and traditional sources. In addition there have been changes. Not only in the general society but also within our community and in halacha. A further problem is that as Rav Lichtenstein has pointed out, there is not simply one unique Torah or Jewish model of marriage. In addition the various models have evolved through the ages. Consequently I have focused on showing the essential building blocks, the components, that are highly regarded by Judaism – rather than a final finished model of marriage. In this regard it is important to know that my Rosh haYeshiva – Rabbi Friefeld told me not to read anything about marriage before I got married, but rather rely on him to inform me what I needed to know prior to the wedding. His actual advise was “Don’t do anything that is disgusting” There are multiple models of marriage to be found. Rabbi Akiva an ignorant shepherd who became one of the leading Sages as the result of falling in love. But he spent his much of his married life separate from his wife in the study hall. Yakov also fell in love with Rachel but she betrayed him to prevent her sister from being shamed. Yitzchok had an arranged marriage. According to the Netziv his wife viewed him with such awe that they could not have a normal conversation. Rava had a horrible marriage and didn’t want to get divorced because of financial reasons. Abraham and Sarah seemed to have a good marriage and remained affectionate even after death according to the gemora. However it seems that G-d was so concerned for their domestic tranquility, that He misled Avraham about what Sarah said about him. Rav Meir apparently brought about his wife’s suicide. At the other extreme Ben Azzai never married and there is the familiar story of Rav Aryeh Levine who tells his wife’s doctor “her foot is hurting us”. In addition both the  Rambam’s son and the Chasam Sofer’s son indicate that marriage is inherently incompatible with spiritual greatness or being a successful leader.  Aside from not physically or verbally abusing one’s wife there doesn’t seem to be clear advice given. Lying is not only permitted but seems recommended to maintain peace. Additionally, there are clearly negative statements regarding women in general as well as a number of positive ones. None of this fits in smoothly with the modern concepts of women or marriage. Halacha clearly is oriented to the male. Thus the male marries the woman and only he has the right to divorce. I present the sources as is with no attempts at apologetics or political correctness. The assumption is that Torah is from G-d and it doesn’t change because of the latest intellectual or social fad. I do present Rav Moshe’s tshuva about the feminist movement. In an enlightening secular book “All or nothing Marriage” the changing nature of marriage is described. Initially marriage was primarily a pragmatic institution both for the man and woman and their children and the welfare of society. Apparently as the result of the industrial Revolution and the improvement of society there was a gradual change in the 1800’s to Romantic love as the basis for marriage. This  standard has been changed in recent years to self-fulfillment. Thus marriage and divorce happen now not because of love but rather whether there are feelings of having a fulfilling relationship. “I can do better with a different spouse that helps me bring out my best”  All three models are supported by traditional sources. In addition the validity of the concept of having a predestined spouse (bashert) is also discussed as are the issues of adultery, pleasure and gender and other related topics. I cite traditional sources and generally ignore academic or non-Jewish sources. While some will voice disappointment at the lack of clear guidelines, the reality is that each marriage is unique and most be tailored to fit that couple. Some will prefer a marriage of the husband as king and master while others prefer a more equal relationship. The Pele Yoetz even seems to recommend having a bad marriage as an opportunity for spiritual and personal growth.  What is clear is that there is no assumption that you will marry based primarily on falling madly in love with some one predestined and that this leads to years of bliss and tranquility and good with the love undiminished. People change over time and the spouse you marry will transform many times during the marriage as will you. It is best according to Rav Wolbe to focus on commitment to the other as well as sensitivity to each other’s needs, to have basic principles and to receive advice and guidance from others. As a great tzadik once told me, “my wife is a saintly woman but sometimes she gets on my nerves.” Disagreements are an inherent part of any relationship and should not be viewed as proof of failure. It is more important to disagree in a sensitive way than to pretend everything is perfect. Similarly while disagreements should be expected, physical and verbal abuse is not acceptable. It is also important to realize that not every rabbi or therapist will be helpful and in some cases will make things worse. This is also true for advice from family and friends. As noted below Rav Yakov Kaminetsky claimed ignorance of dealing with marriage problems. Rav Moshe Feinstein had the practice of going to his apartment for lunch every day, where is wife prepared the single hot meal he got during the day. Once while he was eating lunch, he got an urgent phone call from a couple who were having a major fight. He stopped eating to try and resolve the problem. All the time he was on the phone, his wife was urging him to hang up and eat his meal. Finally at the end he resolved the issue and hung up the phone but there was no time to finish his meal before returning to the yeshiva. The young men who accompanied him as him asked. “Why was the domestic tranquility of the couple on the phone more important than his own? He answered that on the phone two people were fighting but in regarding his wife it was only one person.”  There was a certain rosh yeshiva who had a very bad marriage and went to Rav Moshe for advice. Rav Moshe told him not to get divorced. This continued for five years and it got so bad he ended divorcing her. He told friends that he had lost 5 years because he listened to Rav Moshe.


  1. seems from this into that you are breaking apart all the classical models as having flaws. Maybe human nature is so - consider Adam and Chava.

  2. If everyone is a unique individual, then every couple is also unique. How can any generic advice work for such a model?

  3. The answer is obvious that there are basic principles which apply to all

  4. That's like saying that everyone needs oxygen. Well yes, but some need more, some can tolerate lower levels, etc.


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