Throughout Jewish history even into the modern era, marriage has been considered an essential experience of Jewish adulthood. Observing Adam, God pronounces that “it is not good for the human to be alone” and creates a partner to be an ezer k’negdo, a “helper opposite him”(Genesis 2:18). A rabbinic midrash, or interpretation, presents Rabbi Ya’akov’s understanding of “not good”: “[Regarding] every [man] who does not have a wife… there is no goodness with no helper, no blessing, no repentance…” (Genesis Rabbah 17:2)
Jewish tradition cites many practical, spiritual, and emotional reasons for institutionalizing male-female partnership. In the patriarchal societies from which biblical and talmudic culture emerged, women and children required protection and sustenance. The Jewish laws of marriage and divorce were in part intended to specify these basic needs and to obligate men to provide them. For men, marriage provided a legitimate sexual outlet that could prevent sexual yearnings from interfering with proper conduct.
Beyond these practical considerations, we find that Adam and Eve in the garden, archetypes of lovers and companions, establish a pattern for all subsequent couples, who should view each other as “one flesh.” Sexuality is part of this image, allowing man and woman to become one body, as they were (in one interpretation) before God separated them. The 13th-century Bible commentator Nahmanides, commenting on Genesis 2:23-24, emphasizes the bond that human partners ideally have: unlike the arbitrary mating of animals, men and women should cling to one another.
The ezer k’negdo concept, applicable to men as well as women, is vital to the Jewish concept of life-long partnership. Tradition understands the potential of partners to provide each other with assistance and to work together in complementary ways.
Examining the marriages of the biblical matriarchs and patriarchs, the exemplar promoted by the talmudic sages is that of Isaac and Rebekah. Unlike the “love at first sight” romance of Jacob and Rachel, Rebekah and Isaac are brought together by parental arrangement, through Abraham’s servant (Genesis 24). Rebekah’s presence comforts Isaac, in particular easing his mourning for Sarah, his mother (Genesis Rabbah 60:16). Matched in their righteousness, Rebekah and Isaac are partners in promoting God’s plan, even if their actions at times conflict. In the rabbinic imagination, their mutual loyalty leads Isaac to refuse additional wives, despite Rebekah’s initial infertility.
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