Reprinted from The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage by permission of Jonathan David Publishers.
The marital integrity of the Jewish people was legendary in ancient and medieval times, and Jewish family life is idealized even in these days of upheaval. What qualities make Jewish marriage so stable?
Marriage Is Part of the Natural Order
Jewish marriage is not designed for the ethical management of the sexual drive, nor is it a concession to human weakness. Jewish marriage makes its appearance within the natural order of creation, not as a law promulgated by Moses nor as a legal sanction, but as a blessing from God. Just as woman was created as a separate being, “a helpmate opposite” man (Genesis 2:18), the purpose for the creation of marriage is stated in five words: lo tov he-yot ha-adam le’vado — It is not good for man to be alone.
Marriage was created at the beginning, at the same time the principles of marriage were created. It was not an afterthought, designed to control their passions, but part of the natural order of human society. The moment we are born we are destined for marriage. When a newborn child is named, the prayer is le’huppah u’le’maasim tovim (to the marriage canopy and a life of good deeds). Marriage is thus grounded in the primeval relationship of the sexes in order to perpetuate the species and enhance personal growth.
Marriage Repairs Existential Loneliness
Marriage is seen as a blessing because it enables us to overcome loneliness. According to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Genesis 2:18 reads “he-yot” ha-adam le’vado rather than “li-he’yot,” which implies not that “it is not good for man to be alone,” but that it is not good for man to be “lonely.” Being “alone” means being physically alone, wanting company, needing assistance; being “lonely” means spiritual solitude, as one can feel lonely even in a crowd.
God seeks to remedy that with the creation of woman as ezer ke’negdo, a helpmate opposite him. Now if le’vado (alone) means simply needing company or requiring assistance, then woman is ezer, a cook and bottle washer, a real helper. But if le’vado means lonely, then ezer is not just a partner to lighten the burden, she is ke’negdo, part of a spiritual union of two souls. The basic God-created human unit is man and woman, one flesh, completing one another.
Man alone or woman alone constitutes only half of that unit, as the Zohar says: Bar nash be’lo iteta peleg gufa [“a man without a woman is half a person [or] body”]. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says that the word kallah (bride) means completion, as in ba-yom kalot ha-mishkan (the day the Tabernacle was completed). In marriage, the partners complete and fulfill themselves. This is their natural state and a blessing from God.
This theme is repeated at every Jewish marriage. The seven nuptial blessings speak of paradise regained, the miracle of God’s creation, and the creation of man and woman, so that mankind might endure. The sixth blessing refers to marriage in the scheme of creation: “Make these beloved companions as happy as were the first human couple in the Garden of Eden.” The joy of the Creator’s blessing is invoked at the inception of every Jewish home.
God Is a Partner
If God created man, woman, and their marriage relationship; and if the creation of man and woman is good and marriage a blessing; then God is a conscious, albeit silent, partner in the marriage. Thus the ideal Jewish marriage is a triangle composed of two human beings and their Creator.
Rabbi Joshua ben Korha said that man at first was called Adam to indicate his natural constitution–flesh and blood (dam). But when woman was created, the two were referred to as fiery (esh)–living, dynamic beings. God insinuated Himself into the marriage, then added two letters of his own name, Y and H, to the names of man and woman. He inserted the Y into man’s name, turning esh (fire) into i-Y-sh (ish, man); and H into woman’s name, making i-sha-H (ishah, woman). The Chronicles of Yerahmeel (6:16) comment on this: “If they walk in My ways and observe My commandments, behold My name will abide with them and deliver them from all trouble. But if not, I will take the letters of My name from them, so that they will revert to esh and esh, fire consuming fire.” Hence with God as a partner, marriage is a blessing, ish and ishah.
Without God, it can become esh, an inferno where man and woman devour each other. Jewish marriage is therefore naturally sanctified by God. From this concept of God’s involvement in marriage, there flow new insights and obligations that married people often ignore. For example, if one partner is unfaithful, it is not just a marital problem; it shatters the fundamental unit of creation. In most cases of adultery, the religious court is instructed to issue a divorce even against their will. The couple may forgive a violation of their personal integrity, but they have no right to forgive their assault upon God’s integrity and His participation in the marriage.
The moral conscience of the Jew was sometimes strict to the point of grief, and the rabbis were painfully reluctant to pronounce the harsh decree, but no whisper of scandal was permitted to besmirch the name of marriage, or any of its three partners. Accordingly, the sages ruled that lewdness was not allowed even in the privacy of the bedroom, because such behavior offends the presence of God.
This code of behavior based on the appreciation of the divine creation of marriage and God’s active presence within it keeps the strict purity of the Jewish home. It is a code that originated in Jewish law, was hallowed by centuries of Jewish observance, and is based upon the very real premise of God as a partner to every Jewish marriage.