Relationships 101

God’s expectations of Jews, as portrayed in the Bible and rabbinic law, extend beyond the divine-human relationship to encompass many sorts of relationships between individual human beings as well. For several categories of long-term or permanent relationships, the Jewish tradition presents detailed guidance on how one ought to behave in various situations.

Themes and Theology:

In the Book of Genesis, God creates human beings in the divine image, a notion used there to explain why bloodshed is always a punishable offense.  Post-biblical Jewish thought derives from the same notion a broader conception of human dignity. The Biblical call to “love your fellow as yourself,” one prominent talmudic sage suggested, is the divine directive that underlies all others. Some modern Jewish thinkers have suggested that God’s presence in the world can be experienced in one’s relations with other human beings.

Parents and Children:

The fifth of the Ten Commandments mandates respect for parents, and obedience to parents is a common theme of biblical wisdom literature. Rabbinic law delineates particular responsibilities and prohibitions regarding how one treats one’s parents, and it establishes the limits to parental expectations as well. Parents’ responsibilities to children are also delineated in the Jewish legal/spiritual tradition, including requirements to provide a Jewish education and training for earning a living.

Spouses and Partners:

Marriage is portrayed in the Bible as fulfilling emotional needs as well as practical ones, and in pre-modern Jewish societies, marriage was nearly universal. Jewish law regulates many aspects of the relationship between husbands and wives, not just in marriage and divorce but even regarding the frequency and timing of sexual contact. Laws of “family purity” prohibit physical intimacy during and after menstruation and require the woman’s immersion in a ritual bath (mikveh) before sexual contact is resumed. Today’s Jewish communities must respond to changes in society’s understanding of which couples may be considered permanent life partners and whether marriage is in fact to be preferred and encouraged to the degree that it has been in the past.


Classical sources distinguish between love that is dependent on some benefit derived, and love independent of any such benefit. While even marriage is understood to belong to the first category, friendship can earn classification in the second category. Jewish sources offer advice on keeping friendships unpolluted by long-held grudges and subtle (or not-so-subtle) recriminations, by airing disputes in a productive manner. In the early hasidic tradition, friendship attained particular importance, as the followers of each rebbe provided mutual support in both the emotional and the practical realms.

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