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A Jewish View of Marriage

by David Bendory, March 5764

What follows is a very brief introduction to some Jewish ideas about marriage.

There has been lots of talk about the institution of marriage of late. Gay marriages, domestic partnerships, the Defense of Marriage Act, the societal purposes and benefits of marriage... Unfortunately, this entire discussion is framed from the point of view of a Western romantic view of love and marriage — that we fall in love with the (wo)man of our dreams and live happilly ever after... unless we fall out of love and get divorced. Oh well, we can always try (and usually fail) again.

What an interesting concept. Love for your spouse is romantic and emotional. You have no control over its coming or going; it governs your passions and makes or breaks the most important bond of a family unit. It is inexplicable, not subject to logic, analysis, or even the cure-all of emotional mystery, therapy. We have movies (Indecent Proposal) where a husband and wife agree that she should prostitute herself for $1,000,000. It's only once, but (surprise!) it ruins their marriage. And now we have reality TV where a "lucky" bachelor(ette) chooses his or her spouse from among a field of a dozen contenders — the perfect spouse to be "won" as a prize while all of America watches. What has become of this once Holy institution?

Imagine if we treated our children the same way. We love our children, but I've never heard of anyone falling out of love with theirs. Ever hear of parents and children hiring attorneys to tear each other apart in divorce court?

The problem with love in America is that we have defined it wrong. Love is not an uncontrollable romantic concept, abstract, illogical, irrational. Love is something we can — indeed must — work at, just as we work on any other desirable emotional trait. The Talmud defines love as the emotional pleasure we get when we focus on the virtues of another person. I love my wife not because I was shot by Cupid's arrow but because I dedicate time to loving her. By focusing on her virtues, by cherishing her, I come to a greater appreciation of all that is good in her, and thus I come to love her.

And thus if I were to "fall out of love" (G-d forbid), it would not be because of a problem with her, or even a problem with our marriage. It would be a problem with me. It would reflect my failure to appreciate what makes my wife special, what makes her unique, her virtues that no one else has. Yes, there are marriages that are irreconcilably doomed, but they are few and far between. (And in such cases, by the way, the Torah law is clear: get a divorce.) As for the rest of us, we need to throw away emotional romanticism and learn how to love.

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