Is the institution of marriage on the verge of extinction? Referring to declining marriage rates and changing views toward marriage in the United States, a recent cover of Time magazine asked: “Who Needs Marriage?” What is the Jewish perspective on this important community issue?
Marriage Just Is
The question, “Is Marriage Obsolete?” is so telling. We’ve moved beyond wondering whether one person will remain with one mate for a lifetime, beyond the very definition of what constitutes a marriage, to wondering whether the institution of marriage is obsolete. Do you mean plain old passé? Or “no longer functional”?
Asking if marriage is obsolete is like asking who needs blue to be blue or water to be a liquid. As a culture we frame do’s and don’ts as social conventions. It’s mutually agreed upon that it’s not nice to spit, that we don’t steal and murder is “bad.” But why?
Based on the Jewish tradition, marriage is not something the rabbis or even society made up: Adam and Eve was each only half a human being, and in marital union they became “one flesh.” We are not complete beings without a partner. We’re all existentially alone and we’re constantly in search of relationships — looking for the complementary half of our own soul. That’s why we dance at a wedding! Not because we’re going to have companionship or someone to build our lives with or a secure environment in which to raise kids. Marriage is the coming together of two halves of one soul separated prior to birth. So marriage exists as an absolute construct. Time magazine’s question doesn’t alter that truth one bit. I can prefer green to blue or clay to water. But to want reality to be different doesn’t change what IS one bit! The more we align ourselves with that inner dimension of existence, the more truth, joy and vitality we can access.
– Shimona Tzukernik is a writer, lecturer and the founder and director of OMEK, a center devoted to in-depth transformational learning for women.
It’s the Relationship that Matters
Let me suggest that what is becoming obsolete is the Christian understanding of marriage, which — to be a bit reductionist — is a theologically compassionate compromise with an ideal state in which we rise above our carnal needs … or a way to legitimately have sex and mitigate the incredible anxiety surrounding sex that is so much a part of Christianity.
Or, put another way: Cultural and religious conservatives are correct about marriage as an institution that helps us flourish as human beings, but wrong about marriage as a tool to permit sex and other forms of intimacy. Liberals are right that marriage needs to be a freely chosen commitment made when people are, relatively speaking, more capable of making a free decision. This is not the case when marriage is a cultural/religious/social mandate. But they are wrong that all relationship commitments are equal, and that there is no hierarchy of commitment relative to the flourishing of people and society.
Jewish wisdom would suggest that it is a good thing marriage is now becoming a freely chosen commitment, even if in the short term this undermines marriage by making it seem “obsolete.” In the long run, this will lead to richer, more enduring commitments, because as long as there are people who love each other there will be publicly affirmed promises of eternal commitment — i.e. marriages. And marriage, freely chosen, is a deeper and higher level of commitment that helps people and families flourish — regardless of whatever exceptions to the rule do exist.
But, rather than nostalgically bemoan the erosion of some idealized version of marriage or imagine that every relationship is equal, let’s have real conversation about the quality of our relationships. Let’s start being honest about the variety of commitments that we are forming these days. Jewish wisdom, with its rich parsing of different sorts of vows, promises, bonds, oaths and obligations, and its nuanced view of the different types of intimate relationships that we do indeed form, could actually help us better understand and enrich the commitments we do make — from a one-time date to a loving 60-year marriage.
– Rabbi Irwin Kula is a media commentator and author of “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life.”