Humanistic Judaism journal, “Marriage Manual” Summer 1987
When marriage began, there was very little talk about romantic love, friendship, and personal growth. Marriage was society’s way of licensing reproduction and providing a structure for the rearing of children. In some parts of the world, this view of the relationship between husband and wife still prevails.
Bonding between men and women is very old, certainly prehistoric. For the woman, the initial motivation was protection for herself and her children. For the man, the initial purpose was sexual. After men discovered the connection between sexual intercourse and reproduction, the appeal of owning and controlling women and children became a second motivation.
In the Semitic world, from which Jews emerged, marriage became a patriarchal institution. It was designed by vested interest and folk custom to enhance masculine power. Women were purchased from their fathers and became the property of their husbands. Virginity was demanded of brides but not of grooms. Chastity was required of wives but not of husbands. Men, if they could afford it, could enjoy more than one wife. Women were stuck with one husband — and often many rivals. Men could divorce their wives with little provocation. But women, as the possessions of their husbands, had to endure what is unendurable in our eyes.
In the traditional Semitic world, marriage was obligatory for all males and females — a sign of their commitment to the survival of their families, clans, and tribes. Since reproduction was the primary purpose of marriage, older men married younger women. Seldom did younger men marry older women. Romantic love was rare because it diverted from the central theme of survival and status. Friendship between husband and wife was difficult because men and women were not equal and spent very little social time together. If anything, poverty enhanced the condition of women by forcing men to use their labor in the fields. The wives of rich men suffered exclusion and isolation.
Of course, as the patriarchal legends of the Bible indicate, the landscape was not entirely bleak. Most men practiced monogamy. Many husbands and wives were joined together by loyalty and mutual respect through years of marriage. Many women enjoyed the task of mothering. They also enjoyed great power over their sons, especially after their husbands died. And clever women often exercised enormous power over their husbands, even though they were careful to preserve the outer signs of male domination.
The structures of the old Semitic family prevailed through most of Jewish history until the advent of the secular age. While the urbanization of Jews radically altered their economic life, it did not change the basic concept of marriage, which was contained in the rules and regulations of the Torah and the Talmud. In fact, bourgeois life often aggravated the work distinctions between husband and wife by separating the workplace from the home. Men spent less time as fathers. Women spent more time as mothers.
The traditional Jewish marriage was hardly the stuff out of which humanist dreams are made. Male chauvinism, the focus on reproductive purposes, and the confinement of women to narrowly defined tasks violate our ideals and commitments. In fact, it is hard to imagine that they existed, especially after the dramatic changes of the past two hundred years.
Capitalism, science, and democracy rendered traditional marriage obsolete. City life provided jobs for women outside the home and gave them independent economic power. Children became more expensive and less useful. The technology of birth control emerged with the motivation to use it. Old patriarchal political structures declined, yielding to popular elections. Land, ancestors, and tradition became less important and a new competitive environment of new options took their place.
The results are dramatic. Men are less sure of themselves. Women are more confident. More women are having fewer children. More people are choosing to remain single. Premarital sex is popular. Divorce is a freely used option for both men and women. Extended families have disappeared. More and more nuclear families have two breadwinners. And modern psychology has elevated love and friendship to requirements for a good marriage.
Despite this social revolution, marriage remains very popular. The overwhelming majority of men and women in North America still choose to marry, even though they may do it more than once. Of course, there are many variations. Some couples prefer to have no children. Some live together for short or long periods of time before they seek the formal sanction of society through civil or religious ceremonies. Some dispense with the old work distinctions of husband and wife, sharing the traditional female tasks of housekeeping and parenting.
How do we as humanistic Jews respond to all this change? While we must certainly be pleased about the overthrow of patriarchal marriage, we may not be equally enthusiastic about all the developments that followed. While the tyranny of folk custom may limit human potential, a free society may produce consequences that are not conducive to healthy marriage. Frequent divorce, extramarital sex, frivolous motivation, sado-masochistic unions, and an absence of commitment would not receive humanistic endorsement, even though they are new and chic in certain circles.
So, what are the moral and psychological criteria that we would use to determine the value of a marriage? First of all, it is important to emphasize that marriage is valuable. Bonding between men and women serves a deep human need. Social experiments that have sought to dispense with marriage in some kind of sexual free-for-all have not succeeded. But marriage is more than a private arrangement. It deserves and needs the recognition of society because it is the major support system both for adult individuals and for children in our culture. Promises are made that need the authority of the community to apply pressure for their fulfillment. Today, too many people abandon worthwhile relationships because they are unable to sustain any form of short-run pain and frustration.
A humanistic Jewish marriage may have children as a primary motivation. But it need not. Couples who love and respect each other and choose to have no children have a morally valid reason for getting married. There is no single ethically valid purpose for matrimony.
A humanistic Jewish marriage insists on equality, an equal sharing of power in decision making. Of course, this condition is more easily advocated than arranged for. Talent, persuasive powers, and unconscious intimidation skills are not equally distributed. Pragmatic equality means that major decisions are arrived at through negotiation and consultation, not unilaterally. Good- humored couples often divide up major responsibilities between husband and wife to save time. Menial work is always the rub. The emerging pattern when wives work outside the home is that men are mastering housekeeping skills, which many of them already have acquired in single life.
A humanistic Jewish marriage demands love. Love is more than a feeling. It is a nurturing behavior derived from our childhood experience with parents. Romantic feelings come and go. Sexual desire comes and goes. Since neither is open to human control, they can be praised. They cannot be demanded. Love, on the other hand, is a caring behavior. It reinforces self-esteem. It relieves pain. It shares pleasure. It offers support. It is a moral obligation, whether one is in the mood or not.
A humanistic Jewish marriage involves friendship. In traditional societies, men had male friends and women had female friends. But in a society of equality, more and more husbands and wives are discovering that they are best friends to each other. In fact, they frequently become friends first, even before any romantic interest develops. Friendship means intimacy, the willingness to share thoughts and feelings, the willingness to be vulnerable. It also means honesty, the ability to stop pretending, the freedom to let others know what we really are. People are willing to confide only when they trust one another. And trust derives from the chemistry of a relationship, the sense that the other person really understands and really cares.
A humanistic Jewish marriage is based on a commitment to exclusive sexual relations. It does not separate love, friendship, and sexual intimacy. In the early days of sexual liberation, open marriage was advocated as a legitimate option. Since then, most of its advocates have retracted their endorsement. One has to be emotionally naive about the evolution of human desire to imagine that, if you can only dispense with irrational guilt, having sex is no more significant than eating candy. And one has to be naive about self-esteem to believe that choosing alternative sexual partners is not viewed as an act of rejection by either husband or wife. Jealousy is a real human emotion, which so-called liberated hedonists love to deny or dismiss as childish, but which defines the limits of sexual freedom. Only cruel spouses arrange for sexual games that undermine trust, love, and friendship. The commitment of marriage is a sexual discipline that subordinates physical intimacy to the project of bonding. People who want to be promiscuous should not marry.
A humanistic Jewish marriage involves increasing levels of commitment. Verbal pledges cannot produce what only experience can create. One of the ironies of marriage is that we usually have the biggest celebration at the beginning, when the bonds still may be thin. Perhaps we should reverse the procedure. Perhaps couples should live together for a period of time to explore their compatibility in an exclusive relationship before they seek the sanction of the state and the religious community. Perhaps the marriage ceremony should be a modest one, appropriate to the level of their love and friendship. Perhaps, in five or ten years, when they have demonstrated the viability of their choice, they can turn to more splendid celebrations. In any case, the now common practice of living together before marriage for a trial period may be morally more desirable than most traditionalists allow.
A humanistic Jewish marriage is not a prison. All decisions are risks. They may lead to what we want. They may not. To insist on preserving what is not worthy of preservation is irrational. There is no value to eternity for eternity’s sake. Divorce is the right to correct mistakes, to terminate suffering, to try again. Divorce is not a sign that the marriage was rotten. In many cases, it worked quite well for a short or long period of time. People change. Needs change. Both husbands and wives have the right to end their marriage if love, friendship, and trust are gone.
A humanistic Jewish marriage learns from Jewish history. The Jewish experience speaks a humanistic message, the message that we cannot rely on the kindness of destiny, that we must assume the responsibility for our own fate. In the end, the success of a marriage does not depend on “good luck.” It depends on the commitment of husband and wife to make their relationship work. Commitment is an act of will, a willingness to endure temporary pain in order to achieve some future pleasure. Without that determination it is highly unlikely, in this age of personal liberation, that any marriage will last for long. People without the power of commitment are condemned to live in the desperate world of immediate gratification.
One of the reasons why personal commitment is so difficult is that social pressures to get married and to stay married are fast disappearing. It is not true that people in the past were more committed to relationships than people are today. It is just that the outside support system has fallen away. In a real sense, commitment today is far more genuine than it was in the past. It is now an unforced personal decision in a sea of social indifference. We have to choose commitment. It is no longer coerced.
The sign of commitment is that we develop realistic expectations of a marriage relationship, that we do not seek to sabotage the bonding with inappropriate fantasy. We do not expect our marriage partner always to be available to us at our beck and call. We do not expect him or her to be a substitute for our father or mother. We do not expect that marriage will banish boredom and tedium. We do not expect that loving someone is the same as falling in love.
In our consumer culture, expectation levels are so high that they condemn millions of people to disappointment who otherwise would be happy. And growing up takes so long that we often feel needy and victimized, unaware that we have the power to help ourselves and others.
Despite all our present problems, it is dangerous to wax nostalgic, to over-romanticize the family of the traditional past. The movements of modern liberation have produced more good than evil. They have enabled the citizens of the modern world, men and women, to expand the possibilities of marriage.
Humanistic Jewish marriage, although it has its roots in traditional marriage, rests on radically different premises. It recognizes the right of men and women to freely choose their marriage partners. It affirms the equality of husbands and wives. It recognizes love and friendship to be legitimate reasons for bonding. It sanctions singleness as a moral alternative. The test of its validity will be the happiness and dignity that will be found by the men and women who live within its framework.