The Jewish View of Marriage – Part I

Who we choose to marry is arguably the most important decision we will make in determining our happiness and our children’s happiness (and even your parents’ happiness).

Three ingredients of a successful marriage

Most of us, if we aren’t already, will end up getting married at some point in our lives.

How many of us plan on getting divorced? If statistics are right, there’s a good chance half of us will.

The relationships in our lives largely determine the amount of happiness we have in life. Who we choose to marry is arguably the most important decision we will make in determining our happiness and our children’s happiness (and even your parents’ happiness).

We train and license people for almost every conceivable activity. Doctors, lawyers, plumbers, chefs, interior designers – they all have to prove their competence before we would dare use them.

But for the big issues in life, for the things that really matter, there really is no training – no degrees in parenting, schools for happiness, PhD’s in relationships.

For most of us we approach the issues in love and marriage as orphans, without learning from the cumulative experience and wisdom of past generations. We approach the key questions – What is marriage? How do I find the right person? How do I ensure a happy, fulfilling marriage? – alone, making all sorts of mistakes as we try to figure it out and get it right. That method would work – if no one got hurt along the way.

Today, marriage seems to be a kind of evolutionary accident. After a period of getting acquainted, dating and becoming romantically involved comes the stage of restlessness. The couple confronts the terrifying question of: What next? The default answer puts them on the altar of marriage, vowing to live happily ever after. Hopefully.

Jews believe that God created the world for man to have a life of meaning and pleasure. He wants us to have it all. And He gave us an instruction book telling us how to get it. The Torah is Torat Chaim – literally, the instructions for living.

How do you think the Torah describes the state of being married? Eternal bliss? Chained?

“A man should therefore leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Marriage is the process of becoming one flesh. Marriage is not two people coming together to form a partnership, nor an agreement to be roommates permanently. It’s not a method to get a tax break, or a way to share household chores. The Jewish idea of marriage is two halves becoming one, completing each other.

What does the couple need in order to accomplish this sense of unification? Imagine marriage as a journey down the path of life. Car, gas, food – we’re ready to go. What is necessary for the two travelers in this car to “unite” for this trip?

a. Destination: They have to know where they’re going in order to commit to go together. If one wants to go skiing, he can’t get there with someone who wants to go to the beach.

b. Commitment: Two people won’t arrive at their destination if one can back out at a second’s notice.

c. Affinity: If they can’t stand each other, it’s going to be an intolerable ride.

Life Goals

The essence of marriage is the commitment to pursue life goals together.

Marriage needs to have clear goals shared by husband and wife. It’s so obvious, but so often ignored. I know a couple who almost ended up divorced because after a few years of marriage he wanted children and she didn’t want the burden of raising them. They dated for five years – yet never discussed if they wanted to have children!

Don’t think this a far-out example. Couples break up over many issues: How to raise their kids, where to live, how much a part religion will play in their lives, giving priority to a career or family, whose career will come first if they’re in conflict.

Shared values and priorities provide a structure which unites the couple and allows them to work on becoming “one flesh.”

Some of us think that marriage itself is enough of a life goal. We are fed the illusion that you don’t need any goals outside of one another. “All you need is love.”

Not true. Marriage itself is not a life goal. It puts an unbearable strain on a relationship if the partners expect the relationship will satisfy all their needs.

Love is not all you need. Marriage is a powerful tool to help us pursue the things we care about in life with added energy, with an added sense of self. If you’re depressed, aimless and single, you’ll be depressed, aimless and married.

Life goals are the things in life that mean everything to you, the values that you stand for, that you’re willing to sacrifice for. If they’re so easy to change, then chances are they’re not so important to you.

What do we mean by values?

Honesty, integrity, loyalty, kindness. If she’s not nice to her own family, there’s a good chance she’s not going to be nice to yours, either.

This person is going to be the parent of your children. How will they shape your kids?

You can’t delay discussing life goals, hoping you’ll come to an agreement once you’re married, expecting the other person to change. Ideas and tastes change, but character is something very hard to change. Don’t expect her to change. You have to be ruthlessly honest.

For many people, the problem is the lack of clear life goals. We spend years going to college, learning how to make a decent living, but we are rarely challenged to confront the issues of what priorities supersede our financial goals.

Sure, we all have a vague sense of what we want in life: to be good, raise a family, make the world a better place. These are lovely sentiments, but in the words of Gloria Steinem, “We best know our values when we look at our check stubs.” Our true values are most revealed – not by what we say, but by the way we spend our time and money.

If we aren’t clearly defining our life goals, then they are being defined for us. We tend to adopt society’s values, and today society’s main value is wealth and success. People magazine is filled with the lives of the rich and famous, not the wise and happy. There once was an advertisement that showed the sun setting behind a luxury automobile. The caption read: “You are looking at 3,500 pounds of life goal fulfillment.”

We spend so much time and energy on becoming rich and successful, yet we all know that that is not what it’s all about. We will never hear a eulogy of how he “was a very classy dresser, he always drove this year’s model, and his house was enormous.”

Besides this, success and career as life goals are not necessarily conducive to a good marriage. Success requires a lot of time and energy, and that often comes at the expense of one’s spouse and family.

Before you can contemplate marriage, you need to know your life goals: What do I want to do with my life? What are the things that mean everything to me? And why?

Here are two exercises that might help clarify things:

a) Life goals are those things you’d regret not having done if you died tomorrow. Rabbi Noah Weinberg zt”l said: “You don’t know what you’re living for, unless you know what you’re ready to die for. Articulate the essential things that make life constantly purposeful. Go further and ask, “Why? Why am I ready to die for this?” Be clear. And then: If you’re ready to die for it, live for it. What else could be more meaningful?

b) List three people you respect most in the world. Identify what you respect. Why do you value this?

Couples may argue over a stray toothpaste cap or whose turn it is to get up with the baby, but no matter how heated these run-ins become, they should never destroy a marriage.

Know your own goals in life. Then you can talk about whether or not the person you’re dating is moving in the same direction.

Rabbi Dan Silverman (

(To Be Continued Next Week)


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