THE CENTRALITY OF HOLINESS IN MARRIAGE
- October '02/Tishrei-Cheshvan 5763
Jewish marriage has two steps (the second step, "nesuin," will be studied later in the book). The first step is called "KiDuSHin," which comes from the same root word as, "KoDeSH (holy, sanctified" - right away we see that marriage is axiomatically and intrinsically a holy state) and "heKDeSH (designated for a holy purpose, and separated from any other purpose)."
Before we get to any discussion of holiness in marriage, let me point out that there is a mitzva in the Torah (Leviticus 19:2) "Be holy as I G-d am holy." Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 13th century), in his classic commentary on the Torah, wrote that you may be able to keep every technical mitzva in the Torah and miss the point. His famous example is of the person who only eats flawlessly kosher food, but he shovels it in like an animal. The Torah says that this "kosher" fellow is a "low-life within the domain of the Torah," which is not the goal of the Torah. Since this is not good enough, G-d included in His Torah the commandment to be holy. To "get by on technicalities" does not work. We have to fill in all the blanks or the gaps. How? With holiness.
Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch (1808-1888) was one of the greatest articulators of Torah. His knowledge of Hebrew grammar was brilliant to the point of uncanny. His knowledge spanned Bible, Talmud, midrashim, ethics and law. In his brilliant commentary on the Torah, he elaborates on the commandment to be holy. To be holy means to separate from, and rise above, this world. The Torah doesn't command us to stop being human or to eradicate human nature. The goal of the Torah is to bring us to fully control our human personality and to use it for the good and for the spiritual. The Torah commands us to channel, elevate, moderate and direct the forces and powers in the human personality. Holiness means rising above the nature of this world.
Let's go a step further. Why? And, what is our model? G-d Himself. We must emulate His spiritual essence and characteristics, not only in what we do, but in how we do it. Holiness elevates both action and state of being. G-d's holiness itself provides the imperative for the Jew to be holy in all things.
Getting back to marriage, we have "double duty," in the holiness domain: 1) the basic and universal imperative to behave and grow spiritually and with holiness at all times, and 2) the specific imperative to fully conduct marriage as an undertaking in holiness, as defined by G-d's Torah.
Marriage, by definition, requires that each partner elevate above the habits, temptations, assumptions and pulls of this world; perhaps more than in any other aspect of life. The conduct of the marriage, the treatment of the partners, and the atmosphere in the Jewish home are to be holy. Each Jewish spouse should be able to discern that G-d is behind the way spouses basically treat eachother and the way the marriage and home basically operate. The marriage can allow an occasional forgivable human foible or booboo arising out of the imperfections of its human inhabitants.
When one would make property "hekdesh," he would sanctify it for use in the Holy Temple. In Torah law, once you designate a contribution (e.g. an animal for a sacrifice) as being "hekdesh," it may no longer be used for any private or secular purpose.
This gives an insight into the holiness particular to marriage. The spouse is exclusive to the partner and to the marriage. Like hekdesh, marriage is not there for selfish, personal purpose. The partners are designated to eachother and their holy union, to the exclusion of the entire rest of the world.
Unfortunately, with the burgeoning of the contemperary "relationship crisis," more and more marriages seemed headed towards sub-human, rather than supra-human.
I've seen people who would be punitively abusive or neglectful towards a spouse and/or children, but would be philanthropical to the outside world, do enormous favors for the approval of strangers or for political or business advantage. It's perverse.
Throughout Torah law you find sets of priorities. For example: * When two people come to you for a kindness and you can only
* When two people come to you for charity and you can only
afford to give to one.
* Yibum (the mitzva to marry a deceased relative's widow),
when there are more than one "eligible" surviving
relatives (i.e. who should be more obligated to
marry the widow?).
* Inheritance law (in what order do relatives have priority to
One basic rule of thumb in determining priority levels is: the closer a person is, the higher the priority. There are some exceptions, such as: a starving and destitute stranger gets food money before your rich cousin gets a business-improvement loan with the same money.
A second rule of thumb is: the more something means to the other person, the greater the obligation is to do.
A third rule of thumb is that kindness must be consistent with honest good. Indulgence is not necessarily good. "Never let kindness AND truth abandon you (Proverbs 3:3)." Sometimes something truly good may be painful. Sometimes something that seems pleasant is not objective or long-run good.
A fourth rule of thumb is that different issues have different levels of weight in Jewish law. Sometimes,
* individual conditions and/or
* the combination of issues in any specific question
effects what constitutes a priority in a given case. Therefore, you very often probably cannot make decisions about priorities without knowing the entire gamut of Jewish law. Therefore, take all practical questions to an orthodox rabbi who is a high-level authority in Torah law; who is known, accepted and respected by the entire Torah-observant community and who is known to be experienced and successful in the subject at issue.
These same rules of weight or priority apply in marriage. The
1. closer any person is to you,
2. more a thing means to (or impacts upon) a person,
3. more true or long-run good to be produced,
the higher the priority. Until a person cares for a spouse and children satisfactorily, (s)he has no business playing the saint to the rest of the world.
Madrich LeChasonim [Guide To Grooms] quotes the esteemed sixteenth century mystic, Rabbi Chayim Veetal. "The characteristics of a man are measured exclusively by his relationship to his wife. This means that he may engage in kindness to the general population: loans, gifts, caring for the sick, comforting mourners, giving joy to newlyweds, and more. Certainly he will be happily rewarded at the time of his accounting, for he has many merits for his acts of goodness. However, know and believe that Heaven investigates how he behaves with his wife. If he also bestowed kindness upon her all of his life, it is happy and good for him. However, if he is cruel, neglectful, angry, strict, merciless, unkind or irresponsible in his house, this outweighs all the kindnesses that he did for those outside of his family, in his Heavenly judgement."
There is no question that a spouse must literally treat the other spouse like the single most important person in the entire universe CONSISTENTLY. As a practical matter, every married person should treat his or her spouse like one day this is someone he or she going to need the biggest favor from. Your spouse's approval means more than the approval of your manager at work, more than your biggest customer, more than the political hack who can get you elected or can obtain funding or a favor for your dream project, and more than the institution that will make you the guest of honor at its big dinner. No one is born to be anyone else's dish-rag. Marriage is life's prime opportunity for a husband and a wife to do kindness. A spouse and children bring life's prime obligation for a husband and a wife to do kindness.
When the tribes of Reuven and Gad came to Moshe to ask for permission to remain on the far side of the Jordan River, they asked to stay 1. for their cattle and 2. for their children. Moshe replied that they can stay 1. for their CHILDREN and 2. for their cattle (Numbers 32:16 & 24). Moshe reversed the order; putting family first, before business or material interests. Let us learn Torah values and priorities from Moshe! There is nothing more important to a Jew than his home - his marriage and children, and having a Torah atmosphere. The term in Hebrew for peaceful marriage is "peace in the home (shalom bayis)." The marriage and home are interdependent. Both must be peaceful and of highest priority for there to be success. [to be continued]