The Torah Model for Marriage
This is a presentation of the Jewish approach to marriage and sexuality, highlighting the benefits of entering into a monogamous heterosexual relationship for life, without having premarital relations.
Assuming for a moment that the Torah is authored by an Infinite Being, its instructions for humanity must be for the pleasure of humanity. An Infinite Being has no needs, therefore it must be a giver. If the Torah commands heterosexual monogamy, it’s obviously not because God needs us to enter into monogamous relationships. He doesn’t need us to avoid premarital relations for him either. It must be for our pleasure. Therefore our focus should be, “What is in it for us?”
Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve are the Torah’s paradigm of relationships and sexuality. But this story must be discussed in context — it is preceded by the Creation of the universe. First we must ask, “Why was the world created?” Only then can we ask the questions, “what were we given life for,” “what are we here to achieve,” and “how is a sexual relationship supposed to help us do that?”
Purpose of Creation
God as an Infinite Being and Creator of time and space has no limits in time nor space. Therefore, the act of creation was not an act to satisfy any need. It was an act of giving. Why would an Infinite Being do that? We can’t understand too much about an Infinite Being, it’s beyond our comprehension. But certain aspects we can know. Like knowing that being limitless, he doesn’t lack anything that we would call good or perfection.
He doesn’t lack anything that would see as perfection in a perfect diamond, yet He’s not a diamond. But this Infinite Being is the source of that aspect of perfection that comes into the world through the diamond. Similarly, He also does not lack anything of the perfection or the good that we see in humans.
Giving is Good
What do we mean by a good person? Most would say someone who gives charity or volunteers in a blood drive. Would you consider a person who spent their life on a desert island and never interacted with any people a good person? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. They might have good intentions. We perceive the act of doing good is greater than simply having good intentions.
The Infinite Being must be greater than the greatest person we can imagine and therefore the Infinite Being can’t lack anything that we call giving. So therefore when God, chooses to be a giver, He gives the best possible gift in the best possible way.
The Best Gift
What is the greatest gift imaginable? People often say, ‘life’ or ‘happiness.’ Yet there is something greater than both of those. Since the Infinite Being doesn’t lack anything, it doesn’t lack any of the goodness of life or the goodness of happiness. So the greatest gift there is must be the intrinsic good that is in the Infinite Being itself. And what is that? The experience of feeling perfection, completeness or wholeness. We call it shelemut in Hebrew. The greatest gift is to give the gift of feeling what it is like to be whole, complete and perfect to some creature other than God.
The Best Way
The natural inclination of a parent is to smother a child with love and gifts. Growing up as a teenager, I remember that was the last thing I wanted. I wanted to do everything myself. It’s a greater act of giving to give someone the opportunity to earn the good they receive.
So, God created the world in order to bring into existence a creature with the ability to earn perfection or choose deficiency. Therefore when the creature chooses perfection, (which we also call the transcendent or infinite) that choice is meaningful. And consequently when the creature experiences perfection through its own efforts, it’s a greater pleasure than if it had perfection thrust upon it. The more we sensitize ourselves to perfection and the infinite, the greater will be our experience of, and relationship with perfection.
Bonds Through Sharing
My background is originally in Mathematics and Computer Science. If you, the reader, also have a background in Computer Science we have a bond. You understand a little bit about me. The fact that we are both English speakers, we share another bond. The more we learn about each other, emulate and share, the more we understand and appreciate each other, and the more we share in the pleasure that the other feels. That is what we want as parents, we want to take all the good feelings and experiences that we have, and we want to give them to our children.
So the more that we can share and sensitize ourselves to the perfection in all its manifest forms, the more we’ll appreciate what the Infinite Being is all about. The more we’ll feel it, and the more we’ll be getting that gift.
The Garden of Eden
So how does sexuality, and marriage fit into this equation? If we take a look at the Garden of Eden, we see that the human being or the creature Adam is created to be the receiver of this gift of perfection. And it is given the opportunity to earn this perfection on its own, thereby earning a relationship with perfection — with the Infinite Being.
The sages tell us that when this Adam creature was created, “God created him, male and female he created them.” This a very troubling verse in the book of Genesis. What is it him or them? One way of understanding this is that the original Adam creature was both male and female. Whether we take this literally or metaphorically, the Torah’s prime purpose is to provide us with ‘instructions for living. The story of Adam and Eve is there to teach us how to relate to the male-female concept of humanity. So, ‘male and female He created them.’ There was one creature that had both male and female physical characteristics. Into this creature was breathed the soul of life, the spiritual soul. This creature then became a human being.
Body and Soul
A human being is a spiritual transcendent soul combined with a physical body. Our life’s challenge as a human being is to earn perfection by choosing between the infinite and finite. The spiritual soul strives for infinity, while the physical body lusts for the finite. If the human creature that consists of both spiritual and physical chooses the finite, it drags the soul down with it into a more finite level of existence and desensitizes itself to infinity. However, if the body chooses to go along with the soul, choosing transcendent spiritual experiences, it can get pleasure in those also. The body is elevated along with the soul. That’s the challenge of humanity.
This male/female Adam creature is set in an environment called Gan Eden, where it’s going to have the opportunity to choose one way or choose the opposite. Then God makes an amazing statement. He declares that “it is not good that this Adam creature is alone” Why? What’s wrong with being alone? After all, God created it that way.
There is an interesting break in the story after God says, “it is not good that the Adam creature is alone,” but before He splits Adam in two. Then the story pauses for this Adam creature to name all of the other creatures in the world.
What’s in a Name?
In Hebrew to give a name to something, means to understand its essence. Unlike the English alphabet, in Hebrew each letter has a specific meaning. Therefore, when you put a few letters together to create a word, it means something whether you like it or not. When Adam uses the word kelev to name a dog, it is not an arbitrary label. It represents the essence of this creature. Ke—lev means “like a heart.” The essence of a dog is its unconditional loyalty and love to its master. Dogs were put in this world for us to learn that trait from them. We should only treat our own brothers and sisters the way a dog treats a human being. In the same way Adam labels all the creatures with the appropriate names.
Why is it important for the Adam creature to know the essence of every creature? Because, he has to solve the riddle of why it’s not good for him to be alone. Why isn’t it good for him to be alone? Because if there is one thing that we know about the Infinite Being is, it is that he is a giver. Therefore, if you want to sensitize yourself to the infinite and understand what perfection is you have to know what it means to be a giver. When you are alone, how can you give? Well perhaps the solution is with those animals in the Garden of Eden. Maybe this Adam creature can learn what it means to be a giver by giving to the animals.
If you want to be a good giver the secret is to give what’s needed not what you feel like giving. First, determine what they have and what they lack. Then give them what they are missing. That is a meaningful act of giving. If you give someone with 100 neckties another tie, you haven’t done much for that person.
But there is another aspect to giving that lifts us to a higher level. Imagine your father already has 100 ties. Instead of giving him another tie, you write a poem for your father about your relationship with him. Your father’s response will probably be something like, “It’s the best gift I received. You spent so much time, you’ve given of yourself.” Giving of oneself is the highest act of human giving.
The Adam creature recognizes that he can give a dog some food, some water, some shelter, but he can’t give of his own personality to the dog. The dog and all the other animals are pre-programmed to act the way they do. There is nothing Adam can give of the human experience to the dog.
Man and Woman
After Adam has experienced every other creature in the world and still cannot give of itself, Adam is ready for a human mate. Now Adam will not be satisfied by giving his mate some food and shelter. He has learned that his future mate is there for him to have the opportunity to give of himself. At that point of the story, God puts the Adam creature, that is both male and female to sleep, and rips it apart physically. On one half we have man and on the other half we have woman.
This is the first time in the Torah that we see the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ (ish and isha) mentioned. Male and female were included in Adam, but man and woman did not exist yet. When Adam is split into two, on one side is a man with male physical characteristics, and on the other side is a woman with female physical characteristics. We recognize that there is something physically different between males and females. But this first Adam creature had originally only one soul and that soul also got split in two; a male soul on one side and a female soul on the other. According to the Torah model, there is a spiritual difference between males and females. Why? If you have one soul and split it into two, there is something on one side that’s not in the other and vice versa.
The Other Half
The Hebrew word for ‘male,’ zachar, in broad terms means ‘acting or projecting’ in both a physical and spiritual sense. Female, nekeivah, means receptacle — receiving, nurturing. These two characteristics are necessary for creating human life — acting, projecting, and receiving, nurturing. The Torah model tells us to expect something different about the natures of men and women. For the purposes of this discussion, it is not so important what those differences are. What is important is to understand why those differences are necessary. Since men and women are different, and the first human started out with one soul, that means each individual today, whether a man or woman is only fifty percent of what a human being can be in potential.
In contrast, the original Women’s Movement taught that every person, whether man or woman, is one hundred percent of a human being. Each of us can achieve our potential on our own. Originally, feminism taught us that we don’t need anybody else. Since we don’t need anybody else, one relationship is no different than any other. A relationship with a man is no different than a relationship with a woman, implying that heterosexual relationships are no different than homosexual or lesbian relationships. Since we achieve our potential on our own, there is no need for anybody else. All other relationships are ‘extra.’
The Purpose of Marriage
The Torah, on the other hand, teaches that each of us is only fifty percent of what a human being can achieve in terms of ways of relating to the world. Women and men relate to the world a little bit differently. Women and men also relate to relationships differently. Therefore, I, as a male depending solely on myself, am going to have a very parochial view of the world. I am also going to have a very parochial way of relating to God. I have only the male ways of relating to God.
As a male I am dependent on a female to help share with me her world view, her way of relating to God, and her way of relating to life’s challenges. Especially those challenges that confront us as a couple. When I’m confronted with a business challenge I’ll relate to it one way. I turn to my wife and she will give me a whole different perspective. Often I will admit that ‘I never thought about it that way.’ If there is a spiritual difference between us, then there is something I have that she’s missing that I can share with her. She can choose to act on it or not, but she gains a different way of looking at the world.
I, as a male benefit from her sharing with me her world view, her way of relating to God and her way of dealing with challenges. It helps make me a more rounded human being. I get to see the world from a woman’s eyes, as well as through a man’s eyes. Therefore I get the full human perspective on life and on God. Without that I am missing out on a huge aspect of life. From the Torah point of view, we see that the marriage relationship is a vehicle for growth so a human being (whether man or woman) can achieve human potential.
The unique tool in marriage which helps make it a vehicle for growth is ‘giving.’ Marriage is essentially an opportunity to learn what it is to be a giver. Again, when God says, “It is not good that Adam is alone,” it means it is not good that this human being is alone because it doesn’t know what it is like to be a give another human being the opportunity to achieve its potential. Therefore God splits Adam apart, and the man’s and woman’s common goal is to re-unite as one flesh — body and soul. The only way to do that is by molding and merging the two. She giving to him, and he giving to her.
My wife gives me what I’m missing, and I give her what she’s missing. We thank each other for the opportunity for seeing the world in a different way. Often in the western world, we see that differences of opinion are opportunities for trouble and conflict in marriage. From a Torah point of view we say, ‘thank God we have a different way of looking at things.’ It helps build us as a human beings.
Why a Spouse?
One might ask, “What do I need a spouse for? I can learn what it’s like to be a giver with the person at the office, or with a male friend at the golf club. I have my children to give to! Why do I need a heterosexual marriage experience?”
There is a qualitative difference in the opportunity to give in a heterosexual marriage than there is in any other human relationship. If we consider the marital act between a man and a woman, we see that the male is giving physically and spiritually, and the woman is giving physically and spiritually at one and the same time. If giving is so great, the greatest gift you can give someone is the opportunity to be a giver. In addition to giving to each other, during the marital act each partner is giving the other the opportunity to give pleasure as well.
Seeing this wonderfully unique opportunity of so much giving, the Torah describes this simultaneous spiritual and physical act of giving as the holiest human act when done in the proper context. The marital act can get you closer to God than virtually than any other human experience. That is the pleasure and the real opportunity of the marital act. The challenge is to be able to overcome the difficulty in relating to the other half. It is difficult for a man to learn how to give spiritually to a woman when she sees the world so differently. The woman also is challenged by understanding how a man thinks. It creates many opportunities for conflict. In marriage we are constantly bombarded with different and sometimes uncomfortable ways of looking at the world.
Marriage requires healthy and skillful communication to articulate what we really need to give to our spouse. Often it’s not easy to figure out what the other person needs and feels at any given moment. Men have a hard time understanding what women’s sensitivities, needs and desires are. In marriage you need to communicate, you need to talk out problems, you need to work hard, and it’s not comfortable. But, when you make the breakthrough and communicate with each other, articulating what each of you has and what you don’t have; what you need and what you like; and the other person has that gift and the opportunity to give it, then there is nothing more profound in developing a human relationship.
Comfort versus Growth
This model of marriage sounds idyllic, so why isn’t everyone happily married? Part of the problem is that we human beings don’t like conflict. If you ask a lesbian, “what’s attractive about your lesbian relationship?” They will often answer, “I don’t have to constantly explain everything to my partner. She knows exactly how I feel. She knows what I want when I want it. It’s a very comfortable relationship.”
Indeed the lesbian relationship might be very comfortable, but as a result there are going to be fewer opportunities for growth and giving because both partners are so similar. If you are already the same as your partner, what are you going to learn from her? What are you going to see dramatically, and qualitatively differently in the world? Since both partners are approaching life in basically the same way, there is a high level of comfort.
But the opportunity to see the world in a totally different way, to struggle through the challenges of that relationship and growing with a human being who is different is lost in the lesbian relationship. They relate to God from a female perspective, yet there is a male way of relating that’s not available to them. The same is true in a homosexual relationship, it becomes a missed opportunity. Obviously, one man can benefit from the different perspective of another man, and a woman can gain from another woman’s insights, but none of these ‘same gender’ differences comes qualitatively close to the differences between a male perspective compared to a female perspective.
This article is not intended for homosexuals and therefore I won’t go into the issue of nature versus nurture. The article is directed at the vast majority of people who consider themselves heterosexually oriented. Most of those people don’t fully appreciate the opportunity in a heterosexual relationship. I simply wanted to describe some aspects of homosexual and lesbian relationships in order to help heterosexuals appreciate what they have. Explain to people what they are supposed to be doing with their heterosexuality — learning how to be givers.
Too often today, people enter relationships thinking, “what am I supposed to get out of this experience?” If two people come into marriage taking, no one is going to get anything. There will be unfulfilled expectations, resentment, and frequently divorce, which starts a whole new cycle of searching for a partner from whom to take.
In reality, marriage is a vehicle for learning what it’s like to be a giver. If two people are giving, both get.
To Practice or Not?
You might think that in order to prepare yourself for this heterosexual, monogamous relationship, you should have some practice. Perhaps the more practice you have, the more tools you will have to be a giver and you’ll be better able to satisfy your eventual spouse. There is an inherent problem in this thinking. If someone is involved in sexual activity before entering into this special marriage relationship where you both become one being, there are a few things that flaw the ultimate relationship that you want to have.
First, a desensitization takes place. The physical act between a man and a woman is supposed to be a total releasing, giving relationship — not just physically but spiritually. If you enter into a physical relationship without a lifelong commitment, it indicates you aren’t certain about the relationship. You are experimenting. There may be a physical giving, but there must necessarily be a spiritual holding back as a defense mechanism. If you are not sure that this is the ultimate relationship for you, your spiritual defenses will be up in order to protect yourself in the event the premarital relationship doesn’t work out. To protect yourself from going through all that emotional pain if the relationship fails, you’ll enjoy the physical pleasure but hold back spiritually.
This has to happen, otherwise you’re in for real trouble. The spiritual holding back occurs much more so with men than with women. Women will innately want to get into a nurturing situation, and therefore will want to be more giving spiritually in any relationship they enter.
The Price of Holding Back
Imagine someone who habituates himself to holding back spiritually in casual physical relationships. Guess what’s going to happen when he gets married? He will automatically hold back spiritually in his marriage. Holding back has become a conditioned response. That is not healthy when you are trying to build a giving relationship. The more sexual experience you have outside of marriage, the more you will steel yourself emotionally to giving in the sexual relationship.
Agreed, it is not the end of the world, you can go through therapy. You can learn how to communicate, give spiritually, and how to let your guard down. It can be taken care of in most cases, but only through a lot of effort and pain. This syndrome is rampant in western society where promiscuity is encouraged. People are desensitizing themselves. The byproduct is many negative symptoms later in marriage. One of them is comparing your spouse with previous partners. Doubts and confusions enter the relationship. There are all kinds of questions people ask. “Why isn’t it like it used to be with ‘so, and so’?” “Didn’t it used to be better?” It is difficult for people to make a full commitment and release when in the back of their minds there are the dissonances of previous relationships.
Leaving a Piece Behind
The Jewish mystical tradition tells us that every time you have a sexual relationship with another human being you leave a piece of your soul behind. Whether you like it or not, no matter how hard you try to hold back spiritually, you are leaving a little bit of your soul with that partner. Imagine, little pieces of your soul in all those different places all over the world. When you are finally married, there will be a snippet, a flashback that is going to taint the purity, the holiness, of the one relationship that is really meaningful to you.
That’s not to say that you can’t do something about it after the fact. If you recognize how that premarital relationship really wasn’t in your self interest and you say, “I don’t want to have anything to do with that kind of relationship anymore and from this point forward, that’s not who I am. I am the kind of person who recognizes the power of this kind of marriage relationship.” Then that past relationship will go away. It can get cut out of your life’s script.
These are the some of main problems with premarital relationships. If we can communicate to our children the power of waiting until marriage, and to the repercussions of taking actions that deny us forever from having that experience we will go a long way.
You may want to share the story of the woman who can’t decide whether it’s better to enter marriage as a virgin or with experience. She hears arguments from her friends for both sides. So what does she do? She decides to have some experience and then get married. After being married for a while she compares notes with friends who married as virgins and realizes she made a mistake. So what does she do? She decides to get divorced and get remarried so she can do it this time around as a virgin.
But it’s too late, it doesn’t work anymore. There are certain experiences in life that are mutually exclusive. We must find some way to explain to our children and others, the power of the experience and that it’s worth waiting for. Because whatever sexual activity one has before marriage is only going to taint the experience.
What About Compatibility?
Now somebody might ask, “how will you really know that you are compatible as a couple?” People have a tremendous fear of failure. What is the secret of success in marriage? If two people come pristine into a marriage and their focus is on giving and understanding the needs of their spouse; and if they know that communicating is the key to it, they may feel awkward at first but eventually they will learn how to give each other pleasure in all senses of the word.
If you ask people about their first sexual encounter, they will usually admit it was an awkward uncomfortable, and sometimes frightening experience. A lot of people have high expectations of what their experience should have been like and it didn’t live up to Hollywood standards. I’m sure there are quite a few young men around the world saying to themselves, “Maybe there is something wrong with me. It wasn’t like they said it would be. Maybe I wasn’t built to have a relationship with a woman. Maybe I was meant to have a relationship with men who I understand better and he understands me better. It will be less awkward, and besides society tells me some men are meant to be that way.”
A Greater Humanity
Anatomically, one in thousands of marriages may not work out. In that case marriage will result in divorce in one in thousands of cases. This is contrasted to the fifty percent divorce rate we are living with using the other model. Marriage will work out if people are in giving mode and looking to get a total human experience. They’ll work out their challenges and they will grow to appreciate each other. They will reach the potential that the Torah is telling us that a human being is supposed to achieve — to have a full human experience sensitized to perfection in the infinite.
Even while we are still in this life, through marriage we can achieve a sense of connection and uniting with the whole world in a very profound way. This is an experience which is extremely difficult to achieve outside of marriage. If we can share with our children the benefits of waiting until marriage and sensitize people to the benefits of heterosexual monogamy we’ll build greater people and a greater humanity.
Rabbi Veffer; I was one of the many JWRP ladies that had the privilege of arriving at your beautiful home and hearing you speak immediately following landing in Israel (for the first time in my life, at age 47) in October 2010.
I would like to thank you so much for this insightful; beautifully written; easy to understand article. You have echoed many of my thoughts and feelings and put them in to words- and even better; you have provided the “missing pieces”. My first conversation with my two children about sexuality and relationships promoted waiting until marriage and included some of these arguments, on a much simpler, more basic level. I was definitely not in the majority of my peers when I chose to do this; but I could not deny how I really felt on this topic.
How wonderful to have these precious words to share with them again with a new; and perhaps more convincing message. Toda raba! Laurie Conn-Zuckerman