Whether one is speaking of marriage in Judaism or in general, no single factor is a greater predictor of success or failure than the choice of partner. As obvious as it might seem, this factor can be one of the most difficult to understand in our modern society. So many marriages fail because they should never have been sworn to in the first place. The process for making such a choice is as important as the choice itself. The process should facilitate making the best possible choice. Images placed in this article are of married couples from popular culture, some of long and others of shorter duration.
To learn more about marriage traditions within Judaism click here.
Ketubah (Jewish Marriage Contract) of Karaite Jews in Egypt 1957
In our modern western context we are given many mixed cultural signals as we grow into adulthood. We are told that sex is fun for everyone, that any two (or more) people can engage in this behavior, and that all consequences of such behavior can be avoided. We celebrate characters like James Bond, who go from flower to flower. In recent decades promiscuity has become increasingly popular for women as well. Our society has become obsessed with identity issues and irrelevancies such as gender choice, sexual orientation, and reproductive avoidance. All of this noise confuses and conflates the real matter at hand. Humans are healthier, happier, and live longer when they share their life with a compatible partner.
Science has shown that people are happier into old age when coupled with a life partner. Children are healthier, happier, and more successful in life when raised in two-parent families. These facts come on the heels of a great many harms done by earlier scientists, who promoted more “progressive” ideas. In the attempt to empower women, many modern feminists have promoted among women the worst of male behaviors, such as promiscuity and the avoidance of reproduction. The negativity toward traditional femininity and maternity are likewise harmful. The equality of women will not be achieved by belittling or degrading woman and their biological realities.
Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis
In traditional Judaism, marriage is a reproductive relationship, a life partnership, a team, and an enterprise. Like any partnership the parties sign a contract, work toward certain defined goals, work together, and provide support to one another. Our people have a 4,000 year old tradition; a narrative. Our traditions and beliefs do not change or bend on a whim, even though we evolve with the times, grow, and learn. Our language is ancient, our scriptures have come down through several millennia, and our peoplehood is strong. The success of our traditions and approach to society is essentially proven by our very existence. To have survived so much history, we must have done something correctly.
Women have always enjoyed greater equality in Judaism since ancient times, relative to the surrounding nations and traditions. The Torah includes many rights and protections for women, including inheritance rights (daughters of Zelophahad), the right to divorce, and the right to refuse marriage (Rivka was asked if she wanted to marry Yitschak). To learn more about the role of women read this article on the subject.
Ozzy and Sharon Osborne
We must understand, though, that sexual behavior is understood in Torah to be a transactional reproductive act, and as such, the reproductive marriage is between a man and at least one woman. This does not exclude those who have relationships alternative to this basic reproductive relationship, but I will speak primarily of this basic reproductive relationship construct throughout this article.
I have received many questions from those curious about Jewish customs surrounding polygamy, including from some who are interested in practicing it, so I will give the issue a few words here. Our modern society is no longer one in which polygamy is accepted, and it is illegal in most western countries. The ultimate example of a reproductive relationship was that of Adam and Chava (Eve), the first two human beings in the Torah. Jewish tradition no longer accepts polygamous marriages.
In that sexual behavior is seen to be primarily reproductive in nature, and marriage is the relationship in which this behavior properly belongs, it goes without saying that I do not concur with modern fancies that sexual behavior is free and open and can be done anywhere with just anyone. As a society and as religious people, we can be tolerant and accepting of those who choose lifestyles that do not conform with this approach, but the approach of Bible observant peoples must be that heterosexual, monogamous marriage is the ideal and proper place for reproductive behavior.
Seeking a Partner
When one sets out to find a partner, one must do so with deliberation. Our society’s method of coupling often involves dating recreationally with various people until you randomly meet someone you like. Unfortunately, empty promiscuity often accompanies this method of coupling. This is not a very effective means of selecting a partner, and not particularly healthy for the individual either. Many young people today respond to surveys that they feel used and unloved in these kinds of lifestyle.
A more appropriate process might begin thus: first, one must decide what they desire in a partner. One might write out the qualities that are important before setting out. It may be helpful to sit down and discuss these traits with parents, extended family, and close friends, or to ponder the qualities of admirable marriages. As a young man I might lead off with the most important trait that she be attractive; the more gorgeous the better! Experience would quickly have rearranged my priorities to lead off with her being intelligent so we can carry on a decent conversation.
List the traits and prioritize them so that would-be partners can be compared against these priorities. Consider your life plans: how many children to have? Where do you want to live: city, rural, close to family, etc.? Career or stay at home? What are your goals? Extroverted or introverted? In our broad and complex modern world, it is all the more important that individuals define what they are looking for before entering into the process.
George W. and Laura Bush
Perhaps the single most important factor in marriage, in my experience at least, is equality. The two partners should see each other as equals. If a man marries a woman he thinks is beneath or above him, conflict will ensue; likewise for a woman about a man. If a highly intelligent woman marries a simple man, or vice versa, this may not work out well either. There is an old Jewish adage that Hashem did not take Chava from Adam’s foot that he should dominate her nor from his head that she should dominate him, but from his side that she should be his equal, under his arm that he protect her, and near his heart that she should be loved.
Consider also the life goals and potential of a partner. A person on course to be a high-powered attorney might not want to marry a mechanic. On the other hand, among the options available, the mechanic may be the best choice. These marriages can work if both parties see equality in other attributes, or if they at least discuss and consider the matter. Ethnic and socioeconomic differences can also play a role and should be discussed in advance. It is an unfortunate truth that interracial couples are looked at and treated differently. Ethnic and cultural factors can be an issue as well. A man who comes from a working class background might have difficulties relating to the family of a woman from an upper-middle class family. These cultural concerns can matter, and should be given due consideration. Those raised in the middle class may prefer a life with at least some financial luxuries; those raised in the working class may anticipate a life of hard work and struggle. These should be thought of and discussed when describing an ideal partner and between prospective partners.
How many children does each party wish to have, and what are their views on parenting? What kind of lifestyle might they expect?
In the book Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand expresses a very Greek view of coupling, involving a celebration physical comfort between two great minds. This approach to sexuality is Socratic in origin. While the Greek did not necessarily practice this heterosexually, that is Rand’s application of the concept. Her main character Dagne Taggert goes from one to the next of three great men, each still greater than the former. In Judaism consecutive long-term monogamous relationships of that sort are not ideal, marriage to us is for life. Therefore, this idea has its greatest application in the choice of a life partner. To learn more click here.
Dating vs Courtship
In Jewish custom a woman cannot be forced to marry against her will and “arranged marriages” in Jewish history were, in fact, no more than strong suggestions on the part of the parents with some social pressure applied. Today, Jewish matchmaking serves mainly to avoid genetic incompatibility and to assist voluntary coupling. In the small Karaite Jewish communities back in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, eligible young men knew most of the eligible young women, families already knew each other, making courtship a relatively easy matter. In an ideal, traditional community this would continue to be the case.
I define dating as a recreational activity wherein people meet on certain occasions for activities, to chat, for drinking, and also for sexual activity. There is rarely any specific purpose other than having fun. Courtship, by my definition, is any process in which the goal is marriage. This process also involves the kind of forethought referred to above. Courtship could look a lot like dating as we perceive it today, except that the two parties are consciously assessing whether they would be compatible in marriage. It would not be appropriate to initiate a courtship with someone who does not have the attributes you are seeking. Make certain that these attributes are well thought out.
A Karaite Jewish Wedding Performed by Hakham Rashi (First Sage) Moshe Firrouz (Right)
In traditional religious communities, courtship is a better methodology for choosing a partner than mere dating. That being said, any two people can pursue one another through the process of courtship. The process can range in formality from a young man making a call to the father of a young lady and asking permission to call on her, to a far less formal process between to young people interested in seeking a life partner. The level of formality is of far less import than the result of the process. Parental involvement can be beneficial as it can be an overwhelming process and it never hurts to have older, wiser people who care for you and have emotional distance from the relationship to help.
Traditionally, when the two people have decided that they wish to court they should approach the parents of the woman to seek permission. This is a mere formality and parents should not object at this stage unless there is a serious concern. Next, the prospective couple can be introduced to the man’s parents. Family members may already know the prospective partner and this will make introductions easier. This can be a nervous process when the person is unknown. Family members can help the couple in analyzing the candidates and the results of meetings. Parents should avoid being pushy, or the whole “well I like so and so” shtick. If the courtship later goes awry, it can create tension between parent and child if the latter felt pressured by the former into a given choice. It is better to help to guide children to a responsible choice.
In my own coupling process, my future wife and I had grown up in a very progressive social culture in California. We never realized that we were actually courting even though we spent a great deal of time speaking of our future plans, considering compatibility, and exploring our mutual strengths and weaknesses as a couple. In truth, we did not even know we were undergoing a similar process to that of a more traditional courtship. It became clear fairly quickly that we were a good team and that we could build a life together. Understanding the process from the beginning would have been valuable. There was considerable confusion, emotional turmoil, and the recoil of friends and family members as we grew together and became more overtly serious. This is among the reasons I am writing to offer guidance to others.
David and Victoria Beckham and Family
Stage One: Introduction
Before a courtship begins there is the “pre-courtship:” the individuals list the desired attributes, seek advice from intimates, and examine successful marriages with which they are familiar. The individuals next consider the known eligible candidates and how they might seek out others. This is very important because these considerations will frame the courtship process. If one is interested only in a person of the same religious community, for example, this will determine who the possible candidates will be to the exclusion of others.
Whether the courtship begins formally with a call or visit to the woman’s parents or is a less formal process initiated betwixt the parties themselves, the first matter is introductions: a few casual meetings in public or supervised by parents and/or with friends that offer the opportunity to become acquainted. Nothing especially important need be discussed in these early meetings. The idea is simply to meet the person and develop an initial impression. Do you like him or her? Are they easy to get along with? Would you like to see the person again? If the person is unfriendly, you get a bad vibe, or you simply do not feel comfortable with them, this is the time to bow out respectfully. As nothing serious has taken place, there will be a minimum of hurt feelings and everyone can go on to other pursuits. If the person is pleasant and the parties desire to continue the process, then they can proceed to the next step. This phase can last a few days or a few weeks. There is no hurry but it does not take a very long time to become acquainted with a person on the surface.
Stage Two: Getting to Know You
Pursuant to the listed desired attributes, life goals, and family plans that an individual will have written down, the aspiring couple should now begin discuss these matters. This is a time to make inquiries, ask questions, and try to work out differences of opinion. From time to time we find out that couples marry only to find out that they have wildly different life plans. Suppose the young man does not want children but the young woman wants a large family? Suppose the young woman wants to have a career but the young man wants a stay at home wife? These kinds of expectations should be discussed in advance. There will be differences between any two people, and this is an opportunity to discuss differences of opinion and see how they might be handled in a prospective marriage: does he demand to have his way, does she demand to have her way? Can the two compromise and be reconciled? Marriage is certainly an exercise in problem solving and pragmatic compromise, begin discussing the resolution of problems as early as possible to learn if the couple can work together.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with Wife Sophie and Children
It is also good to become more intimate at this time. To explore physical contact and comfort levels. Cuddling, light kissing, hand holding, and such are healthy at this stage without going too far. Minds still need to be kept clear during this time, so that each party can consider the other with a critical eye. This phase should take a little time. Weeks and months should go by as the two spend time together and discuss their goals and plans. It is healthy to become more acquainted with the prospective partner’s family. How does he or she interact with their parents and extended family? How will the example of his or her family experience impact the prospective marriage? Those who come from healthy family situations may have a little less trouble, those who come from broken or troubled family situations may struggle in a relationship. It is also healthy now to discuss ethnic or socioeconomic differences and how they are to be handled in the relationship. A marriage between individuals of two different cultures will work differently than one between, say, two middle class Americans from the adjacent small towns (as in the case of my marriage). These matters should be discussed and addressed openly. If things are not going to work out, again, this is the time to back out. Feelings may be hurt, but better now than after the relationship becomes more serious.
Stage Three: Engagement
By now the young prospective couple has become acquainted, they have discussed their life goals and plans, and they have familiarized themselves with each other’s families. They have discussed cultural and socioeconomic realities and family situations. They have explored whether they are physically comfortable together and now have the opportunity to enter into the final and most serious phase. I call this phase “engagement” not because the couple will become formally and publicly engaged at this point, although they may at any time during this phase, but because it should at least culminate in a formal engagement.
In courtship “popping the question” is a little less worrisome or nerve racking. After all, for some months now the two young people have been openly discussing marriage. Announcing an engagement will mean declaring the ultimate success of the process up to this point. Engagement is essentially pre-marriage, it is an opportunity for the couple to explore what their married life might be like. The couple should spend a great deal of time together and test each other’s tolerances. It is a time to explore more deeply the romantic aspect of the relationship, again, within certain boundaries, not going into reproductive behavior, for example.
While it might be more controversial to say, I have encouraged young couples to become physically intimate during this phase without engaging reproductive behavior (that is, at least avoiding intercourse). It was my personal experience that my future wife and I were, a few months into our relationship, able to be close for long periods of time, that we could see each other’s persons, and that we could sleep together in the same bed whilst respecting each other’s boundaries; again not yet engaging in reproductive behavior. This intimacy helps to build up affection and anticipation towards the future reproductive aspect of the relationship. Spending a great deal of time together will also determine whether the two can tolerate one another.
Interpretation of Avraham and Sarah
How do the families and the community respond to the prospective match? How does the young couple feel together? What would marriage be like? At some point a formal engagement will be asked and announced and the planning will commence for the big day itself. How does the couple work together toward that goal? How do the families and the community respond? Engagement can take months but should not be protracted too much. The entire process of courtship from first meet to marriage should not take more than a year. Preferably, four to six months to the engagement, although this can vary. The fact is, whether or not you like someone and can spend your life with them is not a question that should take a whole year to determine. If something goes wrong at this stage, it would not be the ideal time for the process to fail, but better now than after some years of marriage.
Finally, the couple is ready to tie the knot and spend their lives together.
Love, Passion, & Partnership
Our modern conception of love, at least as it is promoted in popular culture, is essentially sexual attraction with some conversation. The less said of Hollywood’s conception the better. Traditionally speaking, marriages have historically been about more than just two people who love each other: they involved family alliances, business contracts, and clan interrelationships. While no one was forced to marry against their will, family pressures would drive marriages that were not always affectionate. Thankfully, we have the choice to marry whom we please as individuals these days, without the kind of complex family relationships that had to be considered in the past.
While this freedom is a wonderful blessing, as with all things, it comes with responsibilities. Marrying someone because they satisfy your physical desires is not necessarily a healthy choice. A marriage does not have to possess the burning passion we are told by popular culture should exist in order to be successful either. For some couples, passion develops later, and for most it waxes and wanes throughout the marriage. Marriage is a great deal of team work, struggle, involves good times and bad, and can be difficult at times. It will also be fun and pleasurable beyond any imagination. It is difficult to describe the happiness of a long partnership with someone who has joined their life with yours.
A marriage should be, first and foremost, a friendship. Marry someone who is your best friend and you will always be content. It is easier to add romance to a friendship than friendship to a romance. Being friends is far more important than being passionate. When there are young children around and career(s) are launching off of the ground, life is a struggle and it can be overwhelming. In time children grow older, careers more successful and things become easier, the partners will find life more pleasant. Do not expect an easy go of it. If life were easy it would hardly be worth living. Nothing is more fun and exciting, however, than a loving friendship that lasts a lifetime.