What, Us Not Marry?

What, Us Not Marry? - HBI eZine 614 - Vol 6, Issue 1

Marriage reminds us on an ongoing basis that living only for oneself is severely limiting.

by Beth Kissileff

I read Kate Bolick’s cover story, "What, Me Marry?" in the November issue of The Atlantic magazine. In this article, Bolick looks at whether it is time to "acknowledge the end of ‘traditional’ marriage as society’s highest ideal." Bolick, a single woman in her late 30s, laments that today’s available men all seem to be "deadbeats or players." It’s no wonder, she feels, that women would lose interest in traditional marriage, especially in this economy.

I think her argument needs to be framed a bit differently when it comes to the value of marriage for Jewish people. The saddest aspect of the article to me was a distinct lack of purposefulness: Bolick does not see that being in a long-term committed marriage can enhance her life, or that having children is anything other than a step that must be taken while a woman is physically capable of doing so. It seems she has chosen not to marry because she hasn’t found a suitable partner and, more importantly, because marriage itself is not of enough value to her to make the attempt to locate a partner a more central part of her life.

As Jews, we need to be aware of what our values are and try to make life choices that are in as much accordance with those values as possible. For Jews, marriage is for the purpose of finding an ezer kinegdo, a "helpmeet to match," "suitable helper," or "helpful counterpart" (Tamara Eskenazi in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary). There is nothing subordinate in this relationship; God, too, is called a "helper." Marriage exists to provide a partner on the journey through life, someone who will be at your side through the big and small moments, someone who is reliable and can be depended upon.

Also, a spouse provides another window through which to see the world, a fresh set of eyes and ideas, enlarging our own small view from our limited perspective. Speaking from experience, I’ve been exposed to countless movies and a variety of music and comedy records I’d never have found on my own. Looking at the bigger picture, marriage has provided me with a partner for intellectual and philosophical discussions and has allowed me to share my views on life with someone whose questions help me sharpen my own. Now that we have three children, I am pleased to be creating a home environment, alongside him, that instills our traditions of Shabbat and Jewish holidays, as well as our Jewish values.

I feel fortunate that I met and married my spouse in my early 20s and that we’ve had opportunities to travel, enjoy cultural experiences, and learn new things together. I can’t imagine relying entirely on my own desires to decide what I’ll do in my life; having a spouse to share worries and joys with is such a satisfying part of my life. This does not mean I lack autonomy or don’t make decisions myself, but rather that I am not doing things only for myself. As Jews, we are aware of the need for balance. In the immortal words of Pirkei Avot, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?" Marriage reminds us, on an ongoing basis, that living only for oneself limits a person in terms of perspective and being aware of others’ needs. I feel sorrow that Kate Bolick is unaware of any of these values of marriage.

For Jews, life has a purpose: to better the world and ourselves by doing mitzvot, to bring more light into the world. Raising children is not merely a physical act to be undertaken before an expiration date; it is an opportunity to create people with a whole set of memories, attitudes, and ideas, in large part from their parents. Again, it is a chance to create something larger than oneself, a way of gaining a new vantage point on life. Here’s something else that could change the attitude of what Bolick calls "players and deadbeats": The mitzvah of being fruitful and multiplying (which stems from verses in Genesis 1: 28, 9:1, 7 and 35:11) is actually not incumbent on women but on men. According to the Mishnah in tractate Yevamot 65b, "Men are commanded with regard to procreation, but women are not." No woman is obligated to engage in the potentially life-threatening act of birthing children, but can only do it by choice. Men must enlist women to enable them to perform the mitzvah. If more men valued marriage as a significant part of their lives and religious mission, they would be far less likely to treat their relationships with women so casually and even disrespectfully.

Additionally, raising children should be about more than fulfilling one’s own desire for a child. The trend of women choosing to have children without a partner—an other to give assistance physically and emotionally—is one that creates a difficult situation for a parent. If one is not able to be in a long-term relationship with another adult, I’m not sure how she expects to be in a long-term, non-mutual relationship with a child. Learning to consider the values and needs of a partner is, in my mind, a necessary prelude to providing long-term care and nurturing for a child. Though there are many fine single parents by choice out there, it is much easier to begin the journey into parenting with a marriage or long-term relationship.

Because there are forces in modern America enabling men to feel they don’t need to marry, but rather can remain "players" or "deadbeats" as long as they wish, does not mean Jews should devalue partnership (and I would extend the idea of partnership beyond heterosexual couples). The importance of marriage is to extend the self, to be aware of your own limits, and to learn to see the world through the eyes of another. That should not be set aside because of a trend. Not everyone needs to marry or have kids; each of us is entitled to make individual choices. However, as Jews we can posit our ideals. For Jews, the ideal model, which may not always be able to be achieved, is marriage. If we spend more time thinking about the value in marriage, perhaps that will prompt both men and women to wish to be in marriages, whatever the prevailing American trend.

About the Author

Beth KissileffBeth Kissileff
Beth Kissileff is the editor of a forthcoming anthology of academic writing on Genesis (Continuum Books, 2013) and is at work on a novel and a scholarly book of essays on the Bible. She has taught Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College, and Mount Holyoke College, as well as for the Florence Melton Adult Mini School in three states. She has been married for 21 years.

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