No one’s will power is impervious to a well-placed piece of chocolate cake. But never underestimate the power of a nudge to lead you away from the cake, and toward Torah.
On a recent fall day, I woke up ready to spend the day fishing with a friend. The air was mild, a cool calming autumn breeze wafted through the trees, and the sky was a crisp blue with the accent of a marshmallow cloud here and there. I have little experience fishing in the waters of the East End, but this seemed like an ideal day for fishing. As we pulled up to the dock and began to unload our poles, the boat captain greeted us with an apprehensive face. “Before we go out,” he said, “I want to show you something.” He took us to a nearby beach, and pointed out to the distance. “There are sustained 20 mph winds out there,” he began, “and it’s only going to get worse.” He talked more about how the tides made the conditions even treacherous; all things that were a little bit beyond my level of nautical comprehension. What had seemed like a nice day, was actually a dangerous day to go out.
The captain’s methodical thinking reminded me of a concise piece of rabbinic wisdom from the proverbial book Pirke Avot (The Lessons of the Fathers). הֱווּ מְתוּנִים בַּדִּין, be deliberate in judgement. Far too often we invest a great deal of faith in our gut feelings and our instincts. And while sometimes we are correct, we more often than not fail to think through decisions with the proper amount of deliberation and patience. Trusting our amateur instinct about fishing would have proved dangerous that day; we needed a calculated and data-driven judgement about the conditions on the water. So too, our tradition teaches, should we judge others and the world around us with careful and measured consideration.
Two thousand years after Pirke Avot was written, the Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahanaman echoed some of the Jewish wisdom of his ancestors in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahanaman points out that each of us process the problems and situations around us with two kids of judgement. The first, is the intuitive fast-thinking response that we tend to favor. And the second, a slower, more deliberate and effortful form of thinking. Kahanaman through this book demonstrates how we invest too much faith in fast thinking, and neglect slow and deliberate thinking. We do so with weighty consequences. The simple rabbinic dictum summarizes Kahanman’s 500 plus page masterpiece, הֱווּ מְתוּנִים בַּדִּין be deliberate in judgement (It’s still worth the read). There is a time and place for fast thinking, but wisdom is born from slow intentional thought and judgement.
Malcom Gladwell, on the other-hand, has suggested in his book Blink that we don’t completely disregard fast thinking. He notes that:
there are moments, particularly in times of stress, when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world. The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.
One compelling example that Gladwell relates a story of a group of fireman from Cleaveland who entered a one story house to combat a fire in the kitchen. After charging in with their hoses blasting, the flames wouldn’t abate. They doused the fire with more water, but still the flames persisted. Without knowing why, the lieutenant had a feeling that something was wrong, and ordered everyone out of the house. As they were leaving, the floor collapsed under them. The fire had been coming from the basement. This judgement wasn’t deliberate, rather it came from his instinct which told him that something was wrong. There may be times when fast thinking is not just beneficial, but our only option. There was no time for the lieutenant to stop, think, and solve the mystery of why the fire in the kitchen refused to abate. Gladwell would ask us to reconsider our fast judgement, but Kahanaman would rebut that while fast thinking is sometimes on the money, more often than not we are over-confident in our ability to intuit. If time is a luxury that we do have, utilize it to navigate the complexities of life.
In his new book “How to Think,” Alan Jacobs offers a simple, yet useful suggestion. “Give it 5 minutes.” Our minds are stimulated with certain triggers that bias our judgement of people and the things that they say. Jacobs offers that if someone is saying something that you don’t agree with, give five minutes of your attention before passing judgement. Once upon a time during a teaching of mine, I referred to God with the gender pronoun “Him.” Normally I try my best to refrain from using a pronoun that portrays God with a gender, but it’s hard to navigate this with the biases of English rhetoric. A woman approached me after the class and told me: “I stopped listening to you as soon as you referred to God as a Him” She missed everything that I had to say because she focused in on a word that I used unintentionally. How often are we triggered by words and ideas that cause us to pass judgement and stop listening?
Pirke Avot offers more insight on how we might exercise deliberate judgement. The great Rabbi Hillel follows up noting that וְאַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ, don’t judge another person until you have come to his place, or perhaps more colloquially, don’t judge someone else until you’ve stood in their shoes. Take the time to have empathy, Hillel demands of us. The one way that we can properly judge others is to take the time to balance our judgement with an empathetic compassion. This would take at least five minutes. The rabbis offer the parable of a thin glass. If you put hot water (judgement) in it, then it will expand and break. If you put cold water (compassion) in it, then it will contract and shatter. If the world is filled simply with compassion, then no one would be concerned with the consequences of their actions our society would be lawless. If It’s filled only with unadulterated judgement, then it would shatter from the harshness of justice. When our judgement is tempered with deliberate compassion, we not only improve communal and social relations, but we find our exercise better judgement.
Pirke Avot’s wisdom about judgement isn’t framed with a nice sounding aphorism that would cause us to make a snap judgement about its value. Would “be deliberate in judgement” have been better phrased as “haste makes waste (Proverbs 21:5),” “look before you leap,” or “don’t judge a book by its cover?” Perhaps, but the mundane and succinct phrasing forces us to think about why a sage would leave as his only legacy three simple words. We are meant to think about them for at least five minutes, and we should reflect on how we ought to take extra time to exercise methodical, thoughtful, and deliberate judgement.
Nothing honors the holiday of Simchat Torah more than simply understanding that the Torah ends with an ellipsis. On Simchat Torah, we are reminded that the Torah never really concludes, it only begins anew. Instead of closure, the final words offer us a segue into beginning the never ending story of Torah.
At my very first Yom Kippur service as the rabbi of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, I lost control. . . .
"Inside every man there is a struggle between good an evil that cannot be resolved," exclaims Homer Simpson. This wisdom echoes rabbinic discussions in the Talmud about the יצר טוב (yetzer tov), our good inclination, and the יצר הרע (yetzer hara), our evil inclination. The Jewish tradition teaches us that God imbued humankind with a healthy balance of good and evil. Each proclivity cannot exist without the counterbalance of the other. While we might gravitate to work towards a world bereft of evil inclinations, the rabbis advise us otherwise:
אלולי יצר הרע לא בנה אדם בית ולא נשא אשה ולא הוליד בנים", were it not for the evil inclination, a person would not build houses, would not marry, and would not bear children (Bereshit Rabbah 9:7).
A world without the yetzer hara's manifestations of competition, jealously, greed, sexuality, and anger also lacks the fundamental components of society: business, government, and procreation. Balance is the ideal, but we should never underestimate the power of the yetzer hara. Despite Homer Simpson's wise words about the coexistence of good and evil, he visualizes his evil inclination (Evil Homer) dancing over the tombstone of his yetzer tov (Good Homer), and shaking maracas singing: "I am Evil Homer, I am Evil Homer." The yetzer hara exists within all of us, and sometimes it flares up to tempt us into sinful action.
No one is immune from the yetzer hara, not even the most righteous of rabbinic sages in the Talmud. In fact, the rabbis teach that the most prominent figures in society are the most susceptible. "כל הגדול מחבירו יצרו גדול הימנו, the greater the person, the greater the evil inclination (B. Sukkot 52a)." This principle emerges most prevalently in relation to sexual sin. In tractate Kiddushin, the rabbis relate a series of stories about famous rabbis whose evil inclinations for sexual lust nearly or actually overpower their yetzer tov (B. Kiddushin 81a-b). Each tale offers a moral about understanding the yetzer hara within us.
- Rav Amram the Pious ascends a ladder* to proposition a group of beautiful women. Realizing he is about to give in to his temptation, he screams out "fire in the house of Amram!" By openly declaring his temptation, he is able to subdue his inclination, and create a group to support him in tempering his burning fire of lust.
- Rabbi Akiva has a tendency to mock sinners (people who give into their yetzer hara), so Satan decides to test him. Satan transforms himself into a beautiful woman atop a palm tree* to lure Akiva. As Akiva begins to climb the tree, Satan releases him from his grip. The story teaches us not to belittle the power of the yetzer hara, for no one is immune from it.
- Chiyah Bar Ashi** would pray for God to save him from hissexual yetzer hara. His wife overhears his prayer. Although a husband is required to provide for his wife sexually every week, the text tells us that he had not done so in a number of years. Chiyah Bar Ashi's wife decides to dress up like the town's famous prostitute Charuta.*** In seducing her husband, she deceives him into believing that he committed adultery; she also teaches an important lesson. Complete repression of the yetzer hara leads to its explosive and sinful manifestation.
We cannot escape the yetzer hara, nor should we try. God implanted within us both good and evil for a practical purpose. Life should be lived in a healthy balance of good and evil. Rav Amram (the man on fire) teaches later in the Talmud that no single day can pass without a person considering sinful thought (B. Baba Batra 164b). The important thing is to act in ways that favor our yetzer tov, while letting our yetzer hara remain only as an unfulfilled propensity.
*The image of a ladder and the image of a palm tree appear to be sexual euphemisms for arousal.
**The name used here puns on the yetzer hara being both animalistic and a burning fire. חיה–animal. אש– fire.
*** The name חרותה, is another play on the idea of the yetzer hara being like fire. An English translation of this name might be "Hottie"
What measures of beauty do Jewish men value when choosing a prospective wife? Some might say that looks matter a great deal. Others might follow the conventional proverbial wisdom that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," or that "true beauty is on the inside!" On Seinfeld, George Costanza's girlfriend Paula, once commented that: "looks aren't important to me." She goes on to tell George that: "You can wear sweatpants. You could drape yourself in velvet, for all I care!" Keeping in mind that beauty is a subjective measure, I would imagine that few men would dismiss physical beauty altogether.
In the rabbinic world of the Mishnah and the Talmud, the rabbis tend to place particular emphasis on the role of physical appearance. They exclusively limited beauty to the external body. It is taught in the Talmud that: "שלשה מרחיבין דעתו של אדם, אלו הן: דירה נאה, three things comfort a man, and they are: a beautiful abode, a beutiful bride, and beautiful vessels (B. Berachot 57b)." A beautiful wife, in this case, appears as an extension of a man's house.1 He appreciates her beauty in the same way that he values the the aesthetic appeal of his property. Rabbi Chiya, a notoriously chauvinistic amora, argues that women are nothing more than show pieces and baby makers.
אין אשה אלא ליופי, אין אשה אלא לבנים . . . אין אשה אלא לתכשיטי אשה . . . . הרוצה שיעדן את אשתו ילבישנה כלי פשתן
A wife is only for beauty, a wife is only to make children . . . and a wife is only for feminine adornments. He who wants to brighten his wife's countenance should clothe her in linen garments (B. Ketubot 59b).
In reading these statements centered on physical attractiveness, we might imagine that husbands chose their wives based almost solely on looks. Defective qualities in a woman included: moles, scars, and irregularities in a woman's breasts (B. Ketubot 75 a-b).2 A woman's character serves little purpose under this mindset.
When the rabbis detailed their standards for beauty, marriages were arranged by the parents of each party. Men and women who had been fixed up scarcely knew their chosen partner, let alone had the opportunity to converse and get to know the other's inner qualities. This system necessitated the judgement and consideration of a potential mate based on superficial qualities. For men, a mole mattered more than a kind heart because of the limited opportunity to interact with prospective brides.The culture of arranged marriages set the stage for a society that appreciated superficial and sometimes trivial attributes.
Notwithstanding the seemingly antiquated rabbinic perception of beauty, one key story from the Mishnah might offer the modern Jew insight on this subject. In tractate Nedarim there is case of a man who vowed not to marry his niece because she was ugly. The story highlights that Rabbi Ishmael brought the girl into his house, and helped uncover her beauty so that the man would agree to marry her. After Ishmael asks the man whether he really vowed that he would not marry the girl, the man responds "no!" The story continues that:
בְּאוֹתָה שָׁעָה בָּכָה רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל וְאָמַר, בְּנוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל נָאוֹת הֵן אֶלָא שֶׁהָעֲנִיוּת מְנַוָולְתָן.
At the very same hour, Rabbi Ishmael cried out and said that "all the daughters of Israel are beautiful! It's only that poverty can make them look ugly [on the outside] (Nedarim 9:10).
Rabbi Ishmael teaches us that all Jewish women possess attributes of beauty. These traits may or may not be outward because cultural destitution obscures them. Because Ishmael helped reveal the beauty of Jewish women in the world, we learn that:
וּכְשֶׁמֵּת רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל הָיוּ בְּנוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל נוֹשְׂאוֹת קִינָה וְאוֹמְרוֹת, בְּנוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל בְכֶינָה.
When Rabbi Ishamel died, the daughters of Israel raised a lament and said: "The daughters of Israel weep for Rabbi Iishmael."
The honor due to Ishmael need not only come from the women of Israel. We might see Ishmael's lesson applied for all of humanity. God created all men and women in the image of God. Every individual is beautiful! While we often fail to see beyond the divides and exteriors that mask God's gifts to us, it is up to each person to help uncover the beauty that hides beneath the surface. In searching for love in the world, we might find beauty on someone's outside, but we should never forget to look deeper.
In rabbinic literature, a man's wife is, in fact, called "ביתו," his house. We learn in Yoma 1:1 that: "בֵּיתוֹ, זוֹ אִשְׁתּוֹ, when 'his house' is referenced, it refers to his wife."
Because men generally consider large breasts a mark of attraction, the Gemara asks the question: "ומי איכא כי האי גוונא, can such a thing really exist?" The rabbis answer "yes," and present the following hyperbole to demonstrate how such a condition might appear unattractive: "דאמר רבה בר בר חנה: אני ראיתי ערביא אחת, שהפשילה דדיה לאחוריה והניקה את בנה Rabbah bar bar Chanah reported that: I once saw an Arabian woman who slung her breasts behind her and nursed her son (Ketubot 75a)."
More than a millennium has passed since the act of vowing engendered significant religious obligations and consequences in the Jewish world. As early as the seventh century, Rav Yehudai Gaon, one of the prolific rabbinical scholars of the time, highlights the lapsed trend of vowing by declaring: "we do not study Nedarim [the talmudic tractate that deals with vows], nor do we know how to rule strictly or leniently in this area." In modern lingo, a vow has become a way to express emotions of anger, exasperation, annoyance, and aggravation, while often lacking sincerity. "I swear to God, if the Yankees don't win this game, I'm going to kill myself!" On the other hand, some people will only make a vow––especially in God's name––if they really mean it, or not make any declaration at all. When we look back at the tradition of making a neder (a vow) within the Hebrew Bible and within rabbinical literature, we find that vowing was a not only a common Jewish practice, but that Jews did it with a stringent binding force and severe legal consequence.
In addition to the dedication of an entire tractate in the Mishnah and the Talmud called נדרים on the legal implications of making vows, we find circumstances in other sections of the Talmud that also deal with making a neder. Parts oftractate Ketubot deal with vows that a husband might make against his wife. In these cases, a husband makes a neder prohibiting his wife from pleasures, property, intercourse, and rights in which she is granted in her ketubah (marriage contract). Such cases deal with a husband who abuses his wife through spitefully vowing away her pleasures and her legal rights. Because of this abuse, the rabbis demand that such marriages be dissolved unless the neder can somehow be annulled. The Mishnah supposes the following the scenarios:
הַמַּדִּיר אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ מִלֵּהָנוֹת לוֹ, עַד שְׁלֹשִׁים יוֹם, יַעֲמִיד פַּרְנָס. יָתֵר מִכֵּן, יוֹצִיא וְיִתֵּן כְּתֻבָּה
If one pronounces a vow prohibiting his wife to derive benefit from him for up to thirty days, he must set up a steward to support her. If it is more than thirty days, he must divorce her and pay her ketubah (Ketubot 7:1). 1
הַמַּדִּיר אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ שֶׁלֹּא תִטְעוֹם אֶחָד מִכָּל הַפֵּרוֹת, יוֹצִיא וְיִתֵּן כְּתֻבָּה
If a husband pronounces a vow on his wife to the effect that she should not taste any type of fruit, he must divorce her and pay the value of the ketubah (Ketubot 7:2). 2
הַמַּדִּיר אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ שֶׁלֹּא תִתְקַשֵּׁט בְּאֶחָד מִכָּל הַמִּינִין, יוֹצִיא וְיִתֵּן כְּתֻבָּה
If one pronounces a vow on his wife that she should not adorn herself with jewelry or perfume, he must divorce her and pay the value of her ketubah (Ketubot 7:3).
הַמַּדִּיר אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ שֶׁלֹּא תֵלֵךְ לְבֵית אָבִיהָ, בִּזְמַן שֶׁהוּא עִמָּהּ בָּעִיר, חֹדֶשׁ אֶחָד יְקַיֵּם. שְׁנַיִם, יוֹצִיא וְיִתֵּן כְּתֻבָּה. וּבִזְמַן שֶׁהוּא בְּעִיר אַחֶרֶת, רֶגֶל אֶחָד יְקַיֵּם. שְׁלֹשָׁה, יוֹצִיא וְיִתֵּן כְּתֻבָּה
If one pronounces a vow prohibiting his wife to go to her father's house when they are in in the same city, the vow is acceptable if made for up to one month. If it is made for two months, then he divorces her and pays the value stated in the ketubah.
If the father is in a different city, then a vow for the term of up to one festival is acceptable, but if the duration of the vow is for three festivals or more, then he must divorce her and pay the value of the Ketubah (Ketubot 7:4). 3
הַמַּדִּיר אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ שֶׁלֹּא תֵלֵךְ לְבֵית הָאֵבֶל אוֹ לְבֵית הַמִּשְׁתֶּה, יוֹצִיא וְיִתֵּן כְּתֻבָּה, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁנּוֹעֵל בְּפָנֶיהָ
If one pronounces a vow prohibiting his wife to go to the house of mourning or to the house of feasting (a wedding), then he should divorce her [immediately] and pay the value of the ketubah. This is because by doing so, he locks the door in front of her [so to speak] (Ketubot 7:5).
הַמַּדִּיר אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ מִתַּשְׁמִישׁ הַמִּטָּה בֵּית שַׁמַּאי אוֹמְרִים, שְׁתֵּי שַׁבָּתוֹת. בֵּית הִלֵּל אוֹמְרִים, שַׁבָּת אֶחָת
If one pronounces a vow prohibiting his wife from conjugal relations with him, the house of Shamai says that if the term of the vow was up to two weeks, he need not divorce her. The house of Hillel says that if the term was no longer than one week, then he need not divorce her (Ketubot 5:6).
These discussions on abusive vowing might not directly translate to the modern world in which vowing holds little bearing. Notwithstanding, we can draw out key values from the texts that offer us sound advice for fostering healthy marriages. It might seem difficult to abide by the legal code set out in tractate Ketubot, but we can abide by the spirit of the law.
Spousal abuse comes in many forms. While we are most apt to consider physical battery as a determining qualifier, abuse can be emotional and verbal. Abuse also need not be aggressive, but can manifest in passive aggressive forms. Today, abusing a loved one through vows may be a difficult concept to grasp. Jewish men no longer make prohibitory vows like the ones we see in the Mishnah. But we do find similar types of abuse in our time; and it is not just the husband who abuses his spouse. When an individual spitefully deprives his or her spouse of any type of physical, material, social, or familial pleasure, divorce may certainly be warranted. Love is about fostering these pleasures with each other, and not about depriving one another from them.
To understand the rabbinic legacy with which these texts leave us, we need only reword the rabbinic vows to become the promises that we make to each other. Vowing can enrich our covenantal relationships with each other and with God when we vow with intentionality and with love. No longer should we see vows in the light of prohibition or dedication, but rather with commitment to our partners. Reimagining the Mishnah for the modern Jew, our tradition might read:
When couples vow to enrich each others lives with the benefits of love; when they vow to commit to healthy intimacy with each other; when they vow to enjoy food together; when they vow to adorn each other with gifts; when they vow to love and support each other's families; when they vow to celebrate the joys in the lives of their friends and families together; and when they vow to join together to support their communities in times of mourning; then with the blessing of the the One who ordains love in the world, their marriage will know love, companionship, happiness, and tranquility.
1. The Mishnah goes onto cite the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda that: "ר' יהודה אומר: בישראל, יום אחד יקיים, שנים יוציא ויתן כתובה, ובכהן, שנים יקיים, שלשה יוציא ויתן כתובה. In the case of a regular Jew, if the duration of the vow was for only one day then he should keep her as his wife, but if it was for two days or more he must divorce her and pay the value of her ketubah. For a Kohen, if the term of the vow was for two days he should keep her, but if it was for three, then he must divorce her and pay the value of her ketubah
2. The Mishnah continues by citing the opinion of Rabbi Yossi that:"בעניות שלא נתן קצבה, ובעשירות שלשים יום. In the case of a poor women, he must divorce his wife only if he did not give a certain time limit for the duration of the vow; whereas in regard to wealthy women, the maximum term is thirty days." This is because a wealthy woman would be accustomed to adornment, and the vow would simply be to deprive her something she is used to. For a wife who is rich, this vow would be equivalent to a vow in which a husband makes in the first part of the Mishnah to prohibit her from deriving benefit from him. But if the couple is poor, then effect of the husband vow is different because the husband would not be able to afford adornment at all. In the case of a poor couple, the effect of the husband's vow would be similar to the case of tasting any type fruit in the second part of the Mishnah. That is to say that he is vowing to deny her a simple pleasure, an act of spousal cruelty.
3. The Mishnah further speculates that "טוען משום דבר אחר רשאי, if the husband claims that he pronounced the vow because of something else, then he is permitted to make this vow without the consequence of being forced to divorce her." The Gemara clarifies that the husband would forbid her to go to the house of mourning and feasting because of a legitimate claim that there are בני אדם פרוצין שמצויין שם, promiscuous men found there.
מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי
a person is obligated to drink on Purim until he can no longer distinguish between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai (B. Meggilah 7b).
Later Jewish legal authorities such as the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch codified this tradition as halacha, binding Jewish law! Around the world Jews treat Purim like college students treat Mardi Gras, and like many Irish-Americans treat St. Patricks day.
Before we go running to the nearest liquor store or local bar, I want to point out a parallel teaching within the Talmud that directly follows the drinking mandate:
רבה ורבי זירא עבדו סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי, איבסום, קם רבה שחטיה לרבי זירא. למחר בעי רחמי ואחייה. לשנה אמר ליה: ניתי מר ונעביד סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי! אמר ליה: לא בכל שעתא ושעתא מתרחיש ניסא
Rabba and Rabbi Zeira made the Purim feast one with the other. They became intoxicated. Rabba stood up and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. On the next day, [Rabbah] prayed for mercy, and brought [Rabbi Zeira] to life. The next year, [Rabbah] said to [Rabbi Zeira]: May my master come and may we make the Purim feast one with the other! [Rabbi Zeira] said to [Rabbah], It is not on each and every occasion that a miracle will happen (B. Meggilah 7b).
While the story ends with Rav Zeirah successfully reviving Rabbah through prayer, we see here a demonstration of how drunkenness leads to inappropriate and often violent behavior. The fact that this story follows a call for festive drunkenness inclines us to think twice about drinking excessively on Purim.
Like most Jewish holidays, we sanctify the time on Purim with wine. But how much wine is appropriate? The Rambam (Rabbi Moses Maimonides) proposes a very creative suggestion to harmonize the directive of excessive drinking with the the cautionary tale against drunkenness. He tells us that on Purim we should only drink to the extent that alcohol will enable us to fall asleep. When a person sleeps, he surely cannot tell the difference between the blessed Mordecai and the cursed Haman. In wishing everyone a Happy Purim, let's remember to celebrate responsibly.
The bonds that hold relationships and marriages together may seem strong, but sometimes they are more fragile than we are willing to admit. In our society couples break up for a variety of well-founded reasons. For example:
- people fall out of love
- partners realize they are physically incompatible
- one's mental illness might drive the other away
- an individual might be physically abusive to his or her spouse
- one's addiction to drugs or alcohol might push away a partner
Yet trivial things also cause many relationships to end. We often let minor traits, habits, and circumstances put a wedge between ourselves and our mates. Nothing demonstrates the nature of this culture better than Jerry Seinfeld, who parts ways from his girlfriends for an array of ridiculous reasons:
- his girlfriend eats one pea at a time
- his friend George accidentally sees his girlfriend naked
- his girlfriend likes a cotton dockers commercial
- his parents like his girlfriend
- his girlfriend has "man-hands"
- his girlfriend is a "sentence-finisher"
Not surprisingly, Jerry never seems to be able to settle down and find the right woman. In the only instance where he finds a girl with whom he thinks he can spend the rest of his life, he breaks up with her because she is "too much like him!" If we follow Jerry's example of always looking for the better deal, we are likely to end up alone. On the other hand, if we fail to cut the ties of a caustic relationship, we might become wed to misery.
The Talmudin Gittin 90a-b offers some Jewish wisdom in a debate about what grounds warrant a man to divorce his wife. Hillel and Shamai frame this debate based on the following verse from Torah:
כִּי-יִקַּח אִישׁ אִשָּׁה, וּבְעָלָהּ; וְהָיָה אִם-לֹא תִמְצָא-חֵן בְּעֵינָיו, כִּי-מָצָא בָהּ עֶרְוַת דָּבָר--וְכָתַב לָהּ סֵפֶר כְּרִיתֻת וְנָתַן בְּיָדָהּ
If a man takes a wife, and he eventually no longer finds her pleasing because of an adulterous matter, he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it into her hand (Deuteronomy 24:1)
The school of Shamai argues for a literal interpretation of the text, and teaches that a man can only divorce his wife on account of an adulterous matter. The school of Hillel, on the other hand, offers a more creative and interpretive reading of the text. Hillel plays on the seemingly superfluous word in the Torah "matter (דָּבָר)." He argues that the text is ambiguous so as to indicate that a man can divorce his wife either on account of adultery (עֶרְוַה), or simply because of any matter at all (דָּבָר). Hillel goes as far as saying that a man can divorce his wife for "burning or over-salting the food that she cooks for him (אפילו הקדיחה תבשילו)!" Seinfeld would appear to be a disciple of Hillel in regard to permissible reasons for ending relationships.
The discussion in the Gemara ends by relating a parallel teaching intended to shape this whole debate. Rav Yochanan teaches that "שנאוי המשלח, the one who sends away his wife without a compelling reason is despised by God!" This opinion appears as somewhat of a middle ground between Shamai and Hillel. There will be reasons other than adulterous matters (ערוות דבר) that marriages should end, but the grounds for divorce should not be frivolous (like a wife who burns her husbands cooking).
While Hillel and Shamai refer specifically to cases of matrimonial divorce, we might consider this lesson as a model for all romantic relationships. When we commit ourselves to another person, we invest our trust, our emotions, and our physical selves. Such a covenant leaves both parties emotionally and spiritually vulnerable. When we find it necessary to break up with our partners, let us not forget to do so with a heightened sensitivity to the feelings of our significant others. Rav Elezar teaches us at the end of this section that"כל מגרש אשתו רשונה אפילו מזבח מורד עליו דמעות, when a man divorces his wife, he causes the Temple altar to be covered in God's tears." The spark of God exists within every friendship and relationship. When we dissolve the bonds that tie two people together, we extinguish that spark. In endingrelationships, we should do so with compassion, and not out of spite and levity.
Partners in a marriage often share many activities in common. Mutual interests bring individuals together and forge the bonds of healthy and sustainable relationships. Couples who like outdoor activities grow closer by taking walks, cycling, going to the beach, etc. Both my wife and I love good food, and we find cooking and fine diningt help strengthen our marriage. Yet couples need not do everything together, and in fact, it seems unhealthy to do so. Each partner has his or her own individual interests and pleasures which are often gender influenced. When one partner suppresses the other's personal passions, or even simple pleasures, the marriage will certainly suffer.
The Talmud discusses several cases in which a husband vows to deprive his wife of things and activities that she might enjoy and feel compelled to do. The Mishnah mandates an eventual divorce in each of these cases:
המדיר את אשתו:
If one pronounces a vow that:
שלא תטעום אחד מכל הפירות
his wife should not taste any kind of fruit
שלא תתקשט באחד מכל המינין
his wife should not adorn herself with any kind of perfume (or jewelry)
(B. Ketubot 70a)
שלא תלך לבית האבל או לבית המשתה
his wife should not go to the house of feasting (a wedding) or the house of mourning (to comfort mourners)
(B. Ketubot 71b)
In each of these cases, the husband must יוציא ויתן כתובה, divorce her and pay the sum of money he promised in the ketubah. In other words, such deprivation is considered so abusive that the rabbis instruct that the marriage needs to be dissolved. While the Talmud (written circa 500 CE) could not have imagined a case where the wife would have the power to deny similar pleasures to her husband, we should understand the text to imply a reciprocal mandate for modern times. Just as a husband needs to allow his wife certain pleasures, so too should a wife allow a husband time to engage in activities that nurture his sense of individuality.
The love of two partners within a relationship hinges on their trust for one another, and support for each other's passions. The Gemara explains that a husband might prevent his wife from going to a wedding because it might be a place where we would find בני אדם פרוצין, promiscuous people. Such a vow against a wife exudes jealously and a lack of trust. We should perceive such a marriage as devoid of love, and therefore in need of divorce. When marriages and relationships are founded on mutual trust, we need not worry about what each individual does in their free time, and we need not be concerned about a wife who adorns herself in perfume (or by extension a man who puts on cologne.)
Aristotle famously commented that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." We might translate this to mean that a couple in unison is better than when the individuals who comprise it are single. Yet we should remember that the vitality of a relationship depends on the individuality of each partner. In nurturing our sense of self in a relationship, we strengthen the bonds we have with our partners.
נברא אדם יחידי, ללמדך שכל המאבד נפש אחד מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו איבד עולם מלא, וכל המקיים נפש אחד מעלה הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם מלא
Man (Adam) was created singly in order to teach that whoever destroys a human life, scripture teaches that it is as if he destroys an entire world, and whoever saves a human life, scripture teaches that it is as if he saves an entire world! (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37b)
Generations of Jews have quoted this talmudic teaching to emphasize the value that our tradition places on each human life. The Talmud explains that just like Adam, the father of humanity, every individual possesses the potential to give life to an endless string of generations. The teaching also continues by noting that because we all come from the same ancestor (Adam), no individual ––Jew, Muslim, Christian, etc.––should ever be able to claim that his or her life is worth more than that of another.
I keep this teaching close to my heart to remember that even in times when the Jewish people are threatened at home or abroad in Israel, every individual life––Jew and non-Jew–– matters. The current escalation of violence between Israel and Hamas causes me a great deal of heartache because of the enormity of destruction to human lives. Regardless of who started it, who caused more damage to the other, or who is in the right, each human life lost in the conflict pains me.
I say this while simultaneously believing that Israel must defend herself when her civilians and her security are threatened. Israel holds a special place in my heart and soul. It is the land of our people, the land of our heritage, and the land that protects the safety and continuity of the Jewish people; yet support for Israel and our universalist value for human life are not mutually exclusive ideas!
In recent days I have been reading many alarming comments from my friends on Facebook. When the existence of the Jewish people is threatened, many Jews tend to devalue the lives of the threatening entity. I read one comment that heartlessly declared in Hebrew: "the time has come to burn Gaza to the ground!" This phenomenon of devaluing human life during times of danger has occurred throughout our history, even to the point of amending the fundamental talmudic dictum above. At some point in Eastern European History, a scribe who reproduced the Talmud shifted the emphasis upon all human life to: "whoever destroys the life of a Jew (נפש אחת מישראל) scripture teaches that it is as if he destroys an entire world, and whoever saves a Jewish life, scripture teaches that it is as if he saves an entire world!"* Many Talmud manuscripts still carry this insular message.
My support goes out to Israel, but my prayers go out to all those afflicted by the horrors of this conflict between Israel and Hamas. In recognizing the value of every human life, I hope that you all will join me in wishing for a speedy end to this current conflict. May it be God's will that Israel and her neighbors will find a peaceful way to coexist.
*The earliest manuscripts of this text from Italy, the Kaufmann and the Parma Di-Rossi manuscripts of the Mishna, preserve the universalist reading of the text. The later Vilna edition of the Talmud (from which most major current editions derive their text) uses the particularist reading.
Why was the Garden of Eden called Paradise? Because neither Adam nor Eve had in-laws!
Growing up watching sitcoms, I observed that the biggest nemesis to a sitcom spouse is his or her mother in-law. These yentas always find ways to crawl under the skin of their sons and daughters in-law, criticizing cooking, making off-color comments, and suggesting that they are not quite good enough to be in the family. The main take away from this culture: stay as far away as possible from your in-laws' house! The Talmud advises otherwise!
In chapter five of Masechet Ketubot, the topics focus on vows that a husband might make concerning his wife; in Ketubot 71b, the Mishnah describes the scenario of המדיר את אשתו שלא תלך לבית אביה... A husband who vows that[he and] his wife will not go visit his in-laws
The Mishnah condemns any such statement, and encourages a husband to permit his wife to visit her parents at least once a month if they live in the same city. And if they reside in different cities, at least on one of the three annual festivals (Shavuot, Sukkot, and Passover).
The legal discussion seems to be driven by the age-old aversion of husbands to see their in-laws. Despite a husband's protest, the Jewish tradition here emphasizes the importance of a wife being allowed to visit her parents on a regular basis. The rabbis viewed prolonged deprivation of familial love as a cruel act that warrants divorce.
The issue of parental visitation might not serve as grounds for divorce nowadays, but it surely matters in regard to healthy relationships. As a recently married couple, Stephanie and I have already worked out a system for splitting up the holidays. We visit her family for Thanksgiving and Hannukah (and whenever we happen to be in the Boston area), and my family for Passover, and for regular dinners (we live about 25 minutes away). Despite our seemingly workable system, visits to our respective in-laws can be emotionally taxing.
Stephanie and I both enjoy our own respective family dynamics, but it's sometimes hard to fully appreciate each others. In my own life, my parents have proven that in-laws become an important part of their partners' lives. I watch as my mother treats my paternal grandfather Poppi with the same love and care that she treated her own father. This is the kind of ideal relationship to which I think the Mishnah is hinting!
Family Time (Ketubot 62b)
We live in a world today where professionals spend more time at the office than at home with their families. Some of us may at least have weekends with our loved ones, while others dedicate even the hours of Shabbat to their work. This epidemic of distance from the people we ought to be with most often is nothing new. While at one point in time, the work days were shorter, finding family time has always been an issue. As I transition from rabbinical student to rabbi, I too will be confronting the issue of family time more deeply. Any congregation that I may serve will demand a great deal of my day. Designating time with my family will need to be one of my utmost priorities.
In previous discussions, I have pointed out that the rabbis of old suggested that wives prefer intimate time with their husbands over a higher paying career. I also mentioned that for students of Torah who recieve their wives' permission to go off and study, Rav Yochanan (30-90 CE) recommend that they spend two months at home for every month that they are away. In Ketubot 62b, the Gemara goes onto suggest another point of view. Despite the wise advice of Rav Yochanan, Rav Adda bar Ahava (c. 300 CE) rebuffs that students of Torah in his time can spend two or three years away from home when they have their wives' permission (1). Commenting on this work-centered mentality, the Gemara adds an interesting note:
ועבדי עובדא בנפשייהו
We might translate this literally to mean: "They did this on their own accord (ועשו מעשה בעצמם)." Yet Rashi offers a compelling explanation of the word בנפשייהו based on the subsequent aggadah (lore) that follows. Rashi suggests that "והוא בא להם ליטול מהם נפשות, שנענשים ומתים, they went and did this at the expense of their own lives, knowing that they would be punished with death." Essentially, students of Talmud in Babylonia put their work before their families knowing that they or their loved ones might receive a death sentence.
To illustrate this, the Talmud recounts aggada (lore) that teaches us about the repercussions of putting our work before our family. In the first instance, a scholar puts off sexual relations with his bride so that he can become a learned scholar; his punishment is coming home to a wife too old to have children. The punishment of death is thus rendered on the life of his potential child. In another story, Rav Chananya the son of Chachinai studies for twelve years in the academy without returning home. When his wife finally lays her eyes on him, her excitement causes her heart to give out. Rav Chama bar Bisa, who similarly went away to study for twelve years, happens to sit and study with his son Rav Oshaya at the yeshiva without recognizing the grown face of his boy.
The gist is simple and clear: despite our cultural tendencies towards being overworked, we ought to remember that family comes first! If we fail to find time for our family, we may not be punished with death, but we may find our relationships fractured, our families less healthy, and our lives bereft of love.
(1) While the Vilna Shas notes that this is said in the name of Rav, the texts of Rosh and Ran omit the word אמר רב (in the name of Rav). Further evidence that the original text was likely not in Rav's name can be found earlier in the Gemara, where Rav recommends that for every month away at study, a student should spend one month at home.
The discussion in the section of Talmud that I read this week (Ketubot 61b-62a) centers on a rather sexually explicit subject. In preparing to study this page of text with my father–– who is my
partner––I felt catapulted back into the days of yore whenhe attempted to impart upon me his words of wisdom concerning the birds and the bees. Thankfully our analysis and debate concerning the text was a little less awkward.
In my last post, I discussed the responsibilities that a wife has to her husband. They included: nursing, making the bed, working wool, grinding (flour and corn), baking bread, washing clothing, and cooking. This week, the rabbis begin by describing the responsibilities that a husband has to his wife. The Mishnah starts by laying out his sexual obligations. It is important to note that it seems rather clear that we are talking specifically about sexual pleasure, and not about sexual reproduction. There is, of course, some disagreement as to how often a man is obligated to be intimate with his wife. The House of Hillel (the dominant strand of rabbinic learning) says that in general, a man has the obligation to fulfill his sexual duty weekly. The House of Shamai (the weaker strand of rabbinic learning) argues that he need only satisfy her every other week. Depending on one’s profession, however, there are exceptions to the rule:
- טיילין (those who are unemployed)- every day, or more likely suggesting every time his wife desires him
- פועלים (workers)- twicea week
- חמרים (donkey drivers)- once a week
- גמלים (camel drivers)- once a month
- ספנים (sailors)- once every six months
Students of Torah, the Mishnah proclaims, can leave for up to a month without the permission of their wives. During that time, we can assume that a student of Torah would have no sexual obligations to his wife. The frequency of sexual relations listed in the Mishnah appears to suggest more than carnality. The type of jobs that enable a husband to extend his sexual absence from his wife are also the careers that implicitly cause him to be physically displaced. Intimacy is about being present emotionally as much as, if not more than, it involves intercourse.
It just so happens that this summer I have traveled down to Philadelphia for seven weeks in order to work at Congregation Rodeph Shalom. I left my bride-to-be for the sake of professional development in the field of Torah! As a rabbinical student (I think I would fall under the category of student of Torah ), I am permitted to make such a trip of professional development with Stephanie's permission.
The discussion in the Gemara concerning such a leave from a wife seems all too relevant in my case (even though I am not yet married). The choice to leave for seven weeks in the summer leading up to our wedding was not an easy one. Even Jewish law would suggest that such a trip violated my duties to my future spouse if I failed to obtain her permission. Of course, I would not dream of making such a deicison without Stephanie's blessing. Yet even the Gemara recommends that certain steps be taken when one has his wife's permission, so as to ensure that the relationship remains healthy.
The rabbis pose the question: "ואורחא דמילתא כמה, how long is it proper to leave if he has her permission?" Rav, one of the most famous rabbinical authorities, states that with his wife's permission, he should spend one month home in between every month that he is away. Rav Yochanan goes one step further in suggesting that he should spend two months home in between every month that he is away. The Gemara notes that the latter opinion should be taken as the norm, whereas the opinion of Rav only in cases of necessity. According to this cycle, Torah should never take a student away from his wife for more time than he is at home.
After all, intamcy between a man and his wife is more than just sex, and cannot be accomplished through periodic visists home.
The rabbis elevate the importance of healthy relationship even over the study of Torah.
Shortly after Stephanie and I started dating, I moved to Cincinnati while she remained in New York. We maintained a long-distance relationship for about a year before I moved back. This was no doubt a trying time in our relationship, especially because it was so young at that point. Had the 600 mile buffer between us extended past that academic year, I'm not so sure that our relationship would have lasted. This time, we are taking the advice of the rabbis and trying to maintain the distance by periodically visting each other on the weekends. In my life, my resonsibilitiy to upholding our relationship takes precidence over my professional career as a future rabbi (Torah student).
Questions for Thought and Commenting Upon:
How have you preserved the intimacy in your relationship in times of physical seperation?
How frequently do you think a couple needs to see each other in order to maintain their relationship?
Does a man have more responsibility to his wife's sexual needs than she does to his?
Today I studied the rabbinic perception of a woman's responsibilities toward her husband. To put it mildly, times have changed, especially for progressive Jews like myself who view a woman's role in a marriage as more or less equal (but perhaps different) to that of her husband. Talmudic viewpoints (ranging in this discussion from about 100 CE to 500 CE) offer a more "traditional" model for the functions of a woman. I would deem the views of some of sages as chauvinistic to say the least. Rabbi Hiyya, for example, suggests that wives function merely as showpieces for their husbands. In disagreeing with the majority, he argues "אין אשה אלא ליופי, women are only for their beauty." To this end, the woman's role visa vis her husband is only to gladly recieve the jewlery that her husband adorns her with. Yet just as modern American Jews tend to frown on trophy wives, so too did the rabbinic sages reject Hiyya's relegation of woman as mere objects of beauty. The main part of the talmudic discussion focuses on the active role woman should play in a marriage.
The Suggya (passage) in Ketubot 59b opens with a discussion from the Mishnah (compiled in about 200 CE), an early Jewish legal compendium upon which later sages (200-500 CE) will comment. The Mishnah lists seven primary responsibilities a woman has toward her husband:
- טוחנת- grinding (flour or corn)
- אופה– baking bread
- מכבסת– laundering the clothing
- מבשלת– cooking
- מניקה nursing the children
- מצעת לו המטה – making the bed
- עושה בצמר– working with wool
The one task on the list of rabbinicly perscribed wifely responsibilities that I will delegate exclusivly to Stephanie is the making of the bed. Since we first started dating, I have been keenly aware that Stephanie requires perfectly made up sleeping quarters. Every morning she ornatly makes hosptial corners on the sheets, lines the blanket and comforter up perfectly, and stacks the pillows in a very specific arangement. Since we moved in together, I have attempted to make the bed several times only to find that she would remake it. My efforts to learn her bed-making routine have been to no avail. I have given up in this regard, and will leave her to this rabbinically mandated responsibility.