“When a woman conceives and gives birth…” is the opening line in this week’s Biblical reading. Be assured however, it is not the opening line in the larger story. In the Bible, women having babies were usually Chapter Two. First they got married. That is no longer necessarily true.
The rise in women having babies without wedding rings in the U.S. is at 40%. To be honest, let’s not conflate ‘unwed’ and ‘single.’ Of the mothers who are custodial parents, 44% were at one time married, but later divorced or separated; 37% were never married. In sheer numbers, this group is huge, rearing 22 million children.
So why are fewer people tying the knot? Because marriage is suffering from bad PR; unjustifiably, because in every study and by every measure, marriage wins over staying single or cohabiting without some ceremony. Married couples live longer, stay physically and mentally healthier, are kinder to each other, less likely to abuse one another and feel more secure; ditto for their children. We are creatures best molded by ritual.
And yet the younger generation is tone deaf to all the research. Why should they if their own parents are not a shining example of affection. When they witness the low-key squabbling and the subtle undermining, it plays as a graceless ballet. No wonder they prefer a poodle.
True, marriage is a challenge. For even at the exact moment that you recognize the deficits of the person by your side, you have to keep your sense of humor, crucial to a healthy marriage. In our current up-gradable, consumer-driven, instant-gratification culture where everything from cell phones to jobs are disposable, reasonable people question the value of a life-long legal contract that carries punitive terms for dissolution. Seriously, who would crave such a primitive monotonous trap, particularly when it starts with an enormously expensive ceremony?
The anti-marriage group loves to point out that historically marriage was mostly a matter of survival. Having a spouse helped you harvest the crops and produced more workers to do the same. But economics are no longer a compelling reason to put up with a spouse that smells, snores and stares at the screen while you tell them about your day.
So why do the majority (by a slim margin) still marry? Is staying home with a flawed mate simply easier than dressing up and showboating? Is marriage only for those too tired to play the dating game and don’t want to face their anxieties alone? Is that sort of marriage a confident commitment or a complacent convenience? In other words: Is marriage a positive act or a negative defense?
According to Judaism, marriage is an expression of the human soul’s deepest ambitions. What exactly does a soul gain from hooking up with another soul? The mystics explain that two considerations drive the soul’s desire to marry: a desire to be complete, and its need to transcend itself.
In the first marriage ever, Adam and Eve were initially created as a single, two-faced body. That single being was split into man and woman, and then reunited in matrimony. This is true for every couple. Until we reconnect we are only one half of a greater organism. Our wholeness depends on marrying our predetermined bashert. So though we may be born continents apart, Divine destiny ensures that our paths intersect. [In rare instances, due to external spiritual factors, soul-mates will find each other only later in life in a second marriage.]
The second point is our attraction to the opposite sex. While often reviled in other religions as a human weakness, it actually stems from the soul’s innate desire to reunite with its soul-mate. Whereas bodily needs are decidedly egocentric, the soul is totally selfless. Commitment without the expectation of a commensurate return benefit may sound absurd when talking the language of the body, but it is music to the soul. After all, its most fervent wish is to forgo its own needs. Marriage offers the soul that opportunity. Kabballists call this altruism, transcendence.
Jewish marriage is also a pledge to the Jewish nation, a nonviolent way of combating the Crusaders, the Inquisition, Hitler, and all the other anti-Semites who desired our destruction. Equally important, marriage actualizes the Divine plan of creation. G‑d desired a world hospitable to holiness and a Jewish home is the first frontier. When working in harmony, man and woman are the perfect team to implement this plan and make their home a sacred epicenter whose rippling waves affect the local neighborhood, the wider city, the entire country, the global society and even the cosmos.
Because of the considerable role marriage plays in the Master plan, G‑d expends considerable time on playing matchmaker. Hence, every wedding is a vital piece in the grand puzzle. Jewish married couples are more than a compact for financial and emotional sustenance. They mutually empower one another 1) to be their best and then 2) even better than that.