Who Has The Answer?

My grandfather once told me that no one ever died from asking a question. But our grandchildren may suffer from asking this one: How do you make a marriage work in this modern world?

This is a question to which few people have found a truly satisfactory answer. The proof is that we have contrived so many contemporary answers: living together arrangements, serial monogamy, open marriages, communal marriages. Or no marriage, at all: no bonds, no family—and alas—no ties, no knots; no breakup, no breakdown.

This book will set forth one answer that has succeeded in outliving every attack on the institution of marriage since the dawn of civilization. That answer, the Jewish answer, is alive and well today. It is not foolproof, nor is it appropriate for every person in every circumstance. It is not just a biblical demand; it is engraved in the scheme of creation, and it will last forever.


This work was conceived in the recognition of two important contemporary trends. First, society is in bedlam. A million people trapped in troubled marriages dash for the nearest exit. If their marriage cannot work, the whole institution must be headed for extinction. They seek new options and alternatives, heady words of new-found liberty that are not "new" at all; they were discarded centuries ago because they did not work.

Living together without benefit of marriage seems like a "new" option, but it was once called "concubinage" and was eventually replaced by a contractual arrangement, which bound equal partners with mutual obligations. Serial monogamy was replaced by a reasonably permanent marriage, because children did not benefit from short-term parents. And communal marriage was succeeded by strict monogamy, because women simply were not satisfied with a partial husband, just as husbands rarely even considered settling for a fraction of a wife.

Second, the number of fragmented families and unhappy marriages continues to increase despite these "free" alternatives and a liberated sexual atmosphere. Divorce and unhappiness are the gravestones that pockmark the open fields of the free society. That fact alone is eloquent testimony to the sophisticated barbarism of our "Brave New World." In the midst of this social turbulence, Judaism can serve as a light in the too-long tunnel that people enter as free singles and from which they are expected to emerge as responsible adults.


Marriage has succeeded as a vital and stable institution in spite of its frequent alternations between the extremes of Christian asceticism and the anarchy of free love. Judaism steered clear of these dangers. It cannot be simplistically categorized as a puritanical religious view that celebrates celibacy and virginity as intrinsic virtues, and settles for marriage as a concession to human frailty. It did not adopt the ascetic pattern of total self-denial, nor has it ever advocated unrestricted freedom of sexual practice.

If asceticism is unnatural to Judaism, hedonism is abhorrent to it. The Jewish faith not only approves of love and sex within marriage, it positively mandates it. Marriage is part of the fabric of creation. With no apologies, Judaism speaks of the dynamic continuity of the tradition of marriage in the midst of constant social upheaval.


This book will describe the traditional Jewish view on such topics as romantic love, premarital sex, homosexuality, interfaith marriage, and extramarital affairs. It will also deal in detail with the outward symbols and practices of the traditional wedding ceremony that encase enduring values, and which are practiced in bits and pieces in almost every wedding ceremony in western civilization.

The religious values that people must bring to marriage are old, tested, rich—and nearly forgotten. But they encourage both durability and excitement in marriage. The Jewish way needs to be articulated today because it is the Jewish concept of marriage which was, and can again become, the foundation of the family in Western civilization.

This book is not concerned primarily with sociological surveys, the supposed mythological roots of religious practices, or anthropological research into rites of passage. Nor does it make any pretense to being an "original" or totally comprehensive treatment of this complex subject: the themes discussed are covered, for the most part, in the Jewish Codes, although the information is scattered in many places and is not generally accessible. Rather, it is an interpretation and popular presentation of the institution of marriage in light of the traditions and laws of the Bible and its accepted interpreters’ through-out the millennial Jewish history as it relates to today's experience and mood.

It is also not intended as an apologetic. In this time of sexual revolution I may be criticized for espousing a perfectionist ethic inappropriate to the modern world; religious liberals and conservatives may be caught short by rigidity here or elasticity there. But I have tried to enable the tradition to speak for itself, applying its principles to our times rather than adjusting the law to new movements or philosophies. Although the ideas issue from the great tomes of Jewish law and custom, they are of necessity refracted through the prism of my personality. Thus, "if this be error and upon me proved," the fault is with me and not with the heritage.

The scope of the topic, the scarcity of single major works covering the entire field, the urgent, relevant nature of the academic research, the need to present meaningful concepts to a public largely uninitiated in the logic of the Halakhah—all these have made the effort both difficult and fascinating.

Because this book breaks some new ground it is perhaps a first word. It surely is not a last word. Readers would do well to use the bibliography to mine deeper into the living tradition. People today have too many answers and too few questions. My effort will be amply rewarded if people learn what to ask of those who are able to respond.

A word about the form of the book: I have tried to write a text that is easily readable by laypeople, supplemented by end-notes providing research sources for the scholarly community. To that end I have eliminated note numbers and italics from the body of the work; footnotes are listed by page and line in the back. Only biblical citations remain in the text.


Of course, my grandfather is right. Society will not die because it can find no solution to the problem of marriage. But it will continue to suffer the anguish of broken families unless it can rediscover the traditional values of marriage and family living. Margaret Mead once said, "No matter how many communes anybody invents, the family always creeps back." Marriage has lasted too long and generated love and beauty and happiness for too many centuries to be hastily written off by contemporary society.

Can any other human institution provide so much warmth and intimacy? In what other structure can young lovers reach the lyrical heights they do in marriage? Is there another setting in which one generation can bestow so much care on the next?

Marriage is so promising, so potentially satisfying, that separation is almost always deeply traumatic. Is there any better testimony to that beauty which can never be sociologically analyzed and statistically measured? Is there any other relationship which can so surely guarantee the survival of the human species and better perpetuate the moral life? Where else but in marriage can we equally discover the full mystery, dignity, and sacredness of life?

Of course, marriage is not a state of perpetual bliss. Someone once remarked that "All marriages are happy; it is the living together afterward that causes all the trouble." There will always be problems in marriage, as in the rest of life. There are daily tensions, sometimes savage controversies. But it is the failures of marriage that tend to be documented. The successes are largely left to the unspoken, intuitively sensed, emotional part of life that has little academic standing and cannot be weighed and tested.

My hope is that this book will speak for those who believe in the ideal of traditional marriage, which has survived—despite formidable challenges—in the Jewish way of life.

Maurice Lamm
Beverly Hills, California