A Testimonial and a Condemnation

The institution of marriage stands serene and firm amidst the buffeting winds of change. The greatest pleasure of which the human being is capable is best attained within the boundaries of monogamous marriage, not in a world of unbridled sensuality and multiple lovers. Rooted in loyalty and integrity, nurtured by true love, and immortalized by children, marriage has been the locus of love and beauty and happiness for too many centuries to be written off because of periodic historic malaise.

What other human institution can provide so much warmth and intimacy? What other setting allows one generation to bestow the care needed to raise the next? Where else can one find such readiness for self-sacrifice? Where else can pain be so effectively divided and contentment so magnificently multiplied? Is there another harbor as welcoming and protective in the storms of daily life as marriage? No other relationship can so surely guarantee the survival of the human species and perpetuate morality. And where else but in marriage can we find the mystery, the dignity, and the sacredness of life?

Monogamy is designed to unify society. A breakdown in the sexual code, no matter how cogent the alternatives or options may seem, can bring social ills of a far more grievous nature than those of which monogamy is accused. Judaism, despite isolated instances, is based on monogamy. The fundamental marriage narrative of Adam and Eve presupposes it; Noah, intent on preserving human and animal life, had only one wife, and the animal survivors arrived in pairs. The Prophets use the monogamous metaphor of man and wife for G‑d and Israel: As Jews had one G‑d (ha-shem echad), G‑d chose only one people (am echad); thus in marriage there is a union of one wife with one husband (basar echad). The "woman of valor" glorified in the Book of Proverbs is not "women of valor;" and rare was the rabbi, of the thousands of sages of the Talmud, who in polygamous times had more than one wife.

Polygamy was sanctioned in biblical times, although it was not explicitly commanded. It was considered a preliminary social form and was allowed to self-destruct. The formal termination came as a ban on polygamy by Rabbenu Gershom of Mainz, the "Light of the Exile," in the tenth century, fifteen hundred years after monogamy became the way of life for all but a few Sephardic communities. It is true that the biblical and rabbinic system of law, the Halakhah, incorporates the biblical legitimacy of polygamy into the law of marriage. Here it is the source of legal decisions, especially in regard to marriage, divorce, and the nature of adultery. Morally and ideologically, however, there can be no doubt that Judaism strongly upholds an exclusive, monogamous marriage and a single standard.

A host of people, including ancient and modern philosophers and social scientists, decry the entire institution of marriage. Marriage, they tell us, is a "towering inferno"—you may have high hopes, but in the end you’ll get burned. Indeed, it is true that many marriages either erupt in divorce or internalize the rage and hatred. Marriages built with thoughts of love, fulfillment, and family collapse in bewilderment, leaving lonely women, fatherless children, and homeless men.

For many, marriage has been a bitter disappointment made all the more bitter because of exaggerated romantic expectations. These people have been oppressed by failure as lovers and as parents, overwhelmed with dirty diapers and dirty dishes, complaints and sickness, and endless unfulfilled needs. Where were the satisfactions of marriage that people talk about—and what happened to the love that was supposed to conquer all?

A million people trapped in troubled marriages scramble for the nearest exit. They justify the failure of their own marriage by condemning the institution, and earnestly seek new alternatives. Some adopt the popular philosophy of the singles—they "don’t want to tie themselves down," they "care about different people in different ways," and thus "get beyond monogamy." They may explore such "new" options as nonformal cohabitation, casual sex, or open relationships, but they have one goal in common: the rejection of binding commitments.

These experiences have been repeated in every community. It is understandable that urban philosophers and radical thinkers have lost no time in administering the last rites to the dying institution of marriage. They defend such worthy ideals as freedom, personal fulfillment, openness, and universal kinship, and present themselves as embattled liberals confronting the powerful and reactionary establishment of repressive paranoiacs who believe in traditional marriage.

Like sex, marriage can generate extremes—love and hate, intolerable prison and expanding universe, and the familiarity of family life that may breed con-tempt as well as children. The apparent contradiction between Proverbs 18:22, which says, "Whoso findeth a wife, findeth a great good," and Ecclesiastes 7:26, which says, "And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets," is reconciled by the Talmudic Sages: "A good wife is man’s best find, a bad one is worse than death." It often seems that there is no middle ground in love and marriage.

If marriage tends to either extreme, however, it is not the institution that has failed or succeeded, but the people involved in the marriage. But how can we know what kind of person will grow in marriage, and be able to sustain the experience of permanent closeness, life-long caring, and concern? These qualities are difficult to determine, and most people marry whether or not they are prepared. Romantic love is a barely adequate preparation for marriage; indeed, it often proves to be a negative factor in achieving marital happiness. The exhaustive exploration of sex techniques serves no real purpose, and living together with no binding commitment is not a good way to judge the success of a future marriage.

Marriage is people. Like sex, marriage cannot be abstracted from character. Good people make for good marriages, just as good children generally make good parents. Selfishness, immaturity, and an undisciplined, instinctual lifestyle are early indicators of possible failure in marriage.