The marital integrity of the Jewish people was legendary in ancient and medieval times, and Jewish family life is idealized even in these days of upheaval. What qualities make Jewish marriage so stable?

Jewish marriage is not designed for the ethical management of the sexual drive, nor is it a concession to human weakness. Jewish marriage makes its appearance within the natural order of creation, not as a law promulgated neither by Moses nor as a legal sanction, but as a blessing from G‑d. Just as woman was created as a separate being, "a helpmeet opposite" man (Genesis 2:18), the purpose for the creation of marriage is stated in five words: lo tov he-yot ha-adam le'vado—It is not good for man to be alone.

Marriage was created at the beginning, at the same time the principals of marriage were created. It was not an afterthought, designed to control their passions, but part of the natural order of human society. The moment we are born we are destined for marriage. When a newborn child is named, the prayer is le'chuppah u'le'maasim tovim (to the marriage canopy and a life of good deeds). Marriage is thus grounded in the primeval relationship of the sexes in order to perpetuate the species and enhance personal growth.

Marriage is seen as a blessing because it enables us to overcome loneliness. According to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Genesis 2:18 reads "heyot" ha-adam le'vado rather than "li-he'yot," which implies not that "it is not good for man to be alone," but that it is not good for man to be "lonely." Being "alone" means being physically alone, wanting company, needing assistance; being "lonely" means spiritual solitude, as one can feel lonely even in a crowd.

G‑d seeks to remedy that with the creation of woman as ezer ke'negdo, a helpmeet opposite him. Now if le'vado (alone) means simply needing company or requiring assistance, then woman is ezer, a cook and bottle washer, a real helper. But if le'vado means lonely, then ezer is not just a partner to lighten the burden, she is ke'negdo, part of a spiritual union of two souls. The basic G‑d-created human unit is man and woman, one flesh, completing one another. Man alone or woman alone constitutes only half of that unit, as the Zohar says: Bar nash be'lo iteta peleg gufa. Rabbi Samson Raphal Hirsch says that the word kallah (bride) means completion, as in bayom kalot ha-mishkan (the day the tabernacle was completed). In marriage, the partners complete and fulfill themselves. This is their natural state and a blessing from G‑d.

This theme is repeated at every Jewish marriage. The seven nuptial blessings speak of paradise regained, the miracle of G‑d's creation, and the creation of man and woman, so that mankind might endure. The sixth blessing refers to marriage in the scheme of creation: "Make these beloved companions as happy as were the first human couple in the Garden of Eden." The joy of the Creator's blessing is invoked at the inception of every Jewish home.

If G‑d created man, woman, and their marriage relationship; and if the creation of man and woman is good and marriage a blessing; then G‑d is a conscious, albeit silent, partner in the marriage. Thus the ideal Jewish marriage is a triangle composed of two human beings and their Creator.

Rabbi Joshua ben Korha said that man at first was called Adam to indicate his natural constitution—flesh and blood (dam). But when woman was created, the two were referred to as fiery (esh)—living, dynamic beings. G‑d insinuated Himself into the marriage, then added two letters of his own name, Y and H, to the names of man and woman. He inserted the Y into man's name, turning esh (fire) into i-Y-sh (ish, man); and H into woman's name, making i-sha-H (ishah, woman). The Chronicles of Yerahmeel (6:16) comment on this: "If they walk in My ways and observe My commandments, behold My name will abide with them and deliver them from all trouble. But if not, I will take the letters of My name from them, so that they will revert to esh and esh, fire consuming fire." Hence with G‑d as a partner, marriage is a blessing, ish and ishah. Without G‑d, it can become esh, an inferno where man and woman devour each other.

Jewish marriage is therefore naturally sanctified by G‑d. From this concept of G‑d's involvement in marriage, there flow new insights and obligations that married people often ignore. For example, if one partner is unfaithful it is not just a marital problem, it shatters the fundamental unit of creation. In most cases of adultery, the religious court is instructed to issue a divorce even against their will. The couple may forgive a violation of their personal integrity, but they have no right to forgive their assault upon G‑d's integrity and His participation in the marriage.

The moral conscience of the Jew was sometimes strict to the point of grief, and the Rabbis were painfully reluctant to pronounce the harsh decree, but no whisper of scandal was permitted to besmirch the name of marriage, or any of its three partners. Accordingly, the Sages ruled that lewdness was not allowed even in the privacy of the bedroom, because such behavior offends the presence of G‑d.

This code of behavior based on the appreciation of the divine creation of marriage and G‑d's active presence within it keeps the strict purity of the Jewish home. It is a code that originated in Jewish law, was hallowed by centuries of Jewish observance and is based upon the very real premise of G‑d as a partner to every Jewish marriage.

The non-Jewish practice of celibacy reflects a philosophy of withdrawal from the real world. Jewish marriage is the decision to confront the challenge of the real world. The Jew, when he marries, enters not only marriage, but the world—the world of the Jewish community, of concern for the survival of the Jewish people, and of care and responsibility for total strangers. As a man-wife unit, the married couple has a new voice. Historically, the family-oriented Jewish community, which experienced very few divorces and virtually no abandonment, gave little consideration to the opinions of single people. When G‑d became a partner at the wedding, and a new Jewish home was created, an overriding significance was added. In some communities this is still demonstrated by the groom's donning, for the first time, a tallit (prayer shawl).

The requirement of a minyan at the wedding (the quorum of ten which is the smallest unit of the Jewish social structure), is an important indication of the social significance of marriage.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik describes how Maimonides differentiates three friendship categories (chaver, companion, associations) within marriage. First is chaver le'davar, a utilitarian association that depends on reciprocal usefulness. When the usefulness disappears, the bond of "love" dissolves (batel davar, batel ahavah). Second, is chaver le'daagah, someone with whom to share sorrows, troubles and also joys. We need this in order to lighten our load. Joys are multiplied and sorrows are divided when they are shared. Third is chaver le'-deah, a joint dedication to common goals. Both dream of realizing great ideals, with a readiness to sacrifice for their attainment.

Marriage must at least partake of the first and second friendship levels, the physical and psychological aspects of joint partnership. But if the partners are truly chaverim and their union is chibbur (a joint partnership), they form a community of commitment.

Love seeks eternity, sanctity, rootedness in a transcendent power. True lovers cannot endure in a hastily-put-together arrangement. Love will not be fulfilled until it reaches that ultimate moment, the total commitment of marriage.

Love is a sacred trust. The description of the relationship of bride and groom preserved in the blessing at the wedding service is reim ahu-vim (beloved friends).

The secular sanction of a civil marriage is not sufficient to motivate love to rise to its highest level; it needs the sanctification of an almighty and eternal G‑d. Love so desanctified cannot long withstand the daily frustrations, angers, and hurts. To flourish, love needs an intimation that it originates in the plan of the Creator; that the world could not exist without it; and that an all-knowing G‑d delights in it.

Marriage is the natural home of love. Here it can grow and enrich itself, and leave something worthy in its wake. Love that is not able to express itself in the cares of married life is frustrated love. "It is not good that man should be alone," says Rabbi Jacob Zevi Mecklenburg "means that man's inner capacity for goodness can never be realized unless he has someone upon whom to shower his affections." Mature love is expressed through giving, and through giving comes even greater love.

To have a child is a flesh-and-blood connection with the future, and the birthplace of humanity's future is the home. The future of the whole Jewish people depends upon marriage, the covenantal relationship of husband and wife. Marriage is not simply a private arrangement designed solely for mutual satisfaction; its importance rests in how the couple perceives their bond, the love they demonstrate, and the constellation of virtues they bring to the home. Every marriage covenant must partake of the original covenant. Jewish values thrive not as ephemeral theories, but as they are lived daily. This means that the Jewish couple needs a religiously-oriented home, an investment in the Jewish community, and a concern with the fate of G‑d's world.

The eternal Jewish future depends on the old Jewish past, which gives ample evidence that Jews who relate to G‑d survive. The words of the betrothal blessing are important in this context: He forbade relations for the betrothed, and permitted it for the married. These are declarations of G‑d who created man and woman and ordained marriage. Given true love and a man and woman who follow religious and ethical precepts, life holds the possibility of being as close to paradise as is possible in this world. But if they violate G‑d's commands, they must repeat the experience of Adam and Eve in paradise lost. Judaism teaches that every bride and groom must go back to Adam and Eve, and reenact that physical and spiritual drama of community as "one flesh."

Jewish marriage serves many purposes, but the phrase that incorporates all of these purposes is central to the wedding service: "You are hereby sanctified unto Me..." But the covenant requires more than this declaration of sanctity. It is the remainder of the marriage formula that is crucial to Jewish survival: "...according to the laws of Moses and Israel."