Scary Prediction

Divorce has become an accepted reality in today's society. Relatively recently, it was predicted that of every two marriages contracted in recent times, one would result in divorce. This was certainly not the original idea behind the famous observation that marriage is a fifty-fifty proposition. To think that there is a fifty-fifty chance that any marriage will "wind down" disintegrating is a scary thought for anyone contemplating marriage.

To make matters worse, a little while ago one respected observer of the Jewish scene predicted that the Jewish divorce rate would hit fifty percent of marriages contracted. There was no basis in reality for this prediction, save for the assumption that the trends in society eventually infiltrate the Jewish community.

Hopeful Trend

Thankfully, there has been a slight leveling of the trend, and the rate of divorce has not jumped, although this does not mean that the crisis within marriage has abated.

The crisis is real. The danger that marriage will not last is clear and present in literally every segment of Jewish society. No component of the community is immune, although assuredly the rate of divorce amongst the religious community is less than in the general community.

Again, to place matters in their true perspective, this does not mean that those marriages within the religious community are necessarily better marriages, or happier marriages. It may be that the stigma of divorce is still strong enough that the couple within the marriage endures, looks the other way, or tolerates what for many others would be an intolerable situation. So, whether the statistics for divorce are high or not, there is a crisis in the entire realm of marriage.

Crazy Question

Because divorce is a real possibility, it may be advisable for every individual, before contemplating marriage, to actually ask a crazy question. That crazy question is — "Is the mate whom I am marrying a mate whom I could divorce?" This question may seem absurd in the extreme, but before jumping to that conclusion, it is worthwhile contemplating what the question means.

Because marriages may not work, and instead will disintegrate, the question is whether the divorce will be a decent and civil one, or whether it will be a fight to the finish. It is wise to ask what type of mate you are taking. Are you taking the type of a mate who is nice and pleasant when the going is good, but who, whenever things do not go his or her way, reacts in a childish, spiteful, petty way?

If that is the case, then it is quite likely that such a mate will behave in a less than considerate way when it comes to divorce. Whoever it is that a person marries should be a person whom one would be able to divorce in a way which avoids recriminations, eschews protracted fighting, and eliminates perpetual conflict. In other words, the person whom you marry should be one who in your perception would be a mentsch, a true human being, even in the most trying circumstances.

Chances are that if an individual qualifies as one whom you could divorce with no fear of reprisal, he or she is the type of individual to whom you will be happily married, and the divorce will not be necessary. But it is important to ask the question, because by asking the question one may save much misery.

Personality Factor

Although there are many who place the blame for the rising rate of divorce on interactional problems within marriage, related to complications that impose themselves from the outside, there is a personal component to divorce which must be emphasized.

Marriage is the union of two individuals who, if they are of good character, should be able to live happily with each other. Invariably, in cases when marriage fails, one or both of the partners has a deficient personality. What is called marriage breakdown is really retarded personality development coming to the fore. That retarded development leads to a distorted set of values, including the inability to interact with people on a human level.

This statement, by the way, should not be seen as a contradiction of the earlier point made that the couple should not blame themselves for the marital failure to the point of despair and self-imposed melancholy. Often the very fact that there is a personality problem may not necessarily be the fault of the marital partner or partners, but is more directly related to their upbringing, and to the set of values which they adopted almost automatically from the culture in which they were raised.

This is important for the divorcing couple to realize. It is also vital to understand what is meant by the suggestion that a personality nuance may have been a contributing factor, or even the precipitating factor in the marriage breaking down. This is not to lay blame, but rather just too state facts, and to build upon the failure of the past towards the future.

A general observation about the divorce situation should not therefore translate into an imposition of guilt and despair upon the divorcing couple.

True Dialogue

Huxley once said that "If individuality has no play, society does not advance: if individuality breaks out of all bounds, society perishes."

That same observation is true of human development and of the marital sphere. It is best reflected in the famous words of Hillel, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am for myself only, what am I..." (Talmud, Avot, 1:14). To be self-negating to the point of neglect of the self is irresponsible; but to be self-indulgent to the point of being oblivious to all others is to be irresponsive. The person who best relates to others is the one who has taken care of individual needs, who has a well developed sense of the self and of individual responsibility, as well as a realistic and honest appreciation of one's role in life.

This honest confrontation with one's self leads to a healthy outer directedness, to a concern with causes and for people. In short, the classic relationship between people demands an I to relate to a thou. But the real I will intentionally gravitate to a thou; not to fulfill a need, but to share the self. The true relationship with another person emanates from self-transcendence rather than from self-actualization.

Transcendence in Marriage

Sharing of the self with another is, in the classical sense, expressed in marital union. Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed (part 3, chapter 49), suggests that the female relatives whom a man may not marry share one common ingredient — namely that they are constantly together with him in the house, and arranging a marriage would be a relatively easy task. Maimonides also roundly condemns the union of root and branch, and sees this as one of the reasons behind the prohibition of consanguineous unions.

These two factors, the constant togetherness and the root-branch idea, point to a vital ingredient in any marriage. The respective spouses are obliged to marry people who are in some sense strangers, people who can be called other. Confining one's self to one's own immediate environment is seen as abhorrent.

This abhorrence stems from the reality that such a union involves not an extension of the self, but instead a turning in of the self, a shriveling up, a recoiling into a comfortable shell. It is an exercise in self-centeredness, and is the very antithesis of healthy human interaction, and hence of good marriage.

The Right Focus

Self-centeredness as manifested in the form of hyper-reflection on the self is considered to be the prime cause of impotence and frigidity between couples. Whether it stems from a strong desire to be able to perform, or an excessive drive for self-satisfaction, it causes increasing difficulty and frustration. Eventually, it results in the inability to communicate sexually with the partner.

The best means of attaining the pleasure of marital union is by not intending it, but instead by letting it flow as the natural outgrowth of a true love relationship. Happiness, instead of being pursued, should ensue.

It is worthwhile to use the sexual model as paradigmatic for marriage itself. Sex is the language of marriage; it is marriage's distinct form of communication. The problem of hyper-reflection on the self which causes breakdowns in sexual communication is also at work in verbal communication. This is not to say that when there are problems of a sexual nature the marriage is a failure, but the symptomatology is quite the same.

Not surprisingly, the subservience to the ethic of self-realization has been implicated as a significant factor in the increasing number of divorces. Paradoxically, when each partner is primarily concerned not with the self but with the other person, both the functional and the spiritual aspects of the union are significantly enhanced. Thus, the concept of extending the self toward the other is a philosophical and functional truth. All communication works better when the focus is on trying to under-stand the other, and being committed to bringing out the best in the other.


The self which extends toward the other in the marital context should be a mature self. The mature self has, through growth and commitment, assumed responsibility for personal welfare. In the words of the Talmud, "...A man should build a house, plant a vineyard, and then marry a woman" (Sotah, 44a,). Maimonides, in an extraordinary vignette, states that "It is the way of fools first to marry and then build a house and find a profession" (Mishnah Torah, Hilkhot De'ot, 5:11).

Before a person has established inner stability and peace — symbolized by the building of a home, and before having planted a vineyard (i.e., before having placed the self on a firm financial footing, so that one's primary personal needs have been met), it is premature, even foolish to marry. When the marriage itself is expected to create the financial and emotional stability that are so vital, but missing prior to marriage, the marriage is in trouble from the outset.

Marriage is ideally the union of two complete people, who unite not to fulfill personal needs or satisfy drives, but to exercise mutual growth through reciprocal concern for each other. The purpose in marriage is not to get, but to give. How ironic it is that those who do not focus on giving will end up "getting!" But getting a get is something they could do without.


The ideal of immersion in the other can hardly be realized when each, or even one, still has unresolved problems or basic character deficiencies. In such cases the wedlock is not one of true love, but instead an alliance for need gratification. It is a caused and dependent relationship, rather than a spontaneous and independent one. Eventually, "All love that depends on a cause will pass away once the cause is no longer there, but that love which is not dependent on a cause will never pass away" (Avot, 5:16). The marriage may survive, but it will not thrive.

It is stated that "Any man who has no wife is no proper man" (Talmud, Yevamot, 63a). This is not to imply that a man should marry at any cost. This statement simply asserts that reaching a pronounced level of maturity and self sufficiency is only the first step in human endeavor.

The next step is to extend that mature self toward another. The person who thinks that manhood is achieved through being independent and aloof is, in the words of the Talmud, no proper man. For, in all instances, true maturity is perceived through interaction with others, not through wallowing in self-indulgence. The inability to share, to give of one's self, whether it stems from immaturity, or from the character deficiency most easily described as self-centeredness, is usually at work in marriage breakdown. It is a personality flaw coming to the fore, with sometimes tragic consequences.

No Contentedness

A match between spouses is known as a shidukh. Rabbi Moshe Isserles identifies this with the word for contentedness, menuhah (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah, 228:43). No one can today be content with the uneasy state in which many shidukhim (matches) find themselves. Yet Jews throughout history have been able to react positively to crisis. On countless occasions they have been able to transmute potential tragedy into human triumph. If Jews can today restore the ingredient of contentedness to the marital sphere, it will rank as a singular achievement of the will.

If we can address the proliferating number of divorces with forthrightness and dedication, we can perhaps rescue some form of functionality from the tentacles of disaster. Otherwise we will have a community in which so many are at war with each other. This is not the stuff upon which a solid posterity is built. Divorce, as an issue confronting the Jewish community, must be tackled at both ends. At the front end, a priority must be placed on empathy, on understanding, on sharing, and on giving, so that one will not have to get. At the tail end, acknowledging that there will be divorces within the community — that this is inevitable — the community in its entirety, leadership in all spheres, must insist on the implementation of Jewish divorce ethics.

Enter G‑d

Peace is so vital to the community that, in the words of the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah, 9:9), "G‑d allows the Name of G‑d to be erased into water, to effect harmony between husband and wife." Such erasure is a serious sacrilege, but when it is done in the ritual of reconciliation, it is permitted, even mandated.

When the peacefulness of the couple is upset, and divorce finalized, G‑d's Name is erased. There is little vestige of G‑dliness, of a higher code of ethics, in the behavior of many couples going through the process of divorce. But G‑d, and the transcending ethic that emanates from G‑d, must be as much a part of divorce as of marriage.

The problem is obvious, the need for action is imperative. If not now, when? (Avot, 1:14). Acting with immediacy in the face of a crisis is itself an ethical imperative.