A biweekly column about Jewish things.
The first institution of Jewish society is the family. At home, mother and father induct their children into the universal covenant between the Almighty and all his children and into the special covenant between God and his eldest son, Israel. We all know the description at the beginning of Genesis: A man leaves father and mother (whose flesh he is) and cleaves to his wife, becoming one flesh with her. Each marriage participates in a primordial unity. The union of man and woman is a recovery—their mutual knowledge is a mutual recollection.
So then what to make of the rather bleak account of Jewish marriage in Deuteronomy 24? Here it is in full:
When a man takes a wife and is a husband to her, and she does not find favor in his eyes, for he finds something revolting in her, he shall write her a bill of severance, and put it in her hand, and send her from his house. If she shall leave his house and be with another man, and this man shall hate her, and write her a bill of severance, and put it in her hand, and banish her from his house, or if this second man who took her dies—her first husband, who banished her, may not take her as his wife after she has been defiled, for this is an abomination before the Lord. Do not introduce sin to the land that the Lord has given you as an inheritance.
A redoubtable teacher of mine once said that if you want to show someone how a thing ought to look, present it in degenerated form. Ugliness can push a man toward beauty better than beauty could have pulled him. The person for “moderation in all things” may trade ataraxia for radical goodness if he witnesses vice unimpeded by virtue.
What is the theology of this passage? The Bible allows for divorce. Marriages are legal things, and God gave his law to man. Man marries, man sunders. Marriage is no less holy for its dissolubility. Every marriage is an ambitious union between imperfect, mortal participants. Judaism recognizes the intrinsic good of marriage. But the society of husband and wife can fail. Marriage is also directed––toward the nurturing of children and community. Our mortality, our frailty, and our teleology all demand that, if there is to be something as holy as marriage, failing partners should be permitted to exit it, so the institution itself might be saved from perversion.
God’s own covenants with mankind and with Israel do not share these features of human marriages. God’s infinite love permits his covenants to be not only intrinsic, but final goods—he alone can forever receive his once unfaithful, now contrite bride. She strays but is welcomed back in joyous tears. A time will come when “instruction will issue from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Men will at last consent to God’s fatherhood and kingship. Then the covenants will be perfect, because their divine member annuls what makes all human things imperfect.
I want to focus on the Torah’s particular case: A couple divorces, the wife remarries, this second marriage ends, and she is prohibited from remarrying her first husband. This is the Bible’s idea of a sick marriage culture. Serial marriages are not prohibited. The Lord evidently thinks that spouses wishing to remarry after being with others are not just casual with matrimony, but positively assaulting it.
The Babylonian Talmud at the end of the Tractate Gittin quotes a rabbi as saying that “anyone who divorces his first wife, even the altar pours out tears for him.” The Talmud then quotes two verses from Malachi 2:
And this you do also, covering the altar of the Lord with tears, weeping and moaning, and so the Lord will not face your offering, nor accept the gift of your hands. And you ask “wherefore?” For the Lord is a witness between you and the wife of your youth, and you have betrayed her—and she, your partner, your covenanted wife.
Why is the altar crying? The first time you do something, and then only, is your capacity for wonder unharmed by the experience and therefore the anticipation of disappointment. The dissolution of a first marriage embosses on the consciousness of each partner a suspicion that future partnerships will end the same sad way. When you stand under the canopy for the first time, the only parting imagined is a distant death. Each subsequent time, the risk of ending life unhitched to another is more poignantly felt.
Couples cannot try again because the commitment to a second spouse is the final abandonment of the first for a new life. There is a difference between a general worry, which is present in any second marriage, and a localized suspicion of a partner. Each marriage is something new, but these two people are something old. Their reunion is an attempt to subvert regret and bad memories, to change the past. Anyone who has read The Great Gatsby knows that new lives apart always dissolve the thrilling hope that, yes, this time things will work. The initial euphoria of Daisy and Gatsby is caused and ended by the same thing: the fraudulent pretense that commitments to others may be erased, that life in the meantime was merely paused.
Marriage cannot begin with a look over the shoulder, half mournful, half resentful. Partners who can never take their eyes or their minds off each other (from adoration or suspicion) are not really building a life together. Even mutual eros is no substitute for joint agape. Husband and wife must first love each other absolutely, face to face, but then move outward together to serve family, community, nation, world, God.
Cole S. Aronson studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Judean hills.