Marriage, Family, and Torah

Posted on Feb 27, 2014

I’ve been thinking about marriage since I first started thinking about what adulthood might be like. Even as a young teenager I knew that my parents’ marriage, while loving and stable, could not in many respects provide the model for my own. My parents seemed so different from me in every way imaginable: children of the Great Depression who never had the chance to go to college, Philadelphia “locals” who never wandered far from the city of their birth or feasted on the array of novels, films, and poetry that supplied my images of love and family. What could I learn from my parents about matters of the heart?

Ten and 20 years into my own marriage, which thank goodness was no less loving or stable than theirs, I often found myself on the other side of the generational divide: giving counsel to students who sought my wisdom about marriage—and that of Judaism—despite a strong sense that I could not possibly understand them. Their experience was far different than mine, their diversity of options immense and, at times, overwhelming. The women’s movement had changed marriage along with so much else. LGBT people were out of the closet. Internet dating had begun. The “hook-up culture” had taken root on campus. The divorce rate had climbed to 50 percent; couples standing under the huppah were well aware that there was a 20-percent chance they would not be together after five years.

And yet there were aspects of their situation that seemed familiar, fears and yearnings that Jewish tradition and I were called upon to address. My students asked aloud if they were good enough for anyone to want to marry (or attractive enough to find someone who was interested them). Could they be faithful to a partner, or to their own ideals. They could not imagine spending their lifetime doing any one thing, let alone doing it with one person. Suppose they or their partners changed? How could they possibly serve their own needs—and someone else’s? And how on earth could they, whose imperfections in their own eyes were so glaring, hope to do a better job raising children than their own parents had done with them. I found myself saying, never sure if they believed me, that of course marriage is hard; it takes a lot of work; the guidance of our age-old tradition has a lot to say on these subjects; and I could attest that my wife and children were by far the greatest gifts I have in this world, and that the problem with marriage, as with life, is not that the years drag on, but that they speed by much too fast.

These memories are vivid right now because, this week, I had the privilege of hosting at The Jewish Theological Seminary a conversation about love, marriage, and family that without doubt ranks among the most important discussions in which I have participated in my seven years as chancellor there. The Conservative rabbis, educators, and therapists from around the country who came together for 24 hours of closed-door conversation represented a wide variety of professional and personal experience. Indeed, what made the gathering so special from start to finish was our shared recognition that we could not discuss these matters dispassionately. The situation is urgent. So much has changed so rapidly in our lives, and the Jews who come to us every day in search of guidance anchored in Jewish tradition cannot be met with pious platitudes or outworn suggestions. And we, too, are caught up in these same dilemmas. The set of family situations represented in the room was nearly as diverse as the individuals and couples we encounter every day.

Our purpose in coming together, therefore, was not to formulate policy on vexing issues of love, family, marriage, and intermarriage, but to exchange stories, best practices, and painful lessons learned and experienced. We asked first what is new in matters of love and family in recent years? Then, how can we and our Jewish communities, guided by Jewish tradition, strengthen marriages and families in all their complexity and diversity? And then we reflected, in this context, on major issues surrounding the class of relationships that we call intermarriages. How can we relate more inclusively and compassionately to both partners in those marriages? How can we think more imaginatively about conversion to Judaism? What does Torah have to say to blessed realities such as legalized same-sex marriage that were unknown only a decade ago?

The sentence that, to me, perhaps best captures the tenor of our discussion was uttered by Daniel Jones, editor of the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column and author of the new book Love Illuminated, who joined us for the opening conversation: “Personal stories, told well, change lives more than almost anything else.” Jones contributed some of the stories collected in his book from among the 50,000 that have come his way over the years, and the bulk of our time together was spent sharing stories of pain, fulfillment, and desire that are the rabbi’s daily fare. The single woman whose parents listen patiently to her accomplishments but wonder expectantly, every time they talk, whether she is engaged yet. The husband who leaves his wife and kids for another woman and believes that his children will be happy about that development “because Iam.” The parents who came to see the rabbi years ago to voice distress that their adult children had fallen in love with non-Jews and asked her to bless the unions. “That happened to me last week,” another rabbi added. “That happened to me yesterday,” said a third. The need for new Jewish language: a better word for “non-Jews” than “Gentiles.” A better term than “stepchildren.” Attempts to find a new status for unconverted parents in Jewish families that are raising Jewish children, coming to synagogue, contributing to their communities.

It is hard for some Jews to bring their relationship problems to their rabbi, and perhaps still harder not to do so: “Stories held in shame can destroy families and hurt communities.” One rabbi speculated that congregants come to him not only because, unlike the therapist, he listens to their confession free of charge, but because the need to share one’s story is well-nigh inescapable. Rabbis are also the repository of norms and values. They embody the tradition that congregants—and Jews who have not set foot in a synagogue for years—recognize as the source of Good. It is hard for bearers of the tradition to see and listen to the person before them, instead of reducing them to another instance of a category or—worse still—an exemplar of transgression. Yet rabbis at their best manage to do this every day: raising people up with Torah, helping them open their hearts to holiness and one another, binding them closer to communities, offering wisdom that is prized all the more because it bears the authentic stamp of Torah.

JTS will be convening more conversations like this one in coming months. We want to be a place where new voices are heard around the table on key issues facing individual Jews, the Jewish community, and the larger society. We want to offer a forum where Jewish leaders trust each other enough to try out ideas as yet untested. It was apparent to all of us in the room this week that such conversation has the potential to break conceptual logjams and make Judaism responsive to fast-changing realities. The combination of fidelity to Torah and the responsibilities it imposes on us, along with full engagement with the needs and possibilities of the moment, is the path on which JTS has long striven to lead Conservative Judaism. I promise that JTS will continue to do so in the weeks and months to come—and, to that end, I will be working with members of this week’s group, along with others inside and beyond Conservative Judaism, on concrete steps to strengthen marriages and families, help couples through divorce, rethink the conversion process, and engage intermarried families in face-to-face dialogue about Jewish tradition and community. “We need so much right now,” one rabbi sighed, speaking both for her congregants and herself. We are all resolved to address those needs with a loving and compassionate voice of Torah.