Last year, I read through The Jewish Way in Love & Marriage. Maurice Lamm teaches the traditional view of marriage, divorce, gender and family in Judaism. The book is based on the teaching of the Torah, the Jewish Codes and their interpretations through-out millennial Jewish history. My favorite chapters were “Jewish Insights into Marriage” and “The Purposes of Marriage.” His section on the family is a beautiful picture of God’s love for the House of Israel.
I knew from my studies of the Old Testament that Judaism treated women far better than any other ancient culture. Women held status is business, in marriage, in politics and in society. Studying the book from a “traditional” Christian woman view-point, I’d like highlight a few lessons I learned from Lamm’s book.
Women in marriage
Lamm captures an emphasis of Jewish marriage that I don’t often see emphasized in Christian marriage. Companionship. This idea comes from Malachi 2:14 where the word for wife in Hebrew signifies…
“one who is involved in a joint venture, or a ‘joint partner,’ … [Marriage is]…Not ‘one body, one thought,’ but one joined body retaining two thoughts.” (Chatam Sofer quoted on p 126-127)
When God created Adam alone, Judiasm teaches He did it so that man would learn a valuable lesson. Without his companion, woman, he was lonely and incomplete. He was one-sided. Jewish marriage brings man not someone to “help” him or back him up (as is often spoken of in churches), but someone to counter him; to stand opposite him, to be different from him, to give him the second side of life. Without a woman, man is in a sorry state, is the Jewish thought. Unlike the Christian thought…without a man, woman has no purpose because she was created for him. It a subtle, yet profound difference which exalts women in practice, not theory alone.
Women in language
The difference in how the Jewish people viewed women versus how the Romans viewed women is evident in their language. The word for womb in Latin is hysteria; from the convulsions of childbirth. In Hebrew it is rechem; compassion. Isn’t that beautiful? Also, the picture word (Hebrew has evolved from pictographs.) for mother in Hebrew is…
” (eym). The is a picture of an ox representing strength and the is a picture of water. Combined, these mean “strong water” or glue. The mother is understood by the ancient Hebrews as one who binds the family together.” (from www.ancient-hebrew.org/26_meaning.html)
It reveals the ancient attitudes toward women. Baby maker in one. The heart of the family in another.
Woman and sex
In contrast to the Christian wedding, a Jewish woman makes no verbal promises. She gives her agreement to the oath of unity, but does not vow to submit, obey or love until death. It is the husband who must vow alone. What does he vow? To provide love, honor, provisions and sexual pleasure! What a contrast to a Christian marriage where we place the responsibility on the wife to please her man! The biblical command is found in the negative in Exodus 21:10 and in the positive in Deuteronomy 24:5. Here it is in Lamm’s words from page 136-137.
The Bible conceives of sex within marriage as the woman’s right and the man’s duty. (Until quite recently, the western concept of marital duty was that it is man’s right and woman’s duty). The woman’s right is assured by the Bible; she may not waive it, and her husband may not preclude it as a condition of the marriage contract.
Woman’s duty to man is specifically described in the Talmud, though it is not recorded in the Bible. The basic idea of the woman’s right does not originate in an act of kindness, but is an essential component of marriage. No man may marry a woman and then simply ignore her or her sexual needs. It is remarkable that it has taken western thought so long to come to the conclusion that was evident in ancient biblical times, namely, that women have sexual needs just like men.
The frequency and delight of onah, or sex in marriage, is of particular importance. Sex isn’t hushed up. It is celebrated, planned for and considered a spiritual act of worship. The teaching and preparation the rabbis and Jewish mothers gave to onah is detailed. It wasn’t relegated to masculine locker-room talk. Onah was viewed in light of the wife’s favor and permission. Grooms were prepped to how to best please his bride. It was so important that a woman could seek a divorce if she found her husband sexually repulsive. (Marriages were arranged.)
What a counter-church-culture idea! Sex is the woman’s right and the man’s duty.
I love the sound of those two words together!
“No individual can acquire possessive rights of another individual…The Torah speaks of woman’s rights (ishut); it says nothing of a man’s rights, only of his obligations.”(p.155-156)
Women retained their independence in marriage. They were able to seek a divorce. Their husband was not responsible for her actions, nor was able to “interfere in her life.” If a man ever beat his wife, which was extremely rare as was emotional threats and browbeating, he was compelled to pay damages and to provide for her upkeep apart from him. A wife’s finances were hers, to invest or spend as desired for the good of the family, as the husband was likewise. She had the right to own property separate from her husband. Women often earned income in commercial enterprises. If a wife was forbidden to work, the Talmud grants her grounds for divorce! House chores fell to the woman to either fulfill herself or hire the work to another. Her choice.
If Christians had retained more of Jewish heritage than Roman, there would have been no need for the woman’s suffrage movement in the mid 1800’s!
Woman and mother
The Rabbis teach the inherent value of woman, not as life-giver, but simply as woman. The lesson is taken from Rachel, who cried to Jacob, “Give me children or I’ll die!” Jacob reaffirms her value as woman apart from her role as mother. Woman has been given two names in scripture. Ishah, a person who stands opposite and equal to ish, man.
She is ishah in terms of her own personality the integrity of her thoughts, and her relationship with God and with man. Because she is able to reproduce a human being, she is also chavah [mother of all living things], an additional glory that man can never know. A woman who is barren and cannot fulfill her chavah role remains an ishah, a female person – alive, aware, concerned and creative in other spheres. (p 159)
Again, the culture of some churches is to focus so much on mother, they ignore the women. Being mother is bonus.
Woman in worship
Since the book was primarily about marriage, Lamm didn’t give much information on woman’s role outside of family and marriage. General statements throughout the book, confirmed the notion that Jewish scholars throughout time have considered women the more pious of the genders. It is the womanly cries in Egypt that provoked God to deliver the slaves. Women lead the prayer in the homes on Sabbath, and bring light. It was with knowledge of God that the woman was tempted in the garden, while the man was content to let her seek it. And in a twist of reasoning, women are exempted from certain obligations at “temple” due to their propensity to neglect their duties at home in favor of communal worship. It is the natural bent of woman to connect to the spiritual.
Lamm’s book was a lesson for me, not only on women’s issues, but on family issues. The strong emphasis on family preservation in Jewish culture is to be admired, emulated and praised. The strength of Judaism throughout the millenia is found in the home. And at its center, woman.
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. The LORD commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the LORD our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today.