Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Attack on Marriage

Marriage is an anachronism. It is a relic from a time when we needed an arrangement to manage property and reproduction and, crucially, to establish kinships for purposes of defense: safety in numbers. A web of families connected through marriage produced a clan of people who were less likely to kill you than everybody else was. Such was the life style in the Fertile Crescent, and, not coincidentally, the Old Testament is fixated on genealogy. Sexual reproduction within marriage was a way of creating more of God’s chosen people. Originally, Jewish holy men were required to be married.
This quote, taken from a review in the New Yorker of Elizabeth Gilbert's new novel (memoir), "Committed," caught me in the gut. I never knew just how foolish I've been for the past fourteen years, living in self-deluded marital bliss. I never knew how miserable I really was, stuck in my anachronistic ancient family model, unaware that I was chained to an old, irrelevant way of life. Oh, oops - sorry, that's my wife. She's the one that's chained to me, at least according to the New Yorker.
Marriage has been under attack for years now, if not in word, at least in practice. It's what you do when you've had your fun and now want to settle down, raise a family, have children (and live a boring life - that's the unspoken part). It's the irrelevant convention that religion and society have forced upon us without rhyme or reason. And then its no wonder why divorce serves as the logical outcome for most American marriages today.
What we need then, is a renewal of the Jewish ideal of marriage, and a good answer not to the question of "Why get married?" but "Why Stay Married?"
For Orthodox kids, the question of "why get married" usually answers itself. After all, as Orthodoxy forbids sexual activity before marriage, and actively encourages it following marriage, that's a pretty strong incentive. Marriage also seems fun: the presents, the parties, the setting up of a new home, the excitement. Few young people ever ask the question: why get married? I would love to think that young Orthodox kids marry for better, deeper reasons, and I'm sure that many do. But I'm also sure that many don't as well.
Even more important, though, is the question most young people don't ask when they're getting married, and the one many married people do ask sometime later: Why Stay Married? After a certain point, while sexuality always remains a critical element of a healthy relationship, the initial sexual frenzy wanes to a degree. The newness of the home dies down, and life descends into a rhythm; a pattern of the mundane that in good circumstances provides stability and focus, and in bad can seem like an endless loop, lacking meaning and purpose.
The answer to "why stay married" should really be the same as to "why get married". Marriage is a partnership through which each member improves - in personal qualities, in spirituality, in closeness to God - by giving to the other. It's about sacrificing the self for another - for a spouse or a child, or many children - in order to create a greater whole.
But, in today's society, consumed with self-fulfillment, sacrifice seems quaint, silly. It's hard to argue against an underlying value, especially one that's so culturally pervasive.
We need a greater sense of awareness about the subtle but ongoing onslaught against the institution of marriage. Without that awareness - and a willingness to continue to give to our spouses despite the challenges, it's all too easy to find ourselves caught in the title wave of American culture demeaning marriage and belittling those that defend it.
And then we might find ourselves asking the most frightening question of all: Why stay married?