About marriage they were never wrong,
The Rabbis; how well, they understood
Its human position.
With apologies to W. H. Auden’s
“Musée des Beaux Arts,” it’s true: the rabbis had no illusions about the infinite contingencies of marriage, the quotidian realities of an arrangement they considered both foreordained and an essential channel for men’s and women’s sexual energies. The rabbis fully acknowledged the role of fortune in the success of any individual instance of this most intimate of human positions, just as they accepted that marriage was an indispensable institutionalization of the familial divisions of labor on which rabbinic society and its future depended. Perhaps most painfully, the Sages also grappled with the conflicts that marriage engendered between devotion to divine service and responsibility for human dependents.
Needless to say, androcentric perspectives dominate. Reflecting on “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), Genesis Rabbah 17:2 teaches:
He who has no wife dwells without good, without help, without joy, without blessing, and without atonement. . . . R. Hiyya b. Gomdi said: He is also incomplete, for it is written, And God blessed them and called them humanity (Genesis 5:2) [for only joined together are male and female fully human]. Some say: He [who does not marry] even impairs the divine likeness: For God made humanity in the divine image (Genesis 9:6) and this is followed by, Be fertile, then, and increase (Genesis 9:7).
These final words suggest that procreation, a male legal obligation, is the overwhelming marital value, since what makes man like God is his ability to generate new life in the body of his wife. Moreover, many of the biblical verses cited in this extended text refer to a man and his “house” or “household” (bayit). For the rabbis, a meritorious wife is a man’s “house,” a body built from his body to house and bear his children and fulfill his sexual and domestic needs. Such a partner, when she “brings light to his eyes and puts him on his feet” (BT Yebamot 62b), deserves consideration and respect. According to BT Yebamot 62b (also BT Sanhedrin 76b), “Concerning a man who loves his wife as himself, who honors her more than himself, who guides his sons and daughters in the right path and arranges for them to be married near the period of their puberty, Scripture says, You will know that all is well in your tent (Job 5:24).” BT Baba Metzia 59a cites Rab’s saying: “One should always be heedful of wronging his wife, for since her tears are frequent she is quickly hurt.” The advantages of marriage for women are assumed, if not detailed. As BT Yebamot 113a puts it, “More than the man desires to marry does the woman desire to be taken in marriage,” while BT Ketubbot 75a declares in the voice of Resh Lakish that a woman is satisfied with any sort [of husband] since “It is preferable to live in grief, that is, with a bad husband, than to dwell in widowhood.” Samuel b. Unya is quoted in BT Sanhedrin 22b that, “Before marriage a woman is a shapeless lump. It is her husband who transforms her into a useful vessel.” The husband shapes the personality of his wife just as God formed the character of the people of Israel, “For He who made you will espouse you, His name is the Lord of Hosts (Isaiah 54:5).” Nor is the divine metaphor unusual; throughout Jewish literature, the relationship between a man and a woman is understood metaphorically as signifying the intimate bonds between God and human beings. Nevertheless, certain rabbinic voices articulate an ambivalence about marriage, particularly for scholars who might prefer to devote their energies to study (BT Ketubbot 62b), and these strands contribute to a wider discourse on the uncertain nature of marital happiness and the potential treacheries of bad wives. As BT Baba Batra 145b relates, “R. Hanina said: All the days of a poor man are wretched (Proverbs 15:15) refers [to him] who has a wicked wife; But contentment is a feast without end (ibid) refers [to him] who has a good wife.” R. Hiyya, an apparent skeptic on the possibility of companionate marriage, taught that, “A wife should be taken mainly for the sake of her beauty; and mainly for the sake of children” (BT Ketubbot 59b). Elsewhere, he stated, “It is sufficient for us that they rear up our children and deliver us from sin” (BT Yebamot 63a). Good wives, exemplified in rabbinic tradition by R. Akiba’s self-sacrificing spouse (BT Nedarim 50a), earn merit “[b]y sending their sons to learn in the synagogue, and their husbands to study in the schools of the Rabbis, and by waiting for their husbands until they return from the schools of the Rabbis” (BT Berakhot 17a and Sotah 21a). A bad wife who dishonors her husband risks divorce and impoverishment, or perhaps the punishment of an abusive second marriage (see Genesis Rabbah 17:3, which begins, “If he is fortunate, she is a help; if not, she is against him”).
Something amazing, to invoke Auden once more, is the preservation of traditions insisting that marriage is also problematic for women; indeed, the downsides of being a wife are candidly delineated. BT ’Erubin 100b, for example, offers a countdown of “Eve’s curses” in a discussion of inappropriate and appropriate modes of marital sexuality generated from Genesis 3:16. Some of these are physical, including the discomforts of menstruation, loss of virginity, pregnancy, and childbirth. Others include the challenges of child rearing, a woman’s yearning for her absent spouse, and the need to ingratiate oneself silently with one’s husband. The final three disadvantages apply to a woman’s marital constraints: “She is wrapped up like a mourner, banished from the company of all men, and confined within a prison.” The first of these, even if understood as a straightforward reference to married women’s veiling themselves in public, evokes connections between women and death in parallel texts such as Genesis Rabbah 17:8 and BT Berakhot 51a. “Banished from the company of all men” is said to refer to the fact that a married woman, unlike a man, cannot have two sexual partners at the same time, implying that polygyny and/or frequent resort to women outside of marriage were accepted and appreciated features of men’s lives in rabbinic times. “Confined to a prison,” the tenth disability imposed by marriage in this enumeration, refers to women’s enforced absence from most activities in the public domain. Rabbinic social policy apportioned separate spheres and responsibilities to women and men, making every effort to confine married women and their activities to the private realms of the family and its particular concerns, including economic activities that would benefit the household. That men would characterize the consequences for women as “confinement in a prison” is reminiscent of other rabbinic statements that women’s common sense and understanding atrophy because they are isolated from the rest of the world (Genesis Rabbah 18:1).
As if ten were not enough, BT ’Erubin 100b also provides three alternative female handicaps, noting that, “In a baraita it was taught: She grows long hair like Lilith, sits when making water like a beast, and serves as a bolster for her husband.” But are these detriments or benefits? R. Dimi is cited as saying that these three qualities are compliments to women. Perhaps from a male point of view they are: women’s long hair can be attractive; that she serves as a support for her husband is certainly desirable for him. Although it is difficult to see how “making water like a beast” is a positive quality, it may be an endorsement of feminine reserve. This statement allows a segue into an apparently unrelated midrash that concludes the larger Talmudic passage and offers a final word on the relative roles and capacities of wives and husbands: “R. Johanan observed: If the Torah had not been given we could have learned modesty from the cat, honesty from the ant, chastity from the dove, and good manners from the cock who first coaxes and then mates. And how does he coax his mate? Rab Judah citing Rab replied, He tells her this [when he spreads his wings prior to mating]. ‘I will buy you a cloak that will reach to your feet.’ After the event he tells her, ‘May the cat tear off my crest if when I have any money I do not buy you one.’”
The sugya, which begins with the statement, “A man is forbidden to compel his wife to the [marital] obligation,” ends appropriately with a commendation of seduction. But this erotic and derisive depiction of women as sexually credulous and easily persuaded can only reinforce male satisfaction at not being created female. The passage’s deeper purport: to respect and appreciate the wife who serves as a physical, emotional, and economic bolster to her husband and children, often at significant cost to herself, is diminished and undermined. Pace Auden, the Rabbis may have known all about marriage and its advantages and costs, but this is an important failure.