Guest post by Dr. Erica Brown
Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. Her latest book is In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks, published by OU Press and Maggid.
“And I will betroth you forever; I will betroth you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy, and I will betroth you with faithfulness.” (Hosea 2:21-22)
This week’s newspapers dished out the dirt or shmutz, as we say in Yiddish. We read about a love child that broke up a public marriage and a very unpleasant hotel stay for one unlucky chambermaid. Then, to top it off, Sunday’s New York Times featured an article called “Divorce, in Style” about the businessman and philanthropist Charles Bronfman who, together with the woman he is divorcing, is inviting 100 friends for an evening of cocktails to celebrate their divorce amicably. Engraved invitations requested business attire. Is this a new high or a new low in ending a marriage?
Jewish law believes in divorce; it is a mitzva in the instance where two people simply cannot live together. Maybe it’s better to end with a party than to end in a puddle of tears, but this all doesn’t offer much hope as we begin a spring and summer season of weddings. It should make us question whether or not cultural depictions of marriage collude with what we know about real life outside the world of fickle celebrity romance. It should also give us pause when we enter commitments where we say, “Till death do us part.”
I often wonder if we could change the societal perception of commitment simply by making the years that a couple has been married feature on our resumes as an accomplishment. What might a boss learn about you if he read that you were married 28 or 35 or 42 or 60 years to the same person? In our society, a long marriage should be a deep badge of pride. We all know it’s hard. We all know it’s work, but it’s also about fidelity. The word “fidelity” comes from the Latin for loyal. When we say that something has high fidelity we are talking about its accuracy and precision in comparison with an original; there’s a sense of closeness to the source.
It is in this spirit that we turn to one of the most famous verses in the book of Hosea, a biblical book that likens adultery to idolatry and plumbs the depths of commitment. The commitment refers ultimately to the bond between God and human beings but can be read as a personal statement about what fidelity really means. It is not enough to say that something is forever. Remember all those signatures in your yearbook that said “Friends Forever” written by people whose names you don’t even remember? We’ve all been there.
Instead, the verse focuses on the ingredients that go into long-term commitments like marriage. We have to concentrate on being the best people we can be individually so that we bring the best of ourselves to our relationships (righteousness). We have to act justly which means being accountable for our mistakes and fighting fair (justice). We have to be kind to each other even when kindness is a challenge (goodness). And we have to find compassion for the other even when we feel insulted or hurt (mercy). Note that the prophet makes not one mention about love, desire, lust or romance. Hosea highlights the components that make up a civil society and amplifies them in regard to marriage. If we want to live in a society that values righteousness, justice, goodness and mercy then we have to start at the kitchen table.
Perhaps it is for this reason that these verses are recited when wrapping tefillin or phylacteries. The act of binding reinforces the closeness that the word fidelity embodies. Binding yourself is confining; it is also, ironically, liberating. Commitment limits us. It also ultimately redeems us.
Marriage: the toughest job you’ll ever love.