by Dr. Erica Brown / 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” abut 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.”

Commitment Matters

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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.

About 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 with for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She has published a number of books and writes a monthly column for The New York Jewish Week and the website Psychology Today, and a weekly column for JTA on Jewish leadership.

15 comments

  1. “-a lot of my comments in Hirhurim that I get attacked for are simply my following the Chicago school of Gary Becker explaining how people behave.”
    From my last comment on my exchange with Steve on the Chicago school-see Gary Becker on marriage for an important different way or understanding about how people behave
    One can combine everything in hirhurim-or Prof Kaplan referring to me on economic comments -mycroft kdarcho bekodesh.

  2. Oi Vey! how much lashon hara can we take in one week?. The Chafetz Chaim would say cover your eyes and stop up your ears. We are constantly bombarded with personal information about “celebrities” How much of it is true? Who Knows? but we shouldn’t care. I’m a little surprized to see this on Hirhurim.It makes me long for more pieces on “The Hair Wars”.

  3. Michael Feldstein

    Erica Brown is one of the most thoughtful Jewish writers on the scene today, and particularly excels at focusing on current event stories, finding meaning from them, and allowing her readers to learn important Torah lessons.

    I’d recommend that everyone subscribe to her free weekly e-letter, Weekly Jewish Wisdom http://leadingwithmeaning.com/subscribe.html

    It’s one of the first things I read in my email in-box.

  4. My aunt and uncle separated and then divorced after 42 years of marriage, when he wanted to have the woman with whom he was having an affair move in. And this wasn’t the first fling. So I suspect at least sometimes the long marriage is evidence for patience rather than loyalty.

  5. I don’t really understand David Tzohar’s objection to this (IMO very thoughtful) post. What am I missing?

  6. R’JK,
    I assume the references in the first paragraph (or who of “us” says till death do us part?:-))
    KT

  7. Joseph Kaplan-If Dr Erica Brown wants to write about commitment in marriage, Meileh. As someone who ha been married for 39 yrs to the same woman I am all for it. What I object to is her naming people like Charles Bronfman and regaling us with his supposed shenannigans. This is quite simply lashon hara, and if it is inaccurate it is motzi shem ra and Hirhurim is giving it a forum.

  8. It gave some focus and context to her very thoughtful essay. And since it had already appeared in the NYT, appearing in Hirhurim doesn’t seem too great an issue.

  9. “David Tzohar on May 22, 2011 at 7:01 am
    Joseph Kaplan-If Dr Erica Brown wants to write about commitment in marriage, Meileh. As someone who ha been married for 39 yrs to the same woman I am all for it. What I object to is her naming people like Charles Bronfman and regaling us with his supposed shenannigans. This is quite simply lashon hara, and if it is inaccurate it is motzi shem ra and Hirhurim is giving it a forum.

    Joseph Kaplan on May 22, 2011 at 9:28 am
    It gave some focus and context to her very thoughtful essay. And since it had already appeared in the NYT, appearing in Hirhurim doesn’t seem too great an issue.”

    Tend to agree with David Tzohar-Dr. Btown is lisiting those who aren’t religious who are divorced-it is likely that the Rsohei Yeshiva of the two institutions that were the leading Yeshiva at least in terms of numbers learning during their time periods in America were divorced. They are different institutions.
    There is nothing wrong in Yahdus if someone is divorced -if the relationship has fallen apart-from one who is married and has only been married once. One think I can’t stand is the lashon ahra after a divorce by one or the others relatives-it is plain disgusting.

  10. I don’t disagree with you Mycroft except to the extent that you imply that Dr. Brown disagrees with you. Nothing she said in her article is contrary to your comments.

  11. While I do not disagree with what Dr. Erica Brown wrote, I do object to her taking the phrase “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) out of context from this week’s haftarah. The passage is replete with marriage metaphors some of which are dangerous to women. God is likened to a husband who beats his wife/the people of Israel. In this passage, it is stated that God will “strip her naked and leave her as on the day she was born; let her die of thirst and disown her children(Hos 2:5-6). It is true that God takes Israel back, but there is no guarantee that if she “misbehaves” in the future that all will be well. And following the idea that there is a cycle of abuse, beating, kiss and make up and then more beating, I find the haftarah a frightening one, rather than reassuring.

  12. Dr. Brown mentions three items in the news. The first involves a former governor who many looked to for future political runs or at least as a senior statesman in his party. The story is shmutz, perhaps, but not lashon hara. The second? Not lashon hara in the slightest, even if it is wrong. Talking about a person accused of sexual assault isn’t gossip, it’s legitimate news.

    As for Charles Bronfman, that one s probably the clearest case of not being lashon hara. For goodness sakes, David Tzohar, “if it is inaccurate it is motzi shem ra”? No! If you bothered to read the article Dr. Brown cited, you’d see that all of this is things that Bronfman and his wife themselves told the media. How can it be lashon hara to discuss something that the Bronfmans intentionally and deliberately put forth for us to discuss?

  13. To paraphrase David Tzohar, as someone approaching 33 years of marriage, I think that we can all use Chizuk in this area, but WADR, I think that using an example that was placed voluntarily in the media, we can all learn how to avoid such pitfalls.

  14. Frankly, I find in my heart only pity for Hosea: He has to marry a whore in order to make a point…

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