Marriage, Where Like Meets Like

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by R. Gidon Rothstein

Last time, R. Arama argued the Gemara treated the pairing of body and spirit as a first “marriage.” What we commonly call marriage he thought the Gemara referred to as a zivug sheini, a second pairing, which is arranged according to people’s merits and is therefore as hard as splitting the Sea. In this part of the sha’ar, he shares some of his views of marriage.

R. Arama questions the Torah’s presentation of Hashem’s search for a partner for Adam; before he offers answers to any of them, he gives us a separate introductory discussion of marriage, which he gives a name, perek ha-chibbur, the chapter on connection.

Similarity, the Secret of a Strong Bond

He starts with whether opposites attract. Some thinkers argue they do, with examples such as the “attraction” of rain to dry ground. In their view, likes also repel, which R. Arama sees reflected in a Midrash’s assumption of hatred among members of a profession or trade.

Aristotle disagreed. He thought parts of nature wish to see their nature furthered [not too far from how some people today speak of genes’ wish to propagate], which leads them to gravitate towards items like themselves. R. Arama sides with Aristotle, as we would have expected. (He knows the idea makes Hashem’s love a puzzle, since we bear no similarity to Hashem; he postpones the discussion until Shema, in Devarim).

His examples of the idea move up the ladder of closeness to people. We like trees because they are similar to us, as the Torah says in Devarim 20;19 (“ki ha-adam ‘etz ha-sadeh, a phrase most translators read as a question—for are trees of the field a human?—but which does compare the two; the verse in context justifies the prohibition against cutting down trees as part of a siege).

Animals bear more of a similarity, since they give birth and move around in a way close to how humans do, which is why the Torah forbade tza’ar ba’alei chayyim, causing unnecessary pain to animals (Baba Metzi’a 32b).  People love their countrymen more than the rest of humanity because of their commonalities, their families more than their countrymen, and themselves—to whom no one else can be as similar—more than anyone else.

The attraction of like to like underlies the Torah’s phrasing of the commandment to love our fellows as ourselves, Vayikra 19;18. Our sense of ourselves sets the standard for love and connection, since we are most similar to ourselves and therefore most drawn to ourselves (I am skipping the counterexamples he raises and resolves).

The Torah also judges how well love or connection will last based on the similarity of the parties to a relationship. Hashem stresses Avraham’s love for Yitzchak by calling the boy yechidecha, your one; R. Arama thinks it means the one son with whom Avraham has the fullest connection.

The Fragility of Connection

Since he thinks love depends on similarity, a person’s moving to a different life position—such as becoming king—will nullify [he might have meant reduce] previous connections. When Yonatan reassures David he will be king, I Shmuel 23; 17, he adds he, the former heir, will be his subordinate. He names a role for himself because otherwise David’s becoming king would make the two too different to stay friends. Yonatan wants David to know he thinks and hopes they will stay close even after David ascends to the throne.

Hashem structured the Jewish people to foster closeness, by giving us a shared Torah, House (the Beit Ha-Mikdash, I believe he means), and a kohen(Gadol, High Priest).  Their many commonalities will help Jews would work together, support and help each other, on religious as well as ordinary political matters. To do otherwise, for whatever momentary gain, counts as evil, as Malachi 2;10 complains, how could Jews betray each other when they shared one father and one Gd?

Here ends perek ha-chibbur, his introduction to the story of the first marriage. Now the story itself, where the Torah intends to find Adam a partner, which R. Arama thinks means to make him in some way more complete than the animals.

Man Is a Social Animal

Animals need each other only for mating, he says, which is why the male and female could be created separately and use each other purely for mating. People, who would need societies to provide their many needs, had to be created with a different model [we might skip over it too quickly, but already in the fifteenth century—and preceded by Aristotle in the Ethics—R. Arama rejects the idea of the complete loner, the human who needs no others. We need society, ordinary human wisdom has always known, contrary to what some today say].

Lo tov heyot ha-adam levado, it is not good for man to be alone, expressed Hashem’s interest in making man essentially relational. The Torah uses the “being” verb, heyot, when a woman joining a man in marriage as well, such as in Bamidbar 30;7. She only “is,” R. Arama is saying, when she marries [he means it about both spouses, although he says it about her because she joins him in the traditional view of marriage; in fact, though, the couple becomes themselves when they join in marriage).

In order to make the point clear to Adam, Hashem paraded all the other animals in front of him, Bereshit 2;19-20. By having Adam analyze those animals’ nature, his understanding of which he demonstrated by giving them appropriate names, Adam himself would see none of them were similar enough to him to forge the bond sought (an ‘ezer kenegdo, a helpmate).

Once he had reviewed all the animals, Adam saw he did not yet have a partner (as Hashem had already said in verse 18; for R. Arama the next verses were to bring Adam on board with the plan).

Yevamot 63a makes the odd comment Adam had relations with every type of animal and was not satisfied. Rather than the literal and somewhat vulgar sense of the statement, R. Arama thinks the Gemara meant the point he just made—a good look [remember the Torah uses the verb yada, to know, for sexual relations] at every type of animal showed it was too different from Adam to serve the role Hashem intended.

Taking a Rib

Hashem puts Adam to sleep to make Chavah as a way of enhancing the attraction between the two. People love surprises, and the sudden appearance of a wife would make her more exciting. In addition, Sanhedrin 39a says people tend to look down on items whose working they know too fully; seeing exactly how something came to be takes away some of the magic. And there’s the pain of surgery.

Hashem built Chavah from  a piece of Adam to enhance their similarities (as he had said  in perek ha-chibbur) and therefore their love. The Torah deliberately used the verb va-yiven et ha-tzela, Hashem constructed (or built) the rib; in contrast to creation or formation (such as a chicken from an egg), where the original material absorbs completely into the new creature, the materials from Adam used to construct Chavah remained identifiable, a permanent reminder to the two of their connection to each other.

Adam celebrates the result as “bones of my bones,” which articulates the qualitative difference between human and animal mates, between a purely sexual, procreational mating and an imprinting of one on the other, as shown by the woman being called ishah, for having been taken from ish, man.

(R. Arama here digresses to points about the spousal relationship which seem to me too different from our own, and not essential to his argument, to entertain here. Similarly, I am leaving out his claim this chapter shows the world was created in Hebrew).

The difference between formation and construction also explains the Torah’s line ‘al ken ya’azov ish et aviv ve-et imo, therefore a man will leave his mother and father. They gave him physical material which created or formed him, whereas the woman with whom he joins (his lost rib, as it were) will share all their materials, a union of love and serenity.

The Partnership

I have perhaps done too well at avoiding R. Arama’s view of women as subordinate to men, so I will share one example of what we might find problematic. He thinks people have a purely physical side, which they inherit from their mothers, their human side from their fathers, and their intellectual soul infused by Hashem (his interpretation of Niddah 31a, there are three partners in every baby, with the Gemara listing various parts of a person donated by each of the partners).

He knows marriages can go wrong, another part of his discussion I have chosen to leave aside in favor of stressing his main point, Hashem created men and women to foster the felicitous growth of humanity as a whole. Yeshayahu 51;2 singles out Avraham and Sarah’s marriage because it, too—the initiating marriage of the Jewish people—evinced such a partnership, starting our nation off in the best possible way, the reason Yeshayahu urges us to remember the two of them as we build our own lives and partnerships.


Back to Adam and Chavah, whom verse 25 describes as naked and unashamed. Bereshit Rabbah 14 says people were created age twenty (Chullin 60a similarly says they were created with their full faculties). R. Arama thinks the two sources mean they were created physically perfect, which is why they were not embarrassed by their nakedness, since they could serve as models for Shir Ha-Shirim’s endearments about lovers’ physical gifts.

Without a sense of good and evil, they did not yet know to find nudity embarrassing or to be covered. Partially, they were at fault for not realizing this (even animals, R. Arama says, are formed by nature in such a way as to hide their genitalia), since they had not partaken of the Tree of Knowledge (remember, he thinks they were always supposed to sample the Tree, only to do so in proper proportion. They should have eaten enough to learn to wear clothing, for reasons R. Arama apparently found too obvious to explain).

Chava makes clear they had gone too far in avoiding the Tree of Knowledge when she tells the serpent (their interaction is the topic of the next sha’ar) they were told not to touch the Tree. Her excessive extremism led them down the path to expulsion from the Garden.

Back to the First “Marriage,” and Free Will Choices

R. Arama comes back now to the union between body and intellect, form and matter, and again offers an introductory few paragraphs he names perek ha-chibbur ha-tiv’i, the chapter on natural connections. Some people thinks “choice” means the ability and right to choose whether good or bad, but R. Arama thinks it can only mean making the good or right choice (he points to verses which back him up, such as Devarim 30;19, u-vacharta ba-chayyim, which ascribe choice to the proper, better side).

Hashem created people with the ability to go right or wrong, but with a leaning towards the correct, and endowed us with an intellectual soul to help us free ourselves of our material side. In listening to our intellects, we become free; when we yield to the physical, we lose our freedom and choice, as we do when we sin, where we fail to exercise freedom and fall prey to our animalistic side.

Angels were not created to grow or to earn reward or punishment, which is why Hashem did not give them such challenges, made them only good. To R. Arama, the difference explains R. Shmuel bar Nachman (Bereshit Rabbah 9)’s explanation of the phrase tov meod, very good, how Hashem characterizes creation once it’s all done.

He says tov referred to humanity’s good side, where meod, very, refers to the evil inclination. What about the evil inclination would make the good very? It gives the possibility of failure, which then earns people reward when they use their free will to choose (I don’t need to write “well,” since for him choice means well).

In both marriages he discussed in the eighth sha’ar, the physical/intellectual and male/female, the Midrash’s idea of zachah, ‘ezerlo zachah, kenegdo, if he merits, she is a help, if not, she is opposite him (a play on the Biblical phrase ‘ezer ke-negdo, a help alongside him) applies. If we use our physical side properly, R. Arama wants us to know, if we subordinate it to the intellectual, we will have the best marriage we could. Which is the side of marriage he cares about most, and to which he directed his comments on the Torah’s presentation of the formation of women.

About Gidon Rothstein

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter