The First Marriage, and Marriage Generally

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

R. Arama opens the eighth sha’ar with a Talmudic passage I often see and hear misquoted (although his reading will justify the use of it I am about to share). Sotah 2a contrasts a statement of Rabbah bar bar Chanah in the name of R. Yochanan, who said matching husbands and wives was as difficult for Hashem as splitting the Sea (R. Arama assumes the difficulty lies in matching people with the exact same merits), with R. Yehudah’s assertion in the name of Rav, a Voice announces whom a fetus will marry forty days before formation (when the fetus clearly does not have  does not yet have any merits).

To resolve the contradiction, the Gemara says the first statement referenced second marriages, whereas the “forty days before birth” idea was for first ones [which makes “hard as splitting the Sea” irrelevant to first marriages, although I nonetheless hear this passage cited in divrei Torah at sheva berachot; R. Arama re-reads the meaning of first marriages, as we’re about to see].

Building Off of What We Know

R. Arama argues the first marriage of the passage in Sotah means the marriage between people’s physical and intellectual sides, the “second” one being the one between a man and a woman.

To work his way there, he starts with a general principle of learning, we scaffold off what we know to what we do not, in our study of nature and of wisdom. Prophets similarly help us to some understanding of Hashem by analogizing to what we already know– a lion (‘Amos 3;8) or a shepherd (Yeshayahu 40;11)– or by using human terms for Hashem, such as Hashem’s finger (Shemot 8; 15).

In Bereshit Rabbah 19, R. Yuden sums up the idea, (part of) the skill of prophets lies in their ability to draw parallels between Hashem’s abilities and people’s.

R. Arama says theologians of his time agreed, whatever insight into Gd they had achieved came from their studies of the human soul.Berachot 58a offers what R. Arama reads as a mystical truth, essential elements of the kingdom of heaven are reflected in the kingdom of earth.

Advice For Marriage

When Hashem forms Adam, the first human, R. Arama thinks the process involved uniting form and matter, the material with the intellectual. This “marriage” bears many similarities to the later one, as Mishlei shows with its frequent use of women—good and bad—as metaphors or analogies for steps the road to wisdom.

I am skipping his analysis of Tehillim 45, which he sees as filled with references to kinds of wisdom, such as the difference between theoretical and directly practical ideas. One specific example of how he sees marriage as a way to order one’s intellectual life starts with the openness he thinks a wife must bring to her new marriage [as always, I am not endorsing his view of anything, in this case of gender roles, nor implying they are the only valid way to construct a marriage. I do not mean to disagree, either, only to stress we are here to study what he said, and afterwards we can think about which parts of his worldview are simple Jewish truths, which are debatable claims we find convincing, and which are debatable claims on which we prefer the views of other authorities of Torah].

He says a new wife must make sure she does not bring baggage from her family of origin which leads to jealousy or strife in her marriage, which might especially threaten each side’s willingness to fulfill their proper function in the marriage [yes, he is assuming gender functions in a marriage; see my caution above—we are learning what he held, not judging it.]

The Torah expresses the idea by insisting she forget her father and mother [the Torah commands this regarding a war bride, who comes from another nation; R. Arama understands the Torah to intend the idea for all marriages]. To R. Arama, the Torah wants wives to leave behind any notions they learned at home about the roles of a wife in a marriage. To assimilate well into her husband’s life, she must abandon her preconceptions and work with him  [today, we would almost definitely say the couple has to work it out between them, which only means neither should be stuck in what they learned at home; the idea of freedom from past encumberments as the way into a productive marriage seems to me broadly accepted, although we today apply it to both partners].

First Marriages Cannot Be a Matter of Fate

As with the second marriage, so too the first, the marriage of flesh and spirit. I will not go into his examples or how he interpretsTehillim 45 to express them, other than to mention his idea of the intellect’s internality as a reflection of women’s tendency [in his time, at least] to stay indoors, praised in verse 14 (kol kevudah bat melech penimah, the king’s daughter is all glorious within). As the husband enacts the public actions of the household, the body enacts the public actions of the intellect [R. Arama seems to see the woman as the analogy to the intellect, which gives her a more honored role than his other comments might have led us to expect].

The passage in Sotah also only makes sense when we read it as differentiating ordinary marriage from the one between the material and the intellectual. When Rabbah bar bar Chanah said finding a proper match was as hard for Hashem as splitting the Sea, he meant it for reward and punishment. Ideally, positive or negative feedback corresponds equally and directly to a person’s actions.

Were we to continue to assume the idea of announcing a child’s spouse forty days before formation means marriage, R. Arama finds it terribly unjust for Hashem to saddle either spouse with someone s/he might have outstripped through laudable life choices.   

Worse, since the Gemara “resolves” the problem by saying the pre-formation prediction applies to first marriages, anyone who marries only one wife is doomed to whatever Hashem decided before s/he was formed, with no way out.

Nor does such a fatalistic view fit other of Chazal’s statements about marriage. Sanhedrin 22a says a man who loses his first wife has undergone a tragedy as terrible as the destruction of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, and says there is no replacing the wife of one’s youth. Were Sotah meant as written, the second wife should be the one celebrated, the one who best fits the man as he turned out.

The First Marriage: Body and Intellect

Instead, he reads the Gemara to be referencing the connection of matter and form (physical and intellectual/spiritual), which he also thinks the true meaning of Bereshit 5;2, zachar u-nekevah beraam, He created them (humans) male and female. Saying it’s form and matter explains why the verse continues Hashem called their name Adam (the plural is odd, since it’s one person; for R. Arama, form and matter were separate, and Hashem called them, once united, Adam).

He thinks the Gemara means what we call marriage when it speaks of a zivug sheini, a second matching, which Hashem organizes according to merits and is as difficult as splitting the Sea [which justifies why people quote this at sheva berachot for first marriages, although I doubt they know R. Arama’s innovative idea before they do].

The first “marriage” does have an element of fate to it. We receive our bodies and our intellects without any connection to our merits. For those who end up with a fortunate grouping of traits, the marriage has gone well. Those who have more difficulties—Shabbat156a thinks the month in which we are born has an impact on our characters, for one example he gives—still have the free will to channel what they’ve been handed in positive directions, an idea he intends to discuss further in sha’ar 22 (so we’ll leave it for there).

He has already been clear, however, marriage in the human sense is a match made in Heaven, based on the parties’ merits, and our first marriage, between our physical and spiritual sides, is fated. We can use our free will only to advance the positive parts and overcome the negative tendencies.

We’ll see his view of ordinary marriage next time, when he interprets the verses where Hashem decides to create a woman to complement Adam.

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