Kee Tetze: On marriage, Maimonides and commitment

Kee Tetze

Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

Isaiah 54:1-10

My friend has the wonderful ability to start conversations with people wherever she goes. The first time she ever attended a wedding in Israel, a few weeks ago, she made a point of getting to meet the bride's companions, a group of women in their early 20s, most of them religiously observant and most of them graduate or professional school students. Talking about these women with me afterward, my friend asked, "Do you know how they differ from similar young women in America?"

"No, how?" I responded.

"They are all confident that they are going to get married in the next few years," my friend observed. "And do you know why that is?"

"You mean, something beyond the obvious," I said, "that they seem attractive, intelligent, competent?"

"Yes," she replied. "Even attractive, intelligent, and competent American young women would not expect to get married soon."

"Okay, let me guess again," I said. "Maybe they think it is a good idea to get married?"

"Maybe. Maybe that accounts for part of it." Single for a long time, my friend had thought deeply about this matter. Then she responded with the real reason. "The guys they hang around with are not mortally afraid of commitment. Adult males in America more or less choke when they think of making a commitment to anybody or anything."

I thought of all the jokes about American men and their supposed fear of commitment that I have heard recently. Jokes that make generalizations about groups of people tend to make me uncomfortable. The evidence might not meet scientific standards. But a thoughtful person does not totally discount anecdotal evidence.

Besides, I found it hard to take this observation gently, as I was just at that moment worrying about a related issue:

I had just learned about a man who, after at long last agreeing to marry and then doing so, became totally incapacitated when his wife became pregnant. "Totally incapacitated" is my expression; he said "freaked out." He had prepared himself for the level of commitment involved in marriage, but not for parenthood. I had heard such stories before.

Marriage really does amount to an awesome level of commitment. It means giving up on the option that a more nearly perfect potential mate might come along soon. Why settle for a real person, with real flaws, when the perfect potential mate might still be out there? Furthermore, plenty of people think the whole idea of trying to make a lifetime commitment causes more pain than it is worth: "Why not," they reason, "settle for a flexible, time-limited arrangement? If it turns out to last a long while, how nice! And if not, no hard feelings, let it go." After all, so many marriages end in painful divorces.

If marriage seems like a frightening level of commitment, what about children? At least you know whom you marry; with children, you make a lifetime commitment to a perfect stranger. Fear of commitment makes apparent sense.

Flexible, time-limited, keeping-your-options arrangements also produce casualties, though.

Maimonides interprets a verse in this week's reading to indicate a positive commandment, addressed primarily at men, to marry. He understands the biblical expression, "When a man weds a woman," or, "when a husband takes a wife" (Deut. 22:14 and 24:1), to mean that, when a man wishes to wed a certain woman, Torah law demands that he do so with a fitting ceremony (Positive command No. 213 in the Book of Commandments). Perhaps this commandment is addressed primarily at men because they have more of a tendency to fear commitment.

You might think that Maimonides means only that if you happen to want to make this sort of commitment, then use a proper ceremony. After all, he also lists a Torah commandment, (also based on Deut. 24:1) to divorce using a written document (Positive command No 222); not that every married couple should divorce, but rather, if the couple is divorcing, the husband must initiate a proper ceremony.

Probably Maimonides means more: that each man has the obligation to search for an appropriate woman, to find someone who could become his life's companion and then, if she agrees, to fulfill the commandment in a ceremony in which he makes a true and lasting commitment to her. With all the risks involved. In spite of any fear of commitment.

Maimonides himself wed at the age of 50 (his first marriage? I am not sure); his only child, a son, was born a year later.