Back to Main Page

Divine Intent

By: Rav Donny Besser

On Shavuot we celebrate the anniversary of Hashem giving us the Torah at Har Sinai so many centuries ago. Chazal teach (Taanit 4:8) that this was the moment of our marriage relationship with Him. What can we learn from that initial wedding about our contemporary marriage laws?

While women’s issues are at the heart of many disputes in contemporary Jewish circles, the imbalance of power in matters of marriage and divorce are particularly difficult to understand.  Specifically:

1. Ceremonially, only the man actively facilitates either marriage or divorce;

2. While marriage can only occur with the willful participation of both parties, according to biblical law, a man can divorce his wife against her will;

3. Polygamy, but not polyandry is sanctioned by the Torah. 

Unlike many “women’s issues” (minyan, edut, ordination, mitzvot aseh shehazman grama, talmud Torah etc.), it is hard to argue that these differences reflect an approach of “separate but equal” treatment of the sexes, particularly in light of the pain experienced in recent years by agunot as a result of these rules.

For the most part, this is more troubling in theory than in practice, as the Cherem d’Rabbeinu Gershom which took enormous steps to equalize the playing field for women by prohibiting polygamy and non-consensual divorce. The instances of inequity in today’s world are either as a result of extreme malfeasance (aguna) or only ceremonial (the one-sided nature of the procedures of marriage and divorce).  Even before Rabbeinu Gershom, Rav Ami in the Gemara (Yevamot 65a) tried to outlaw polygamy, but his opinion was not immediately accepted as authoritative. Today, innovations like the halachik pre-nuptial agreement and organizations like ORA continue to fight to alleviate the unfair results that Jewish law sometimes enables. But why is this kind of corrective necessary? Why would God create a system that needed adjusting to meet the most basic ethical standard?

Whenever we attempt to analyze the reasons for mitzvoth in the Torah, it’s important to acknowledge that we are engaging in little more than guesswork. Still, with questions like these it is also important to continue to ask and attempt to get progressively closer to Hashem’s divine intent, however short we are destined to fall.

The Sefer Hachinuch explains the reason for the mitzvah of kibbud av v’em that we need to recognize the good done for us by our parents; bringing us into the world and providing all of our physical and emotional needs. He adds:

When this trait is established in ones’ heart a person will proceed from this to recognize the good that G-d has done for them, for G-d is the person’s source and the source of our ancestors until Adam; G-d has brought us into the world and sustained us in all of our needs; G-d has fashioned our form and the completeness of our bodies; G-d has given us a soul of understanding, for if not for our soul we would be like unintelligent animals. Through this a person will evaluate in their thoughts how and how much it is proper to take care in their service of G-d.

It is challenging for us to be constantly aware of an imperceptible God, so to help us appreciate our relationship with Hashem, our ultimate parent, He gave us human parents, whose contributions are easier for us to recognize, and commanded us to respect them and be cognizant of what we get from them, which will lead us to appreciate what God does for us. One could imagine a world in which the world was populated in another way. God purposely created the world with parents – human creators and caregivers - so that we will have a tangible symbol to remind us of our true Creator and Caregiver; the One who really brought us into the world and really gives us all that we need. And since God is not human and non-gendered, and fills the role of both father and mother we need both a human father and mother.

From here we see that when trying to understand some more difficult to understand laws that govern our interpersonal relationships (slavery, monarchy, marriage etc.) it may be useful to look to the divine relationship it is meant to symbolize. While Hashem is both our father and mother, when it comes to His marriage relationship with the Jewish people, He is clearly the husband, and we – Jewish women and men – are his wife. The Mishna describes our receiving of the Torah on Har Sinai as our wedding with God. He gives us the Torah as our kesef kiddushin, and we, willingly accept. As each Jewish wedding symbolically mirrors our marriage to Hashem, it is crucial that the man, who is play acting the role of God, to be the active giver- for reasons having nothing to do with any human man or woman.  While Hashem could conceivably take another bride in addition to Klal Yisrael (polygamy), were we to attempt to take another husband (avoda zara), we would violate the sacred trust between us (adultery). Finally, while Hashem could theoretically terminate our marriage without our consent (one-sided divorce), we (His wife) are unable to leave the relationship, as the Gemara teaches (Sanhedrin 44a) “אף על פי שחטא - ישראל הוא,” we are inextricably linked to God and our covenant. While the contemporary reality of aguna makes this feel oppressive and unfair, in its original context this sentiment is actually quite beautiful and comforting: as badly as we may damage the relationship we have with Hashem, we can’t sever it. (See Gur Aryeh, Shemot 19, that Hashem too performed the act of marriage in a manner that bound Him to us as well).

As we recreate the Sinai experience of נעשה ונשמע on Shavuot, we should take the opportunity to renew our faith in the inherent goodness and morality of Hashem and even the more challenging details for our 21st century sensibilities to accept. Once we start with that bedrock of emunah, we can undertake the hard work of attempting to figure out how to align the two.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Same’ach.





Back to top