What is marriage all about?
In her article on the gift of receiving, Mrs. Pfeffer assumes that the main ingredient for a healthy marriage is the maintenance of a proper “balance of power” between husband and wife. If the wife were but softer and more receiving and the man more dominant and giving, they would, it seems, be assured peace and harmony in their palace. According to this conception, it seems the axis around which domestic bliss revolves is power relations; sort out the power relations, and all we be well.
In this article, I will argue that before discussing the significance of giving and receiving, we must first ask ourselves a more fundamental question: what is the basic purpose of marriage? Following this, we can ask a secondary question: Is the woman’s trait of receiving necessary for realizing that aim? Mrs. Pfeffer’s complaint about the challenges women experience in our generation is accurate, but I believe it derives from a clash between different conceptions of marriage rather than women being unable to submit and receive.
In Charedi society, the clash between two models of marriage, the societal and the personal, can often be a factor in marital tension. It also bears on the question of how the ideas of giving and receiving are understood and implemented in the marital context.
A Marriage of Stability
In conservative societies, the main goal of marriage is ensuring societal stability and continuity. As such, a great emphasis is placed on the economic aspect of marriage, as well as on broader family ties. Before forming a home, it is imperative for both sides to investigate the economic viability of the future household, as well as the personal ability of both spouses to live up to expectations in a range of contexts. The personal relationship between husband and wife is hardly negligible, of course, but it remains less central than the broader societal and familial context.
This approach is by no means illegitimate and comes with its own internal meaning and logic. Society is a complete, organic body, and has of course an interest in preserving itself and developing in changing and challenging circumstances. Stable family units are the building blocks of society, and there is, therefore, much sense in ensuring they are strong and stable and not easily dismantled. We can therefore understand the social convention which states that the “good” is for couples to stay together, while the “bad” is that they break up. In addition, when a conflict emerges between the interest of the individual and that of society, society’s interest will win out, even at the painful cost of harming individual welfare.
This approach is also common in our own Charedi community, a society with clear conservative tendencies, and it is expressed in the view that the Jewish home is the cornerstone of the Torah world. The idea that the integrity of the home is required for the existence of the entire Torah world is fundamental to the education of our daughters. It reflects the understanding that marriage first and foremost serves the stability of society, only afterward serving to increase the personal welfare of husbands and wives.
The anecdote recording the excitement of a newly engaged groom’s mother with her son who found himself a “computer programmer,” as mentioned (and condemned) in Mrs. Pfeffer’s article, presents a good illustration of the view of marriage as an institution for preserving societal stability. If the most important thing in marriage is the stability of society, candidates with assets that can ensure the survival and continued preservation of the given society’s basic principles are more valued and in demand.
Since the bride’s profession is tied to economic stability and security, it contains the assurance that the husband can continue to learn Torah in Kollel. Mothers-in-law of “programmer” brides can be at peace on two fronts: the economic welfare of their children, and their son’s ability to continue Torah study. What, then, is so wrong with such happiness?
A Marriage of Love
The wrong of taking pride in “programmer” brides draws from a different approach to marriage, one that stresses marriage as a framework for realizing love and relationship. Based on the former approach, in which marriage is required first and foremost for societal stability, the contractual side of the union is stressed over the need for a close, loving connection. By contrast, an approach viewing marriages as a framework for expressing a personal relationship primarily stresses the mutual loyalty of the couple, not necessarily out of fear of loneliness and the need for social stability but rather because of an internal longing for one another and for deep relationship. Marriage is not constructed for the family or society, but for the couple itself; no others can enter its shared space. The couple is driven by the desire to connect in realizing something personal that is quite unique to them.
Mrs. Pfeffer believes that the identity of the “giver” and the “receiver” among the two is fundamental to a couple’s marital bliss. I find this hard to swallow. A couple starting with assumptions of relationship and connection ought not to focus on who is the “giver” or the “receiver,” who is strong and who is weak. Strength and weakness have a solid place in the contractual-societal marriage model but are less prominent in the relationship model where each spouse seeks to complete and compliment the other. Of course, even this kind of relationship includes a dynamic of giving and receiving, but it does not dictate predefined goals, considering rather the natural flow and development of the specific couple.
In this approach, the principal aim in a marital relationship is the joint fulfillment of the couple, rather than acquiring a stable position in society. As such, the questions regarding the candidates are fundamentally different and will focus more on the personal match between the two rather than on family or economic background. The “desired” candidates will be those best able to complete the internal world of the other – their dreams, ambitions, and desires. In addition, it may be that when the couple feels that each is no longer contributing to the other and no longer developing and growing together, they will decide to split up; the purpose of their union is no longer achieved. For them, such a move would be honest and mutually respectful, while those who view marriage in terms of stability would consider it hasty and irresponsible.
Is Social Change Illegitimate?
Mrs. Pfeffer praises the model of marriage in which the woman is in the position of receiving while bemoaning how social change turning the woman into the main provider has undermined this fundamental position. But based on the above, it seems the important question in marriage is not who plays receiver and who plays giver, but what the main purpose of marriage is.
The dynamic of giving and receiving expressed in Mrs. Pfeffer’s article can be interpreted in two ways. If marriage is viewed as a framework of social stability, the submissive stance of the woman is obviously needed to strengthen the family unit, which is more secure within a solid hierarchy. In this vein, the most basic unit in society is the home, which ensures its existence with the aid of strong men and devoted.
By contrast, if marriage is considered a journey towards love, connection, and self-fulfillment, then receiving plays a slightly different role. Both receiving and giving serve to strengthen the relationship and empower it. Mrs. Pfeffer complains of how feminism influences Charedi women in a way that could undermine Charedi families. Indeed, it may be that humanity is in a state of imbalance; after years of suffering the first marriage model, the pendulum has swung strongly to a no less problematic direction of overemphasizing self-and mutual fulfillment in marriage and ignoring values that are no less important. The secret, as always, lies in finding the proper balance and reaching a deep understanding of what each approach offers and where it falls short. Either way, in my view the problem does not lie in negating the model of the receiving woman; it is not essential for a good marriage.
Marriages of stability will not always call to preserve the traditional power dynamic. There are situations where social stability requires women to assume a more dominant role. The Torah community today is an example of this. Its survival in its present form depends on the dedication of men to Torah and the readiness of women to take on the burden of providing for the family. In this reality, the ability to surrender or receive does not necessarily work towards maintaining social stability.
Charedi society conducts itself based on the idea that the supreme ideal is a “Torah home” in which the husband’s craft is Torah study while his wife, the “crown of her husband,” takes on the role of provider. Yes, this often grants more power to women – but is this necessarily a problem that needs solving? So long as this reality helps Charedi society maintain its way of life, nobody seems eager to pass a law against female dominance. Only when this “giving” or “taking” leads to an existential threat to society, and not just the individual, will society enlist resources and efforts to solve the crisis and restore order.
In the second approach, which places the relationship itself at the center, it seems there can be no fixed law regarding receiving and giving, no single model that can apply to every marriage. Each couple has its own unique dynamic, and what shapes a healthy relationship is the couple’s ability to be attentive to one another and function in harmony. The marriage is a shared and delicate dance whose movements cannot be learned in advance.
Awareness of the Goals of Marriage
Mrs. Pfeffer implicitly attacks the existing arrangement in which the husband dedicates his life to Torah study while his wife provides. Her language implies this arrangement is harmful to the relationship itself. Yet, it may be that our society does not consider a harmonious, loving relationship to be its top priority – a relationship serving society at large is what really matters. The goal for a stable relationship in which each spouse has a clear, predefined role, and that this is what matters most. If we adopt this outlook, then there is nothing wrong with a woman seeking a “programmer” for her son or a teacher seeing a man going to work as “cancer.” Each of them is simply an extreme manifestation of society’s present value system, in which the marital system serves the stability of all of society.
We should of course take note of the importance of love in marriage and argue that both love and stability are possible and need not come at the other’s expense. But we need to honestly ask ourselves: What happens when there is a conflict or when the two paths do not meet? Which comes first? This question could clarify which approach we really support, what lens we use to view marriage, what we consider to be an advantage and what are the costs we are willing to pay for it.
I am convinced that a significant portion of women’s (and couples’) suffering derives from their inability to distinguish between their actual, society-based approach to marriage and the sense of a mismatch between their expectations and the actual relational dynamic. Many couples are unaware of the importance of social stability in marriage, and they develop expectations for a relationship that does not necessarily match the DNA of Charedi society.
Thus, if Mrs. Pfeffer’s aim is to raise the issue of harmony and love between spouses, I am not sure the best way to do so is by reproaching women for refusing to receive. The personal relationship cannot be reduced to a formula receiving women and giving men. It is true and proper to distinguish between “female” and “male” qualities, but we need to check how much they truly serve the relationship rather than disturb it.
If we indeed wish to strengthen the dimension of self-fulfillment in a given relationship, both women and men need to be attentive to their internal world, to their emotions and needs, leading to their granting and receiving reconciliation via connection to the other. Such a path cannot be learned in advance. It can only be vaguely traced, allowing the couple to conduct their unique journey on their own, as challenging, changing, and unpredictable as it will be.
The development of a more loving model of marriage will not sprout from adopting prefabricated models but is instead the result of setting out on a shared and mysterious journey, in which the couple investigates the qualities, forces, and abilities of each other separately, and the resulting relational dynamics. This gentle dynamic, the perspective turned inward, towards each other and not outwardly, like the two cherubs on the Ark – is the Divine presence between them. This is the sanctified and new space created by the force of their being connected. This is the dance only they share, where both realize their role and unique mission in the world – separately and together.