Built around the singular relationship between a man and a woman who dedicate themselves to raising a new family, the family unit has been a central pillar of Jewish survival for time immemorial. To this day, the traditional “Jewish home” continues to be a bastion of family warmth, stability and commitment.
Yet, while the importance of the Jewish family is indisputable, and in practice acknowledged to the point that significant educational and communal resources are devoted to supporting family values, we find little treatment of the marital relationship in classical rabbinic and post-rabbinic teachings. Important questions about the spousal covenant are generally absent from the huge corpus of rabbinic thought. Which essential characteristics define marriage? What does marriage entail practically? To what degree is marriage akin to or unlike other interpersonal relationships? And how might a Torah view of marriage differ from that promoted by society at large? These questions are hardly asked, much less answered satisfactorily.
It may be tempting to suggest that the Torah’s view is self-evident and requires no further discussion or elucidation; yet we should be careful not to fall prey to such complacency. All around us, society is rapidly and radically redefining marriage, and the institution’s very survival is in question. It may go without saying that the Torah’s conception of marriage diverges sharply from the secular orientation of Western culture, but we should also realize that our religious community does not exist in a bubble. We cannot pretend to be immune to the winds of change howling around us. Competing definitions of marriage challenge the Torah’s paradigm; if we fail to formulate our own approach, we stand to lose the battle against foreign influences even before we realize the very engagement.
We cannot pretend to be immune to the winds of change howling around us. Competing definitions of marriage challenge the Torah’s paradigm; if we fail to formulate our own approach, we stand to lose the battle against foreign influences even before we realize the very engagement
Below I will outline three possible visions of the relationship between man and woman and how these are formalized in the institution of marriage. I will name these the Ownership Model, the Companionship Model, and the Partnership Model. I believe that the Ownership Model characterized society’s understanding of marriage throughout much of history, while the Companionship Model is generally assumed in today’s secular culture. By contrast, I will claim that the Torah argues for a third model, one of Partnership. In this essay, I will describe the three models and attempt to develop our understanding of the Partnership Model, which I believe is the correct approach to marriage. My characterizations might represent overly broad generalizations; reality on the ground, in actual homes, is far more complex. And yet, what is lost in nuance and subtlety I believe will be gained in the development of valuable and illuminating archetypes.
The Ownership Model
The Ownership Model, as its name suggests, relates to marriage as to the acquisition of an object. Marriage represents the acquisition of woman by man, rendering her his possession and at his disposal. Of course, the very first premise therein is that a woman can be an object with respect to which ownership is a meaningful notion. Indeed, the Torah’s rules governing religious vows suggest that in ancient times a young woman started her live as “property” of her father, until such time she is transferred to the ownership of another man, as the father deems suitable. Ideally, and as reflected by various Talmudic teachings, the father, wishing the best for his daughter, should seek out a worthy man who will protect and cherish her. But in reality the size of the proposed dowry would frequently be enough to entice a father to “sell off” his daughter to her new husband.
Significant domestic and economic realities result from the woman-as-property model. For one, the husband had automatic rights to any product of the wife’s labor, including wages earned from a third party. A married woman could not independently own property; anything she produced, earned, or received would be subject to the ruling whereby “whatever a woman acquires is acquired by her husband.” Finally, if the wife is her husband’s “property,” even if she is a valued and prized asset, there is nothing preventing him from “acquiring” more than one wife.
The Torah does not encourage or preach Ownership as the ideal marriage model – it simply takes it for granted. The Torah operates within an existing paradigm and legislates on behalf of women in an effort to temper possible harmful aspects of an ownership relationship. In a similar vein, the Torah never endorses slavery; it confronts a world in which slavery is a given and attempts to protect slaves from excess and abuse on the part of their masters.
Marriage as ownership thus represents a transactional arrangement whereby the husband, as buyer, contracts to purchase the woman, promising his support and provision of her needs in exchange for her services. Such service is left entirely to the husband’s definition and discretion: one man may expect that his wife will bear him many children, while another might wish to take pleasure in her beauty alone. Rambam explicitly codifies the wife’s subjugation to her husband’s will:
“Thus, there are five tasks that every woman must perform on behalf of her husband: to spin [thread], to wash his face, hands and feet, to pour beverages for him, to make his bed and to do his bidding. And there are six tasks that some women perform and others do not perform. They are to grind [flour], to cook, to bake, to do laundry, to nurse, and to place straw before her husband’s beast. […] Whenever a woman refrains from performing any of the tasks that she is obligated to perform, she may be compelled to do so, even with a rod.”
Part and parcel of this model is the husband’s absolute authority to cancel his wife’s vows and his right to summon her for marital relations at any time. On the flip side, should she fall foul of his favor, for any reason, he has complete autonomy to send her away. In this model, marriage and slavery share a great degree of similarity.
For much of history and across many cultures, the Ownership Model was presumed. To this day, marriage as a transactional arrangement still exists in large part in cultures unaffected by Western modernity. There is nothing Jewish per se about this model. I believe the Torah, at the time that it first confronted humanity, addressed a world in which the woman-as-property assumption was unchallenged. The Torah thus never directs us to see women as property; on the contrary, it attempts to elevate women’s status within the existing marriage paradigm. In other words, Ownership is not the Torah’s goal for marriage, but rather the reality on the ground that the Torah seeks to elevate and refine – just as the Torah never encourages slavery, but rather accepts it as a reality and seeks to soften its harshest edges.
For much of history and across many cultures, the Ownership Model was presumed. To this day, marriage as a transactional arrangement still exists in large part in cultures unaffected by Western modernity. There is nothing Jewish per se about this model
To achieve its aim of slowly changing humanity’s understanding of the relationship between husband and wife, the Torah first directs man to view his wife as “flesh of my flesh,” and teaches that the dynamic of “he will dominate you” is a product of humanity’s curse, rather than the ideal state of a perfect world. Later, the Torah insists that the man provide for his wife’s clothing, food, and conjugal rights – even if she was originally a maidservant purchased in a direct transaction. Subtly, the Torah shifts a woman’s status as property to that a subject with rights of its own. Consequently, while a man who is sold to another man does indeed become his slave (with certain limitations on how such ownership can be exercised), even a slave-woman maintains a set of inalienable rights.
Even in the conceptual, non-legal realm we see this progression in the Torah, whereby a newly married man is exempt from army service for a year after marriage, ensuring he is free to “make happy the wife he has taken.” It is the wife’s good that the Torah emphasizes, not the husband’s desire to be with her.
Down the line, in the Prophets and Writings, we find numerous allusions to the ideal marriage. These take the form of negative references to, and descriptions of the unfortunate consequences of, simultaneous marriage to multiple women, alongside poetic uses of marriage as an allegory to God’s relationship with the People of Israel.
Our Sages also acted to limit a husband’s “ownership” of his wife. Not only did they require the woman’s participation in and consent to the marriage itself, they later created the institution of the kesuba. This legally binding document memorializes the financial obligations of the husband to his new wife, and further protects her interests in the event the relationship’s dissolves. These steps transformed the woman from an asset to a partner engaged in a marital relationship and conferred upon the woman a set of new rights.
Taking these efforts still further, the Sages established the possibility that a wife might own property independently of her husband. Such a change in her economic reality was but a symbol of her changing status from chattel to co-equal partner. Indeed, the Sages went on to suggest, through the canonization of the “Blessings of Marriage” (the Sheva Berachos), that the marital relationship should in fact be one of “companionship and love, joy and delight.” They even required a week of festivities dedicated to celebrating the newly formed relationship of each married couple.
Ultimately, Rabbeinu Gershom prohibited multiple wives and required the woman’s consent to divorce, a set of decrees that significantly elevated the status and autonomy of the married Jewish woman. Not only can she now own property; her wishes are honored, and her opinions have serious legal consequences for the husband should he seek to terminate the marriage.
The Prophetic vision regarding the God and the Jewish People, whereby “on that day […] you will call me your husband and you will no longer call me your master,” is well reflected in the steps taken by the rabbinic tradition to alleviate the woman’s plight and elevate her status.
The Companionship Model
A sharply different paradigm of marriage sees the spouses as equal companions. The husband neither owns the wife nor is he solely responsible for her wellbeing and care. In the Companionship Model, a woman, both before she marries and during the marriage, is completely autonomous. Spouses are co-equal individuals with independent agency to enter a marriage relationship, often following the negotiation of mutually beneficial “terms.” Thus, the married woman may choose to maintain her maiden name rather than assume her new husband’s family. She may keep her finances separate from her husband’s and deposit her earnings into a bank account under her title alone. Whereas historically a husband would bring his new wife into his home, an act that was practical as much as it was symbolic, today’s cohabitation arrangements may be quite different. Perhaps the woman will rearrange her existing home so her new husband can move in, or circumstances might even be such that the couple choose not to live together at all.
The Companionship Model, as manifest in contemporary society, reflects marriage as an expression of individual selfhood on the part of both spouses, a major aspect of which being the freedom to choose a companion or romantic partner. Such selection may or may not result in the building of a new family; it is certainly not taken for granted as a relationship’s primary purpose.
Men and women who seek companionship do so of their own free will and at a pace that suits them. When two such individuals do choose to “marry” there is little purpose to or need for such a formal ceremony as marriage. In the absence of the religious, transactional, and socially consequential elements present in ancient marriage, the marriage ceremony of individuals choosing each other’s company retains mere symbolic and cultural significance. Celebrating their marriage publicly, the couple chooses to announce to the world that they have entered a long-term relationship. Indeed, in many cases the institution of marriage is necessary for legal purposes alone, such as realizing tax benefits associated with a joint household and ensuring that any shared offspring will be legally recognized as both spouses’ children. These legalities have little to do with the essence of their relationship; setting aside the need for such formalities, the couple could live out their years together without ever “tying the knot.”
In a companionship model, spouses that choose to marry approach their union as completely autonomous and equal parties to the process. The man does not marry the woman nor divorce her any more than the woman acquires the man. Rather, the two enter the marriage covenant as co-equal individuals: they exchange rings (rather than the traditional Jewish law requiring that the man give a ring to the woman) and they make reciprocal commitments or vows.
Companionship appears to characterize the goal of marriage in Western culture today. True, most marriages do not end up being solely about companionship; there is more to them than that. But the public discourse around marriage reflects such underlying assumptions as individual autonomy, egalitarianism, and choice. If marriage is all about the individual and his or her choice of companion, we can better understand the push for legalization and public recognition of same-sex marriages. Indeed, what argument can be for differentiating between heterosexual and homosexual relationships? After all, just like a man and a woman can choose each other’s companionship, decide to live together, and duly opt to pursue the legal benefits and obligations of marriage, two men or two women should be able to do the same. Why not?
A relationship formed solely for the personal benefit or pleasure of each spouse as an individual is hardly guaranteed to last. Bereft of the kind of commitment that characterized marriages of yesteryear, it is often doomed from the outset
Even if one favors the Companionship Model as a significant improvement over a historical marriage that may have been characterized by tyranny and subjugation, society must nonetheless consider the long-term implications of its hyper-emphasis on the individual and his or her freedom. Today’s divorce rates, which reflect the ease with which people enter into and exit marriage, call into question the long-term prospect of relationships founded upon companionship. A relationship formed solely for the personal benefit or pleasure of each spouse as an individual is hardly guaranteed to last. Bereft of the kind of commitment that characterized marriages of yesteryear, it is often doomed from the outset. Early in their relationship, such lovers might dream of and talk about being together forever, but in reality “forever” often comes far sooner than originally imagined. Piles of statistics predict the longevity of their union and the odds that it will be violated. These numbers do not tell a happy story.
Not all modern sentiments will view the above as necessarily negative. Liberal voices might herald such realities as signs of progress, free choice, and female empowerment. Yet, even those who hold such views should question just how long society can continue to flourish without functioning families.
The Partnership Model
In our description, Companionship entails two autonomous and fully actualized individuals seeking out each other’s company. Not because either lacks for anything as such; they simply prefer to be with another person. Partnership is different. In a union of partnership, for which the word “covenant” might be more fitting, the spouses do not maintain distinct identities – they fuse into a new unit. Marriage is not a business partnership organized around the pursuit of mutually beneficial interests, but rather a sacred covenant of new creation. Neither the Ownership nor the Companionship model can manifest this type of transformation, which draws upon deep mutual commitment. Certainly absent from the Companionship Model, the commitment implied in Partnership does not exist even within the transactional obligations of marriage as ownership, demanding as these may be. Instead, marriage as partnership reflects a strong covenantal agreement to venture into something larger than the sum of its parts.
True, the male aspect is named first in the Creation description, pointing perhaps to a division of responsibility in which (to cite the Sages) “the nature of man is to conquer.” But the conceptual ordering does not suggest anything about the spousal relationship as ownership
As noted above, the Torah never promoted marriage as ownership. Rather, I believe a careful reading shows the Torah explicitly guiding us towards a Partnership paradigm of marriage. If, as suggested earlier, the Creation story teaches us about marriage, then the Torah establishes in those verses that man and woman join together to become one, not that they remain two entities with a shared living arrangement. Nor is the reference to “his helpmate” an indication that the woman is meant to serve her husband. Instead, Man is complete only via the union of marriage. In fact, the first Man is described as a joint being: “And God created Man in His image, in the Image of God He created him, male and female He made them.” The sexual duality of this creation reflects the two aspects of a unit called “Man,” which is a single entity composed of the male and the female. Working together, in partnership, they reproduce and multiply, fill the Earth and harness the forces of nature around them. True, the male aspect is named first in the Creation description, pointing perhaps to a division of responsibility in which (to cite the Sages) “the nature of man is to conquer.” But the conceptual ordering does not suggest anything about the spousal relationship as ownership. On the contrary, the curse of “He will rule over you,” which occurs later in the verses, is a sub-optimal consequence of the woman’s sin, not a reflection of her ideal or essential state.
The Partnership Model defies a long-term covenant, similar the covenant stuck between God and His people. Partners thus create a new world. They live together, and in so doing they bring a new life into the world and raise it, a new person, as their own. The father teaches this “new person” ethical conduct and the mother teaches him Torah, as suggested by the verse “Listen my son to the ethic of your father and do not forsake you mother’s Torah” – a passage that reflects the necessity of full parental influence in the raising of a successful child. Spouses are partners in raising this new person, and they toil side by side to build the new branch that will grow out of their existing tree.
As in the marriage of companionship, a marriage of partnership implies that the man has no ownership over the woman; nor is the reverse the case. Marriage is not about control or dominance, nor is it a mutually agreed upon arrangement whereby the man provides for his family by the sweat of his brow while the woman sits at home, immobilized by her childbearing nature. These features are both consequences of sin, forcing man into the harsh labors of the field and tethering woman to the home while she bears and raises children. Today, both these “curses”’ are much improved; consequently, marriage itself has changed somewhat, even in today’s Torah communities.
As presented above, the Torah promotes marriage as partnership. And yet, the ownership model, a paradigm that resulted from the curse of Adam, characterized marriage for long stretches of history. The Torah’s reference point for its discussion of marriage was simply the reality it confronted, and the laws it promulgated were meant to operate within this framework.
Today, a fascinating process is unfolding whereby the Charedi community is adopting the partnership aspects of marriage and steadily abandoning any vestiges of the ownership model. True, this development can be attributed more to tensions between traditional values and modern reality than to a conceptual reimagination of marriage. Formally speaking, normative halacha remains static: any income brought in by the wife belongs to her husband. At the same time, in today’s Charedi community many wives in fact are the ones who balance the family checkbook and make financial decisions for the home.
Thus, on the one hand, Charedi women continue to abandon their maiden name and take on their husband’s. But on the other hand, it is perfectly acceptable, even among the most devoted traditionalists, for a woman to inherit her share of a deceased parent’s estate, implicit in which is an understanding that she never “left” her natural family. Likewise, while we may be familiar with the traditional woman preparing her husband’s meals, today’s Charedi men are equally likely to find themselves in the kitchen cooking for themselves and their families.
[O]n the one hand, Charedi women continue to abandon their maiden name and take on their husband’s. But on the other hand, it is perfectly acceptable, even among the most devoted traditionalists, for a woman to inherit her share of a deceased parent’s estate, implicit in which is an understanding that she never “left” her natural family
These changes of course raise concerns over the stability of the everlasting Jewish marriage: Might these changes, fueled by modern society, compromise the great institution? Lectures and public calls by Rabbinic figures give voice to these questions. Should a Charedi woman earn more than her husband? By what logic should a wife work to support her husband in Kollel, if by so doing the husband ends up being the “stay-at-home father” to facilitate the wife’s work, which was only intended to support him?
I feel that the changes unfolding today, which eliminate the ancient ownership structure of marriage, are fundamentally positive. Ownership was never the Torah’s ideal vision of marriage. All the same, any change raises legitimate concerns. If we allow the prevailing winds of society to inform our new formulation of marriage, we risk the results of a model we never chose. If we believe the Torah maintains its ability to define a paradigm of marriage that is appropriate for each generation, it is incumbent upon those who speak the voice of Torah to lead efforts to formulate and develop the contours of this approach.
To tell the truth, the Ownership Model is no longer operational, certainly not within a Western democracy. Its continued survival here and there is seems artificial, akin to somebody on life support. Yet, its replacement should not be informed by contemporary culture, or even by the various technologies that have alleviated much of the curse of womanhood. We should be led to our destination by Torah values and the guidance of our Sages. They were the ones who limited a man’s control over his wife and curbed his tyrannical impulses. In today’s new reality, we must continue their work and fully define the Partnership Model. In the following paragraphs I will describe in general terms an operational framework of marriage as partnership in today’s day and age. I will also identify several challenges that face our community as marriage transitions from ownership to partnership.
Partnership: An Overview
A partnership between two individuals is complex and does not lend itself to a one-size-fits-all recipe. Nevertheless, several misconceptions must be addressed.
In every relationship one partner will be more dominant than the other. Decisions must be made, and as to use the Sages’ expression, two kings cannot share a single crown. In a marriage, especially if the goal is to create a shared world rather than remain in independent spaces, it is virtually impossible for the man and woman to be perfectly equal. In some couples the husband will be the dominant figure, while in other relationships it will be the woman. Sometimes dominance might be established relative to particular issues or matters. A couple might settle into a pattern whereby certain decisions are made by one spouse, while other domains are fall under the other’s responsibility. Yet, while the above is the familiar daily reality for so many of us, the model Charedi marriage has not quite updated itself accordingly. Instead, it is generally presumed that the husband will be the one to lead the household in all areas (with the exception perhaps of such “trivial” matters as household chores or recipes). The vast mismatch between these assumptions/expectations and real life can cause significant distress.
As soon as a couple meet for the first time, they need to pay close attention to their respective dominance traits and the likelihood of compatibility along these lines. The classical paradigm of the dominant male and the submissive female may be true for a theoretical majority, but it can also be a very inaccurate reflection of the personalities of real-life individuals in question. A couple that meets while locked into such traditionally accepted conceptions may find themselves running into trouble in short order. Instead, both the man and woman should enter their relationship with an eye towards complete partnership, across all the aspects I shall presently outline.
Partnership in marriage spans four different levels: partnership of the soul, the mind, the body, and the material or financial. These are the components of a healthy marriage as partnership. I believe it is necessary to appreciate up front the demands of each area in order to form a healthy relationship. Unfortunately, such appreciation is often sorely lacking in our community.
“Partnership of the soul” refers to the shared spiritual goals of a relationship. Spouses must agree on a vision for their new home. Will their home be one of Torah study? Of chessed? Will there by many children or few? If the spouses are not aware of and working towards a common vision they will have a very hard time maintaining a sustainable relationship.
“Partnership of the mind” is the daily shared life of a couple. Individuals become close through shared interests and a “meeting of the minds” around their culture and community. When there is considerable distance between spouses in these areas, each is likely to eventually retreat into their own space and create his or her own independent world. When the two do not share any interests – for example, the wife appreciates art while the husband mumbles a perfunctory “how nice” at everything she points out, or a husband enjoys the outdoors while his wife not only refuses to join his hikes but even questions his sanity – they are likely to find themselves lacking avenues for connection. While such a relationship can exist in the ownership model, it cannot last as a partnership. In summary, the ability of each spouse to understand and share the interests and unique traits of his or her partner is a crucial ingredient in preserving the successful partnership.
“Partnership of the body” is the lowest order of connection. Something as magnificent as marriage cannot stand only upon the physical connection alone, just as spices can add flavor to a food only if the basic ingredients were good to begin with. Seasoning cannot help if the raw materials were spoiled from the outset. Marriage based only a physical connection alone is therefore not sustainable. And yet, even when the partnership of soul and mind are in order, physical partnership is still a crucial ingredient. Unfortunately, young men and women in our community have little understanding of any of this prior to marriage. Neglecting the education of our youth in this area suggests that, in some ways, our community may still be stuck in the “ownership model” whereby the wife is to serve at her husband’s beck and call at all times. In reality of course this is hardly the life we live today. Ignoring important preparation for the physical relationship as a part of marriage paves the road for chronic struggle. At best, these difficulties are addressed by education post-marriage; at worst they weaken the relationship from the outset.
“Financial partnership” is another important component of the marriage. When all is said and done, a shared household involves basic economic function: earning income, creating a budget, managing a bank account and applying for and repaying loans. Today, our youth enter relationships without any preparation or appreciation for these “mundane” activities. This lack of knowledge is likely to cause eventual distress, particularly if spouses do not share a common understanding of how to approach these activities. Moreover, the expectations of today’s Charedi man, who is assumed to be fully immersed in Torah, is the opposite of what the old ownership model would suggest. Rather than the man taking in and providing for his wife, we expect the man will be cared for by his wife. This too can lead to unhealthy results, whether due to a mismatch between the spouses’ expectations, or because those expectations are not met by a reality often divorced from the ideal that forged them. Especially given the kind of dynamic that Charedi society is experiencing today in terms of workforce participation, this area too deserves much attention.
The Jewish home is product of a long tradition, preserving a rich and complex world over the course of many generations. The very survival of the Jewish people, despite all it has endured, is to a large degree due to the strength of the Jewish home. Not for naught to the candles of Chanukah, symbolizing our survival even in the depth of the night, shine the light of our homes into the public domain. Looking ahead, there is no question that successful, flourishing Jewish homes are critical for our future. In our generation, unique and new threats face the traditional home. Strong foreign winds hammer at its very foundations. This essay is was an attempt to encourage deep thinking on the nature of marriage, the great institution that stands at the heart of the home. I hope that this investment, coupled with relevant outtakes for our formal and informal educational institutions, can make a strong institution even stronger, and make wonderful marriages even more fulfilling.
 Talmud Bavli, Gittin 77a
 See Rashi’s comment to Bereishis 4:19, quoting the Midrashic description of man’s conduct in the generations preceding the Flood.
 Mishneh Torah, Laws of Ishus, Ch. 21, 7 – 10
 See Bereishis, Chapters 1 – 2
 Shemos 21:10
 Devarim 24:5