Thursday, August 15, 2013

Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day!

I’ve been thinking a lot about the institution of marriage these days, partially because of the recent Supreme Court decision regarding same-sex marriage (about which I wrote in June) and partially because we’ve had a summer full of weddings at Shelter Rock, but mostly because my own daughter’s wedding is coming up in just two days. I know many of you have been here before and know more about this experience my family has been having over these last few weeks and months than I myself do—or rather, did…other than by observing others go through this sole one of life’s major rites of passage that stars someone other than oneself. (Having a baby is more about the baby than its parents only in theory. And that I do know from experience!)

These last few months have actually been very good for all of us. My daughter is marrying a fine young man. The home they are on their way toward establishing together will be, I think, one suffused with the finest values. We’ve met my daughter’s future in-laws now many times and look forward to having them as part of our extended family. It’s all good!  But I’ve also been thinking about marriage itself, not just about this particular marriage, and wondering about the concept itself and its future.

The numbers don’t bode well. In the years following the Civil War, there were three divorces in the United States for every one hundred marriages. By 1900, that 3% figure had risen to 7%.  But thirty years later, in 1930, the rate had risen further still to 16%. In 1940, there were twenty divorces per one hundred marriages. Amazingly, the rate more than doubled by 1946, reaching an astounding 43% in 1946. But then, for reasons that sociologists are still debating, the rate began—for the first time since Reconstruction—to decline, reaching 21% in 1958, just one single percent higher than it had been in 1940.  And then it began to rise again. In 1980, for the first time in American history, there were more than half again as many divorces as there were marriages in the United States. (These numbers come from Health Resources Administration study, 100 Years of Marriage and Divorce Statistics in the United States 1867-1967, which those of you reading this electronically can access by clicking here.)  Today, the rate is about 41%, which is to say that there are 41 divorces for every 100 marriages in our country. 

You can, however, beat the odds. Or you can try! A study undertaken by the National Marriage Project sponsored jointly by University of Maryland and the University of Virginia in 2011 called The State of Our Unions, came to some remarkable conclusions.  If you make more than $50,000 a year, your risk of divorce decreases by about a third.  If you are more than twenty-five years old when you marry, the likelihood that your marriage will end in divorce drops by about 24%.  If your parents are or were always happily married, then the chances of your own marriage coming asunder decreases by 14%, and the same is true if you are possessed of what you yourself define as “strong” religious beliefs.  For some reason, if you have a college decree, your chances of ending up divorced decrease by 13%. (You can find that report on-line at, where you can also order the report in hard copy for $10.)  It also matters where you live: the world’s lowest divorce rates are in Central and South America, while the highest are in Eastern Europe. (Of the ten countries with the highest rates of divorce, seven are Eastern Europe: Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Moldova.)  I should feel buoyed by those numbers—I don’t live in Eastern Europe and I fall into every one of the “right” categories listed above!

Religion also matters: the rate of divorce among Jews is (by American standards) a mere 30%. (We are speaking here, obviously, of Jews by self-definition, so there may be individuals counted in that statistic that the Jewish community itself would not consider fully Jewish.) But there is no room for smugness here—the rates for both liberal and conservative Christian churches are lower (although only slightly so) than for Jewish America. That this specific statistic seems dramatically higher than the reality I know at Shelter Rock (and, indeed, in all the communities I have served as rabbi) is a truth I will ponder with you on another occasion.

And so we—as a nation, as a community, and as members of society in general—are left with an institution in flux, one that a large majority of citizens say they esteem and understand to constitute the foundation upon which society rests, but which itself only actually works for a portion of the people who embrace it as the theoretical foundation of their actual lives.

Our Torah starts from an entirely different vantage point: that marriage is not a useful societal convention or a handy way to structure family life (or not just those things), but a stage of life into which healthy people should reasonably hope to grow as they shed the trappings first of childhood and then of adolescence, and then finally embrace mature adulthood as grown-ups. The story in Scripture is almost clear, but far from transparent. And so, in honor of Lucy’s upcoming marriage, I would like to propose a new way to read the biblical story that we all know almost by heart, but which reads, in my opinion, quite differently in the original text than in most translations.

I’ll start with the detail everyone knows: God, done creating the oceans and the stars, makes a human being. That being is traditionally presumed to have been a male, but an equally interesting way to read the story would be to imagine that first being as have been created without gender at all, thus neither male nor female. That being’s name, Adam, sounds in English like a man’s first name. But adam means “human being” or “person” in Hebrew, and it is used consistently in the opening chapters of the Bible as a common noun, not as a name. (The being is, for example, referenced as “the” adam a full 21 times in the first three chapters of the Torah and only one single time without the article.) 

This being, God sets in the Garden of Eden to tend its flora and to watch over it. But the being ends up lonely, not merely alone, to the remarkable extent that God, unprompted, takes vocal note of how things are and observes aloud to the angelic host that a world population of one single person may not have been such a good plan after all and that it might be better for the being below to have a mate to help out with its various chores. At first, the concept of gender doesn’t seem to suggest itself and so God, meaning well, creates the animals of the earth and the birds of the sky and then brings them one by one to the adam to see if they will do. The adam duly names them, but he does not appear to be able to see any of them becoming his lifelong helpmeet, his lebensbegleiter, in any meaningful way.

And now we get to the point. As I now propose to read the story, God, seeing that neither the penguins nor the yaks have prompted the desired response in the human being’s breast, has a new idea.  And quite the idea it is, this Plan B that is forever after going to alter the course of human history. God, taking on the temporary guise of divine Anesthetist, puts the being to sleep and surgically effects the remodel: from one being are now to be two, one male and one female, and they are to be each other’s mates. The traditional notion that the being was male all along and how from man has now come woman is only one way to read the story and is based on the Torah’s comment that this new creature was to be called ishah because she was created from ish, the original human being. But it is also possible to read the story to yield the conclusion that this unexpected surgical realignment of things yielded not one but two new creatures, neither of whom would be identical with the original adam. Indeed, that could well be why the text here shifts and calls them not adam and adamah (which means something else anyway), but ish and ishah, man and woman.

And so we replicate this process as we start out in life as simple creatures happily looking after our chores—tending our little gardens and watching over our toys—but slowly, as childhood ends and we pass into adolescence, discovering dissatisfaction in our breasts where there was once nothing but contentment. At first we aren’t sure what to make of it all, but then, as time passes, the situation eventually clarifies and we finally come to understand what it is that’s ailing us: we are lonely, unhappy to be by ourselves even the paradise that is the parental home (for most of us, a true Eden in which food magically appears in the refrigerator, clean socks magically appear in our dresser drawers, and no bill addressed to us personally ever arrives in the mailbox). We cherish the love of our parents, but are unfulfilled nevertheless. And so we set out to find our life’s companions. And that point the Torah makes clearly too: “…and so does it come regularly to pass that an ish leaves his father and mother to cleave instead unto his ishah,  a cleaving so intense that the two, as it were, become one.”

And it is that search for that life-companion that signals the onset of real maturity, of adulthood. Most people seek mates of the opposite sex.  Not all. But all do yearn to return to this paradisiacal state of oneness that prevailed when the human race consisted only of the adam. And in that paradox—that movement forward is also movement backwards, that the yearning for the responsibilities of adulthood is also yearning for the responsibilitilessness of childhood, that wanting nothing more than life à deux is also wanting to return to the state of undifferentiated oneness that we recall as being part of our lives before we were weighed down by life’s endless burdens—in that set of paradoxes lies the secret of what marriage truly is: the framework in which we find the strength in the arms of someone we love truly and absolutely to set it all aside and to find in love itself the balm that heals our riven souls and allows to know peace as adults long since banished from Paradise.

I like reading Genesis like that. It’s an approach I’d like to return to in my preaching this year, and perhaps in my writing as well. But for the moment, I’d like to offer it to you all as neither lesson nor sermon, but merely as a blessing for my beloved child, for Lucy, and for her basherter, Shuki Cirlin, as they prepare to face life together as wife and husband.  May God grant them love! And may God grant them a lifetime of common purpose, shared responsibility, and selfless dedication to each other and to their union.  I wish that for them, but I also wish it for my sons and for all of your children and grandchildren as well. I go to a lot of weddings, as you all know…but this really is something special!

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