On Marriage – A Weekly Letter From Rabbi Davis – March 15, 2019
One of the topics that has arisen amidst the ongoing scandal of the Catholic church is the requirement of celibacy for priests. It is not my place to weigh in on the value or relevance of this practice for Christians. But it does prompt me to consider the place of marriage and intimacy in Jewish tradition.
It is well-known that celibacy is foreign to Judaism. Judaism is a religion not of self-denial but of self-control and moderation. The Torah recognizes the basic human need and instinct for intimate companionship and seeks to satisfy that need through marriage. There are hardly any references to celibates in the Bible or the Talmud and no medieval rabbis are known to have lived as a celibate. Even the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest who served on Yom Kippur, was to be married.
This is not surprising when we consider that the first mitzvah in the Torah is “be fruitful and multiply.” To be celibate is thus to violate the first commandment. But procreation was not the only goal. In the Talmud (Yev. 62b), Rabbi Chanili taught that “a man without a wife is like a person without joy, without blessing, without goodness… without Torah wisdom… without peace.” The message is that a partner in life enriches our lives in myriad ways. A spouse helps us grow intellectually and morally. They offer us pleasure, companionship, and contentment emotionally. They help us feel secure physically and create a stable family unit that functions as the bedrock of a healthy society.
No wonder that the first time the Torah uses the word “no,” it is to describe loneliness as “not good.” The Conservative Movement’s Rabbinic Letter on Intimate Relations explains that initially, Adam was created as a single being for God wanted the first person to experience what it is like to have everything but nobody. After he had experienced the pain of aloneness, he was “ready to appreciate the need for companionship and interdependence as the essential path of personal fulfillment.”
The Jewish wedding ceremony captures this sentiment. As I told participants in our annual marriage preparation class recently, the sheva brakhot describe wedding couples as “re’im ahuvim, loving friends.” And it is for this reason, that marriage built on respect, trust, intimacy, honesty, fidelity and love, is aptly called in Jewish tradition, kiddushin (sanctification). As Rabbi Carol Astor writes in The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews, “For it is on this spiritual level that marriage reaches its fullest potential to bring good to the world by inducing a state of holiness in those who accept its sacred bonds.
Rabbi Alexander Davis