Dear Jew in the City-
What are the halachic requirements of attraction in a prospective marriage?
Thanks for your question. Let’s discuss two types of “attraction” – emotional attraction (which we’ll call “love”) and physical attraction (which, for the sake of literary balance, we’ll cynically refer to as “lust”). Let’s address love first.
Is love important in marriage? You might say “Of course!” but this is actually one of those questions that we’re seeing through the goggles of our modern preconceptions. For most of recorded history, marrying for love was an anomaly, not an ideal. According to Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, the idea that a couple might marry for love bordered on subversive; parents might even disown their children for doing it.
Couples used to marry in order to forge political alliances, to pool their families’ financial resources, to expand their workforces, and for a variety of similarly practical purposes. Women needed men to plow the fields; men needed women to spin the wool. A wise marriage choice was important to survival and love wasn’t inherently part of the equation.
I’m a big fan of The Beatles but it would be foolish for me to take an accounting job just because a company’s office music is a Beatles playlist. I’m not an accountant so that’s a bad job for me and I would starve to death. If I get a job that’s appropriate for me and that also happens to accommodate my musical tastes, that’s great, but unless I’m a musician, it would hardly be a prerequisite. Similarly, if one found love in marriage, that was as a nice perk but not generally a deciding factor.
Look at how Chamor pitched the idea of intermarriage with the Israelites to the people of Shechem in Genesis 34:21. “let them dwell in the land and do business in it because the land is large enough for them. We can take their daughters for wives and give them our daughters.” This wasn’t an insidious plot per se; it was the natural order of things.
Historically, objections to love as a basis for marriage weren’t only practical, they were also philosophical. The Greeks considered lovesickness to be a form of insanity, a viewpoint that persisted in Medieval Europe. Some philosophers considered excessive love towards one’s spouse to be akin to adultery; Catholic and Protestant theologians considered it to be a form of idolatry. (Additionally, a wife using an endearing pet name for her husband was unacceptable because it undermined his authority.) According to Coontz, “Too much love was thought to be a real threat to the institution of marriage.”
A number of factors contributed to changing attitudes towards marriage, including the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the industrial revolution. The political Revolutions and the enlightenment promoted the concept of a right to personal happiness; the shift to a wage-labor economy and urbanization helped to make economics less of a factor in marriage. Once our concept of marriage had shifted towards love, Coontz says, “We convinced ourselves that was the traditional ideal.”
Even today, the idea of marrying for love is not universal; it’s primarily a value in affluent, Western nations. In many peasant societies, too much marital love is considered disruptive because it causes the couple to withdraw from the wider web of dependence that enables the society to function. A 1975 survey of college students in the Indian state of Karnataka found that only 18% strongly approved of marriages made based on love, while 32% completely disapproved of such marriages.
The cultural norm of the students who replied to the 1975 survey was to marry first and (hopefully) subsequently to fall in love. This was also the standard in early-modern Europe. 16th and 17th philosophers assumed that if a husband and wife were each of good character, they would probably come to love each other. You can imagine that, historically, Jews were also part of this mindset. This comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the score from Fiddler on the Roof:
Tevye: But my father and my mother said we’d learn to love each other.
So, now I’m asking, Golde…
Do you love me?
Golde: I’m your wife!
Tevye: I know. But do you love me?
Golde: Do I love him?
For twenty-five years, I’ve lived with him,
Fought with him, starved with him.
For twenty-five years, my bed is his.
If that’s not love, what is?
For more traditional texts, consider that there are two Talmudic tractates dealing with marriage: Kiddushin and Kesubos. These tractates are about betrothal and marriage contracts, respectively, and they have a lot to say about the various parties’ financial obligations. Between them, however, these two tractates mention love between the bride and groom as a precondition for marriage exactly zero times.
Also consider this passage from the 19th-century work Aruch HaShulchan (EH 2):
“If he marries an upstanding woman for the sake of money – meaning that if not for the money he would marry somebody else – this is not a sin. Just the opposite: it is appropriate to do so if he is a scholar (because it will help to support his studies).”
So there’s nothing wrong with marrying for pragmatics but you’ll note that it’s limited to “an upstanding woman.” Love may not have been the sole driving motivation in marriage but neither was a mercenary attitude. In Judaism, the traditional focus has always been on finding a likeminded spouse with compatible spiritual goals.
The Biblical archetype of one who married for love is the Patriarch Yaakov, who loved Rachel at first sight and agreed to work seven years for her father in exchange for her hand in marriage. After seven years of labor, when he was deceitfully given the wrong bride, Yaakov was willing to invest another seven years to marry Rachel (Genesis 29). [Please note that this suggests an important lesson: love doesn’t mean having to get married right now, it means being willing to wait.] But if Yaakov married Rachel because he loved her, what are we to make of his father, Yitzchak? Genesis 24:67 says, “Yitzchak brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He married Rivka, she became his wife and he loved her.” For Yaakov, love led to marriage but for Yitzchak, marriage led to love. In both cases, what they have in common is that the husband and wife shared the same values and goals.
This is something that our “love conquers all” society tends to overlook. Anecdotally, I am aware of far too many couples who felt that way but, once the honeymoon phase was over and real life began, quickly discovered that their life goals were incompatible. Differences in religious, political or social outlooks may seem insignificant when you’re 22 or 23 and madly in love. Things look very different five years later, after the initial infatuation has cooled.
As far as purely physical attraction – i.e., “lust” – you may be surprised to hear me speaking up for it, especially after I threw cold water on the idea of marrying strictly for love. The Mishna in Kesubos (chapter 7) lists various physical defects for which a man may divorce his wife – or a woman may demand a divorce from her husband and still be paid the value of her marriage contract! No one expects a couple to live together if there’s no physical attraction. That’s a necessary component of a marriage. But, as with love, it’s by no means a sole basis for a relationship.
The archetype for a lust-based relationship is Amnon’s lust for Tamar in II Samuel chapter 13. As the mishna in Avos (5:19) points out, once Amnon got what he was after, he had no more use for Tamar. Boaz, on the other hand, was attracted to Ruth but what attracted him was her behavior (see Ruth 2:5 and Rashi there), which is a more lasting basis for a relationship.
The penultimate verse in Proverbs (31:30), familiar from the song “Eishes Chayil,” is “Grace is deceptive and beauty is meaningless; it is a woman with reverence for God who is to be praised.” There’s nothing wrong with beauty per se; Sarah and Esther are both described as beautiful and they’re two of our greatest heroines. It’s just that beauty is superficial. It’s what inside that counts most.
Regarding the creation of man, Genesis 5:2 says, “male and female He created them.” Midrashically, man and woman were created a single being that was divided and we are each in search of our “missing piece,” which will complete us spiritually. So, yes, love is important – and even a little lust is important – but each of these pales in priority to finding a mate whose priorities and goals align with our own.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent