Is marriage still a viable choice for Jewish women? It all depends on whom you ask. For Susan Maushart, a sociologist and twice-divorced mother of three, marriage is about power and biology and—above all—women’s fight for equality. By these criteria, marriage as an institution is appalling for women. Even the latest statistics report that a wife performs 70 to 80 percent of the unpaid household tasks even if she works full-time at a paying job. She is three times more likely to be depressed than her husband; and two thirds of the time she is the partner who initiates divorce. Most dan Taging, argues Maushart, is “wife work,” defined as “the care and maintenance of men’s bodies, minds and egos.” She follows his sexual desires, edits his manu scripts, writes thank-you notes to his relatives and otherwise reflects back his best self For marriage to be viable for women, advocates Maushart, we must cease living as “wives” and figure out how to live as our own, true selves.
For Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, marriage is holy and historical. She first learned this at age nine, in a displaced persons camp after the Holocaust. Having survived Bergen Belsen concentration camp, her father, an esteemed Hungarian rabbi, almost immediately began to make shidduchim. From this, Jungreis learned that matchmaking—the uniting of two souls for the purpose of family building—is about repairing the world; tikun olam. Although The Committed Marriage is packaged as a self-help book for the religious, it is more of a refreshing, if quirky, opinionated midrash on marriage as written by a stalwart woman who was married for 40 years. (Her husband. Rabbi Jungreis, who died six years ago, made matches for the hospital nurses from his deathbed.) At her Hineni Institute, Esther Jungreis uses biblical stories, homilies, and parables to comment on the contemporary couples she counsels. Much of the book is written as dialogues with young people who resist marriage or are unhappy with their present relationships. Throughout, Jungreis has two mandates for a satisfying marriage: develop a good eye and study Torah. A good eye (the term is from the Mishna’s Rabbi Eleazar) is a benevolent attitude that allows oneto see the good rather than the bad in others—especially your most significant other. Studying Torah, declares the Rebbetzm, is a profound tool for self-transformation, and one that gives strength and wisdom to solve personal problems.
Enter Nuchama King, with her debut novel. Seven Blessings, its title taken from the wedding liturgy. A kind of Jane Austenmeets-Jane Eyre-meets-Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Yentl, King tells the story of Beth Wilner. Frum from birth, Beth now lives in Jerusalem, where she is single and a virgin at 39. Although she voices ambivalence, the narrative trajectory is to get her married. King shows us how the community’s concern urges her toward marriage, but it’s never quite clear if Beth herself wants to couple or if she is motivated by shame in being different from the tribe. Much of the novel is spun from conversations between matchmakers, Beth and two men who have become Orthodox.
Beth gradually falls in love with Akiva, a 41-year-old macrobiotic house painter and Talmud student, and when for the first time she sees herself in the mirror wearing the head coverings she will wear as a married woman, she is shocked to see the sadness in her eyes. “With a scarf she was more exposed than ever. And here she’d thought it would help her blend in.”
For those who do not follow orthodoxy, whether in faith or in feminism, there is Marriage from the Heart: 8 Commitments of a Spiritually Fulfilling Life Together: Lois Kellerman, an Ethical Culture Leader, is, like Jungreis, a seasoned couples’ counselor. Astead fast believer in what she calls a “soulful, robust marriage, “one founded on deep mutual respect and kindness, she works with a population that defines its belief system as “spiritual” rather than “religious.” Here is a typical sentence: “In a meaningful, happy marriage we find fulfillment by supportively accompanying each other on that [spiritual] journey.” Kellerman’s counsel and insights for what marriage can be are lovely, but this reader confesses that Marriage from the Heart like so many self-help books, left me wondering whether any marriage could possibly meet these ideals, especially given what Maushart points out.
Finally, the Jewish Outreach Institute offers a basic guide to navigating the issues and challenges faced by Jewish interfaith couples. Rabbi Olitzky also sees marriage as a spiritual journey. He acknowledges the difficulties inherent in a union made from two different religious backgrounds, but throughout the book he affirms interfaith marriage and assures his readers with practical advice about ways to approach holidays, life-cycle events, and the range of emotions that arise between the couple and their extended families.
Still, Susan Maushart’s feminist reality haunts. Wifework is clearly important as the descendant of a long line of influential texts written by advocates for women—but the equality between partners that Maushart fiercely defends is not what’s at stake for the pastoral counselors. The long practitioners of marriage support kindness and a willingness to engage oneself on a journey with another. Which just might be a reason to get married after all.