The Midrash as Marriage Guide

By Ido Hevroni

How the rabbis counseled communication between husband and wife.

At the conclusion of the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony, the bride and groom sing praise to God, who, in bestowing sanctity on their marriage, “created joy and happiness, bride and groom, merriment, song, rejoicing and gaiety, love and friendship, and peace and companionship.” Yet this traditional, idealized view of marriage rings hollow to many contemporary Jews. In the last generation, Jewish feminists, reformers, and scholars engaged in the study and interpretation of the canonical Jewish legal texts have painted a much darker picture of the status of married women. An example is Tal Ilan, a leading scholar of how women are portrayed in rabbinic literature, who writes:
All sources describe the same ideal picture of society: Women provide what is asked of them, be it producing legal heirs, doing housework, remaining faithful to their husbands, avoiding contact with other men unrelated to them, or using their beauty to make their husbands’ lives more pleasant. Women who deviate from this perfect behavior are described by all the sources as wicked.1
Few would dispute the predominantly male slant of the rabbinic traditions and laws governing the family. The halacha, after all, was written by men, and for the most part, for men, in a world that was run, almost exclusively, by men. In this context, the subjection of wives to their husbands seems axiomatic—and indeed, many scholars of halachic literature have drawn just this conclusion.
But is this really the “picture,” as Ilan writes, or just its frame? Many of the conclusions contemporary scholars have drawn about rabbinic attitudes toward the role of women in marriage are based on the literature’s numerous halachic injunctions. Yet the rabbinic literature also comprises agada, or parables and legends, which may serve as a window onto the broader rabbinic understanding. And it is here we discover that, quite often, the sages were concerned with the proper content of a marriage, and not merely its legal framework; with a marital relationship based on mutual respect and communication, not hierarchy; and with a deep sensitivity to the emotional world of the married woman. We may thus conclude that while the halacha provides the framework within which marital relationships should occur, it is the agada that concerns itself with the picture itselfthat is, with the content of a shared relationship.2
Two rabbinic stories offer an important rebuttal to two of the most popular accusations of rabbinic misogyny: First, that women, and the marital framework in general, are tied exclusively to the goal of producing children and perpetuating the chain of Jewish nationhood; and second, that according to Judaism, the wife is relegated to the status of a household slave, subject to the whim of an all-powerful husband. In truth the rabbinic attitude is far more complex—and more sensitive, open, and positive than is often realized.3
The first story, from Song of Songs Rabba, deals with a couple whose marriage is about to dissolve due to their failure to bring children to the world:
[In Babylon] it was taught: If a man has taken a wife and lived with her for ten years but she has not borne a child, he is nonetheless obligated [to “be fruitful and multiply,” and therefore to marry another woman].
R. Idi said: The story is told of a woman from Sidon who lived with her husband for ten years and did not have children. They came before R. Shimon ben Yohai and asked to be divorced from one another.
He said to them: Look here, as you married each other with food and drink, so too, may you separate only with food and drink. They went on his way, and made a holiday for themselves. They made a great feast, and she got him too drunk.
This brought him back to his senses, and he said to her: “My beloved, if you see anything (hefetz) that you want in my house, take it and go to your father’s.
What did she do? After he fell asleep, she called to her servants, saying, “Carry him, in his bed, to my father’s house.”
At midnight he awoke when the effects of the wine had worn off, and said to her, “My beloved, where am I?”
She said to him: “In my father’s house.”
He said to her: “What am I doing in your father’s house?”
She said to him: “Is that not what you said to me last evening, ‘anything you desire in my house, take it and go to your father’s house’? There is nothing I desire more in the world than you!”
They went before R. Shimon ben Yohai, and he stood and prayed over them, and they had children.4
The story opens with a halachic foreword: If a couple has lived together for ten years but has not had children, the husband must take another wife so as to fulfill the commandment “be fruitful and multiply.” The halacha does not rule here on whether it is obligatory to divorce the first wife, or if it is instead possible to take an additional wife.5 We are then told of a case in point, in which a married couple who had not had children after ten years came before R. Shimon ben Yohai and asked him to arrange for their divorce. From the phrasing of their request (“they… asked to be divorced from one another”), it appears as though they were of a single mind with regard to separating. Unexpectedly, the rabbi refuses their request. Instead he sends them off, bizarrely, to separate from each other by means of a great feast, like that of their wedding.
What was the rabbi aiming at? Why refuse their request for a divorce, to which they have both agreed? Why send them to feast? And why do this when, at the end of the story, it becomes clear that the rabbi has the mystical power to pray over them and give them children?
The meaning of the tale becomes clear, however, on closer reading. The story opens from the perspective of the wife, and only afterward proceeds to use the plural (“They came before R. Shimon ben Yohai”). From the outset we are given to believe that it is the woman who is the genuine protagonist of the story.
The couple’s reaction to the rabbi’s mission—“they went on his way”—is itself unusual, suggesting acceptance, even determination, for a task that was probably carried out grudgingly. After all, their goal had been to separate immediately. But by doing what was asked of them, and with the utmost seriousness, they show their desire to make the most of their remaining moments together. Indeed, their reaction might even suggest that they harbor a secret hope that this last meal together might somehow turn things around. And here again, the wife stands out as the hero: She gets her husband “too drunk,” likely with the aim of lowering his inhibitions. And indeed, the husband’s drunkenness, paradoxically, brings him to his senses. The man who was but moments from divorce makes his wife a most generous proposal: Take anything you want from my house. It is here, in his willingness to give her all he has, for the sake of her happiness and comfort alone, he shows how deep and true his feelings for her really are.
Our heroine takes her husband at his word. She commands her servants to carry him, in the bed on which he has passed out, to her father’s house. It is worth noting the wordplay in the text: Whereas the husband meant “hefetz” in the contemporary sense of “object,” she interpreted it according to its original, biblical meaning, as something one cherishes or desires.6 Moreover, rabbinic tradition relates to the home of a woman’s father as an intimate place of refuge. By taking her husband there, the wife has granted him entry, perhaps for the first time, into her inner world, in which she reveals that “There is nothing I desire more in the world than you.” They now return to the rabbi, but this time they are united not in their will to divorce, but in their desire to stay together.

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