A few months ago, I was sitting in the car with my 18 year old son, as Kim Kardashian’s name was mentioned on the radio. “Who is that guy?” I asked (though for the life of me I can’t explain what male name I thought Kim was a diminutive of.) After one very long incredulous teenage stare, I at least learned that she’s not a guy.
Over the last few days I couldn’t miss the news that Kim got married and then filed for divorce in the space of 72 days. I realize that it may all be part of her reality show, and that maybe I shouldn’t be taking the whole thing too seriously. But for the sake of an institution that a lot of us believe in deeply – the institution of marriage – I believe it’s worth speaking up.
Whenever I work with couples as they plan their marriages, we talk about the rewards of marriage, but even more so about the covenant of marriage. Because it is a covenant. That’s what it is. To marry is to undertake the most sublime set of commitments that we will ever pledge to another human being. And people not prepared to do this, truly have no moral business getting married.
Dr. Erich Fromm said it best in his classic book “The Art of Loving”, whose central thesis is that nobody can passively “be in love” for very long. If we plan to love someone long-term, we have to be committed to engaging continuously in the activity of “loving” that person. For Fromm, this involves sacred commitments to continuously demonstrating “care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge.” His elaboration on the element of “knowledge” is especially striking. “To respect a person is not possible without knowing him; care and responsibility would be blind if there were not guided by knowledge…. The knowledge which is an aspect of love, is possible only when I can transcend the concern for myself, and see the other person in his own terms. I may know, for instance, that a person is angry… but when I know him more deeply I know that he is anxious and worried, that he feels lonely…”
Not surprisingly our own literature sounds many similar themes. In his “Lonely Man of Faith”, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes that the point of the Adam and Eve story is that a person who wants to overcome loneliness can do so only through a gesture of sacrifice. Adam literally gives part of himself to another, and as a result is able to establish with Eve, “a new kind of fellowship [where] not only hands are joined, but experiences as well, [where] one hears the rhythmic beat of hearts starved for existential companionship and all-embracing sympathy…” This is the marriage. Profound both in its transformative power and in the mutual commitment it demands. And it is ridiculed by a marriage that lasts 72 days.
Even the sexual dimension of marriage is about the covenant. Commenting on the verse “and he shall cleave to is wife and they shall become one flesh,” the Netziv of Volozhin wrote, “ it is only the active effort of cleaving between husband and wife (i.e. sexual intimacy) that brings them closer together such that they become one”. Marital sexuality is purposeful. It requires kavannah, in the same way that prayer does. For it preserves and deepens the covenant.
Whenever someone publicly mocks and diminishes the institution of marriage, the great majority of us who understand that marriage is our most scared covenant must respond. By calling out the offenders for what they’ve done, by insuring that our children understand what marriage really is, and by re-affirming our personal commitments to our covenanted partner.