- Love, Marriage and Jewish Families ed. by Sylvia Barack Fishman
Love, Marriage and Jewish Families is an edited volume based on the presentations given at an international workshop and conference held at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute in 2012–2013, co-sponsored by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. As stated in the Acknowledgments, the workshop grew out of a desire to explore "new understandings of gender, love, and the Jewish Family" (p. xv). The editor, Sylvia Barack Fishman, Professor of Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and co-director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, is the author of books, monographs and articles on the conversation between Jewish and American, the on-going transformations in the American Jewish family and more. The volume presents us with a challenging, thought-provoking picture of Jewish family demographics, sociological trends and Jewish and secular legal concerns in our time.
I feel that it is important to state at the outset my own personal perspective and/or prejudice. I am a rabbi, a practicing psychologist and an academic. I have worked in congregations in Israel and have strong ties to communities in North America. I can best describe my research as being in the area of evolutionary psychology.
The book's four parts deal with various issues confronting Jewish communities in the US and Israel: love, sexuality and personal choice (Part I); the transitions that Jewish families are undergoing in the twenty-first century (Part II); the legal and halachic struggles faced by couples who choose to solemnize their unions in some fashion or other (Part III); and the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community's reactions to the changes in Jewish (family) values (Part IV). Similarities and differences between the American and Israeli cohorts are addressed. For those familiar with these populations, it will be clear that they are WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) in the sense coined by Jonathan Haidt.2 To be sure, not all of the groups studied are equal in all these parameters, but the trends Haidt elucidates can be found to some degree in the various populations. Indeed, many of the WEIRD belong to that category even if they are less educated, less committed to true democratic values and even poor. [End Page 190]
I begin with the third section of the book, as it presents the most exciting ideas. This part is rich in its presentation of practical recommendations regarding the dilemmas confronting twenty-first century Jewish families in relation to the parameters of marriage in Jewish law (halakhah). Gail Labovitz (Chap. 9) sets the scene for the problem. Over against the protestations of many of her colleagues in the world of halakhic scholarship, she asserts the essentially problematic nature of kidushin, betrothal, as the "central act that legally binds a couple in marriage … since the time of the Mishna" (p. 221). No matter how you slice it, the act of solemnizing a union between a man and a woman via kidushin is an act of kinyan, the "acquisition" or "purchase" of the bride by her future husband. As a result, only the husband can release the woman from the contract, either by his death or by writing a get, a Jewish writ of divorce. As long as this is the preferred method of solemnizing marriage within a Jewish framework, writes Labovitz, the imbalance between men and women, husbands and wives, will remain.
Labovitz cites a number of options devised to confront the inherently non-egalitarian nature of kidushin; in her astute analysis, however, no matter what option is chosen, many Orthodox rabbis are likely to conclude that the intent of the heterosexual couple was to enact kidushin, and as a result a get is or would be required. In this situation, the specters of 'igun, the state of a woman remaining "tied" or "anchored" to the husband from whom she wishes to be divorced, and—should she nevertheless enter into a relationship with another man—of mamzerut, her subsequent children's status of legal illegitimacy and unfitness for Jewish marriage, will not disappear.