It was refreshing for me to read through Russ Resnik’s discussion on marriage and to contemplate his perspectives. What was so encouraging was his treatment of the biblical texts – drawing out what I would define as a fairly traditional approach. I felt strengthened to stand on the foundation of Scripture, and I realized that my own views on the subject, not having studied this topic for some time, have relaxed – not as the result of biblical maturity but rather from being negatively affected by a post-modern culture. The post-modern views of marriage, divorce, sexuality, and its definitions of sexual morality are pervasive and incredibly influential. Thus, I am grateful that issues like this, that on the surface may seem basic to Yeshua followers, are being readdressed and defined within our communities as the culture(s) around us continue to evolve (or rather devolve). As Rabbi Resnik states, “One purpose of marriage, then, is to reflect and embody the intimate union of Messiah and his people… . If this is true, then it is vital that we, as a Yeshua-devoted people, biblically and correctly define marriage, and live it out, within our communities.”
I greatly appreciated Rabbi Resnik’s work. I am sure that many within even our own community may be offended by his traditional approach. His views may appear to some as insensitive, and his definitions may appear to others as too narrow. I found little to disagree with. Thus, in my response I would like to augment Rabbi Resnik’s work in three areas that I think need further discussion in our community.
The laws of niddah: Balancing sexuality and intimacy within marriage.
Singleness: “It is not good… .” (Ge 2:18) “It is good… .” (1 Cor 7:8).
Messiah-kehillah: Developing the character of Messiah.
Before I address these three areas, I need to say something about two notable omissions from this paper. I would have liked to have seen both polygamy and homosexual unions mentioned, and I felt that both could have been addressed in the “Boundaries of Marriage” section. Polygamy has been an issue raised in some Messianic Jewish segments, and it merits a firm response. Same-sex marriage may, if it has not already, become a critical issue in our definitions of marriage within our communities in the future. I believe both issues need attention. I am sure that the latter issue will be up for discussion at some future point within this forum, and perhaps Rabbi Resnik did, in fact, address this issue through silence. I, for one, would like to hear our community’s consensus on this issue, not through silence but rather straight forward, through gracious discussions, and ultimately firmly stated positions.
1. The Laws of Niddah
a. Marriage Morality
Rabbi Resnik states,
First, the laws of family purity define the marital act as holy – set apart from the ordinary, and possessing a quality of glory. They emphasize that marriage cannot be fully understood or practiced without reference to the Creator who instituted it, or apart from its covenantal nature, which includes laws and stipulations. Second, these laws bring sexual expression under discipline, which our dominant culture might view with suspicion or contempt, but which is integral to marriage as established in Torah.
Rabbi Resnik correctly states that the issue of niddah and sexuality within the marriage
“…define the marital act as holy…possessing a quality of glory.” I want to point out that the Torah goes a bit further in its context and description of the law of niddah:
You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness. And you shall not lie sexually with your neighbor’s wife and so make yourself unclean with her. You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD. You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. And you shall not lie with any animal and so make yourself unclean with it, neither shall any woman give herself to an animal to lie with it: it is perversion. (Lev 18:19-23)
The prohibition of sexual relations with a niddah, also known as “Family Purity” within broader Judaism, is a part of the laws of purity. However, it is not only a Temple-related subject; it is a matter of sexual morality as well.1
I appreciated this issue being raised within the “inner boundaries” section of the paper. I am linking “inner” with “unseen and private.” A married couple must strictly guard their privacy, especially in such personal matters. They must strictly guard (on a public level) the time in which a woman (wife) is in a state of niddah. Thus, the only two people that know about this status are the husband and wife. With it being guarded so closely, it is easy to forego community accountability in this area, thus our personal disciplines need to be strong. In order to maintain strong personal vigilance, clear definitions should be in place. The Messianic community has a responsibility to offer halakhic direction in this area.
Since it is one of the more private mitzvot in Jewish practice, the law of separation during menstruation becomes a personal discipline of developing private marital holiness and upholding marital sexual morality. Those who practice the law of separation during niddah often speak of the discipline as something glorious and transforming in their marriage. It strengthens a wife, thus the marriage, when she (assuming she is devoted to Jewish life) feels honored by her husband in private.
Infrastructure and encouragement is needed within our Messianic Jewish communities to support the Torah and communal demands of the multi-faceted laws of niddah. Many (if not most) of our communities lack a proper mikveh, and because of our Yeshua faith, most of us are either forbidden from or intimidated to use the mikveh in our local Jewish community. Or, it becomes a great difficulty to travel distances in the cases where Messianic Jewish couples are far away from Jewish communities. As the Torah calls this issue a matter of sexual morality it becomes a primary issue of a healthy marriage and should be a primary concern for our marriages. I am not suggesting that the Messianic Jews who do not observe the Torah’s standards regarding separation during niddah should be condemned. Blu Greenberg wisely notes:
If I may be permitted a theological indiscretion: my acceptance of a scheme of reward and punishment – this world or next – not withstanding, I simply cannot drum up the feeling that those Jewish couples who fail to observe niddah are sinners. What is more, I feel that my life and my marriage would have been blessed even had I not observed these mitzvot, for I see many happy marriages without niddah and some horrid ones with; I see the blessings of healthy children from non-halachic sexual unions and the children of the pious afflicted.2
At the same time, the Torah does not grant us permission to take it or leave it. As a matter of sexual morality, the matter is non-negotiable.
b. Sexual Equality
… bring sexual expression under discipline…
Our Sages said, ‘Ten units of speech came down to the world; of these, woman took nine.’ The Sages are not merely teaching us that women talk more than men. There must be something deeper.3
Rabbi Resnik states:
Second, these laws bring sexual expression under discipline, which our dominant culture might view with suspicion or contempt, but which is integral to marriage as established in Torah. Discipline and restraint are essential to maintaining holiness.
In addition to discipline and restraint, I think one of the unseen values of the practice of niddah is that it brings sexual equality into the marriage:
Because women are the arbiters of niddah observance, it also functions as a locus of women’s power. By, for example, refusing to go to the mikvah, or delaying their immersion, they command the halakhically sanctioned authority to withhold sex from their husbands. This authority is significant in that it turns on its head the general Western construction that ‘heterosexual sex means that men enact their social power over women.’4
Generally speaking, men tend to be more physically and sexually dominant than women in the marriage relationship. Women tend to be more emotionally and relationally dominant in the marriage. Women have rarely been seen as the arbitrators of sexuality within the marriage. However, the laws of niddah in many ways reverse these roles, granting the wife a certain authority to forbid and permit. That reversal of power allows both parties to take a share of responsibility and leadership in the bedroom. This principle has further ramifications in Jewish law, forbidding a man from demanding sex from his wife. This creates emotional and relational balance within the marriage around areas of sexuality. It also represents a departure from the world’s stereotype of male dominance in sexuality. The Torah places the keys to sexual authority within the grasp of the wife.
God declared everything He created to be good. “And behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). The only thing in creation that God declared to be “not good” was man’s loneliness. Then the Lord GOD said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him” (Gen 2:18). “It is not good.” (Gen 2:18) compared to “It is good… .” (1 Cor 7:8) “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the LORD” (Prov 18:22), compared to, “Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles… .” (1 Cor 7:28)
The Bible can be confusing on the subject of singleness, and people can read their own ideas about singleness into it. Addressing this problem, Rabbi Resnik states,
The Apostolic Writings affirm singleness as a choice, but we should also support those who find themselves single without choosing it. Our community needs to be careful to view and speak of singleness without stigma, and to affirm the benefits of singleness clearly articulated in 1 Corinthians 7:24–40, without minimizing its difficulties and challenges.
I appreciate Paul’s transparency as he opens 1 Corinthians 7:24-40, “… I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.” (1 Cor 7:25) With these words, the apostle invites us to question his authority on this subject.
In Judaism, Rabbi Resnik notes, singleness is devalued. It does create a stigma and makes one who is single feel marginalized within the community. Thus, I appreciate Rabbi Resnik’s use of 1 Corinthians to bring balance to our perspective on the matter of singleness. However, on a practical level, I have met many single people in our communities who, because they hold high Messianic Jewish values, struggle with a sense of hopelessness over their singleness. We can encourage them all day long with a higher or more holy ideal, but in today’s world I would say that those who are single suffer more worldly anxiety than those who are married. I think it is easier, in today’s world, for those who are married to be focused on “the things of the Lord and how to please the Lord” than for those who are single. Yet Paul says:
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife. (1 Cor 7:32-33)
As I mentioned above, Paul invites us to question his authority on the subject of remaining single for the sake of serving the Lord. It seems that much of Paul’s “judgment” was based upon his imminent eschatology: “This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. (vs. 29) . … For the present form of this world is passing away (vs. 31).”
We have learned the hard lessons of the length of our exile, and with the exception of special cases, in my opinion, singleness should never be encouraged under the perception that we are in the “latter days.”
I think we need to, as Rabbi Resnik states, “support those who find themselves single without choosing it” by prioritizing their needs and our responsibilities to help them find spouses. Messianic Judaism needs growth of strong Messianic Jewish families from within, with high ideals, to sustain our movement, to sustain Jewish identity, and to expand our influence. In reflection of Paul’s opening statement I would say, “I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment: this needs to be a top priority.”
I feel strongly that we must find ways to place our Messianic Jewish singles into healthy Jewish marriages. I consider this to be an urgent matter. We must prioritize our efforts on behalf of our singles, find qualified spouses for them, and give them solid communities in which to raise godly families. I hope that Rabbi Resnik’s statement, “support those who find themselves single without choosing it” has this level of emphasis.
Marriage can be God’s primary testing ground of faith and spiritual growth. The sages say that God tested Abraham with ten trials to prove his faith. Maimonides makes a list of the ten trials that Abraham endured. Five of them have to do directly with his relationship with Sarah.
And the Holy One, blessed be He, saw that it was good that ‘the help’ stand facing him, and that he should see or be separated from it or joined to it at his will. This is the meaning of what He said in the verse, I will make him a helper opposite him.
Why is a person’s marriage so important? A person’s marriage is the central arena in which his or her faith will be walked out. Once married, all the commandments incumbent on an individual are altered. The married person is no longer responsible just for himself or herself. The married person’s core identity is changed, and the married person’s relationship with God will be directly affected by the relationship with the spouse God has entrusted to him or her. One cannot be a godly person and a poor spouse simultaneously.
Men need to strive to be the closest and most consistent image of the Messiah their wives will know. As Paul states, “Husbands, love your wives, as Messiah loved the kehillah and gave himself up for her… .” (Eph 5:25): “Marriage is sustained and deepened as the husband recognizes the gifting of his wife.” Rabbi Resnik states:
To love one’s wife biblically, a husband must ‘recognize the gifting of his wife’ and understand the character of Messiah – in order to treat his wife as Messiah treats the kehillah. This not only produces a healthy marriage, but more importantly, a ‘reflection and embodiment of the intimate union of Messiah and his people. …’ [my textual adjustments].
Developing the Character of Messiah
The Prophet Isaiah described six qualities with which the Messiah will be blessed: “God’s Spirit will rest upon him (1) the spirit of wisdom and (2) understanding, (3) the spirit of counsel and (4) might, (5) the spirit of knowledge and (6) fear of God.” (Isa 11:2)
Reviewing a short list of qualities that we see demonstrated in the Gospels by the Messiah should reflect on the character traits we need to nurture within our unions:
Rabbi Akiva, a famous second-century Torah teacher, taught that “when husband and wife are worthy, the Dwelling Presence of God abides with them, but when they are not worthy, fire consumes them.” (b. Sotah 17a)
I’m sure most of us have heard Rabbi Akiva’s observation of the letters in the Hebrew words “man” and “woman.” But perhaps for the topic at hand, a review would be beneficial.
The Hebrew word for “man” is ish (איש). The word for “woman” is ishah (אשה). Both words have common letters and unique letters. When recombining the unique letters from the two words, taking the yod (י) from ish (איש) and heh (ה) from ishah (אשה), the two letters spell Yah (יה), which is part of God’s holy name.
Removing those unique letters from both words changes both words to eish (אש), which means, “fire.” Rabbi Akiva used this to illustrate that when a marriage has God and godly principles in place, God is present with husband and wife; but when a marriage is godless and the marriage foundation is something other than biblical, it is a consuming fire that can ultimately destroy both husband and wife.
I would only add to this powerful word analogy that the Messiah “… is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (Col 1:15) In this regard, we as Messianic Jews need to have the Messiah present and visible within our marriages. With the presence of Messiah in our relationships, God is present.
Through our unions, we need to have a shared and divine sense of responsibility to, and passion for, his kingdom or, as Rabbi Resnik states, “The consummation achieved by male and female, therefore, becomes the paradigm of the consummation toward which all Creation is moving.” And, “In the Messianic community the divine image shared by men and women is revealed in fuller measure through the Ruach… .” And “… marriage is often the means by which the partners learn the Messiah-like traits of sacrifice and denial of self. ” And “Marriage provides a foretaste of holiness in an unholy age, and thus anticipates the age to come.”
As a father, I attempted to impart many ideas and truths into my children – all of whom are now adults. One thing stands out as the foremost warning. I have told each one of my children many times over the years, “The most important decision you will make in life is whom you will marry.”
1 Anthropologists find purity laws like this across different cultures. They seem to be nearly as universal as the impulse to sacrifice animals to unseen spirits and gods. Most ancient religions make distinctions of “clean” and “unclean” on grounds similar, though not identical, to those described by the Torah. This suggests that human beings have some innate sense of pure and impure, shame and brazenness, modesty and immodesty, connected with ritual fitness before the unseen world. This may also reflect on the apostolic decree in Acts 15 forbidding Gentiles from “sexual immorality.”
2 Blu Greenburg, Integrating Mikvah and Modernity, http://www.clal.org/e62.html.
3 Shalom Arush, The Garden of Peace: A Marital Guide for Men Only (Jerusalem: Chut Shel Chessed, 2008), 268.
4 Tova Hartman, Feminism Encounters Traditional Judiaism: Resistance and Accommodation (HBI Series on Jewish Women) (Hanover, NH: Brandeis, 2007), 94-95.