Response to Rabbi Russ Resnik’s Paper: Rabbi Stuart Dauermann

As I read it, I very much admired the construction, tone, erudition and quality of Rabbi Resnik’s paper. It was a mature work from a mature man. But I want to share with you some cautionary thoughts, what Rabbi Rich Nichol terms “the water under the ice.” And just as water under the ice may jeopardize the ice on which one is standing, so these concerns may threaten the stability of Rabbi Resnik’s argument and the conclusions we may draw from it. Today I will share three cautions concerning the water under the ice.

Here are my “water under the ice” issues:

The water under the ice speaks of how we may misapply Scripture, not bearing in mind the communal concerns being addressed and communal tasks being performed in their enscripturation.

The water under the ice speaks of how we may misunderstand and misrepresent marital union as being intrinsically sexual.

The water under the ice speaks of how we may do violence to people in pastoral situations by dragging them into our definitions as a sort of Procrustean bed for problem solving rather than serving them by understanding, explaining, protecting, preserving proper boundaries, and recognizing their absence or breach.

The water under the ice speaks of how we may misapply Scripture, not bearing in mind the communal concerns being addressed and communal tasks being performed in their enscripturation.

I invite us to imagine the communal context of Torah narratives and legislation, that these were written not as a divine collection of definitions and principles – a very Hellenistic preoccupation – but more as a communal set of boundaries, prescribing what was permitted and proscribing what was forbidden within the context of the community of Jacob. Sometimes we are told why such standards and boundaries are in force, but not always. In keeping with its origins in Middle Eastern rather than Greek culture, the text of the Bible does not so much define as delineate, setting boundaries for what is permitted and what is forbidden, focusing on functions and actions, rather than on ontological definitions.

Especially in the Old Testament, Scripture’s authors and their community were seeking to preserve and protect holiness and purity and to prevent unholiness and uncleanness, keeping the wrath of God from breaking forth, and keeping chaos at bay, including the chaos of someone feeling that their marital territory had been violated. Even the primeval account in Genesis 1-3, the sphere of Rabbi Russ’s investigation, is so constructed as to justify the worldview and boundaries that the later community sought to preserve and protect.

Rashi provides an example of how Scripture’s accounts are retrospectively shaped by such communal concerns when he asks why Torah begins with the account of creation. His response is to say that when the nations of the world should argue that the children of Israel had stolen the Promised Land, it should be asserted in response that the God of Israel created all that is and he gives the Land to whomever he chooses. Rashi is stating that the prior stories of Scripture are written with the communal concerns of a later Israel in mind. Similarly, the story in Genesis 1-3 is not reportage: it is myth construction, here defining myth not as what is not true, but as the foundational stories in which a community grounds its differentiated sense of self and vision of self and the world.

So, when Rabbi Russ begins his paper stating his intent to develop a definition of marriage, he is moving into a concern which is one big philosophical step removed from the concerns of Scripture. But this is the world in which we all live. We cannot go back to the Garden, and it is also somewhere between difficult and impossible for us to think Scripture’s thoughts within the mindset that originally constructed them. We all tend to come to the text for definitions and principles, and every day we find them because that is what we are looking for.

To his credit, Rabbi Russ also addresses constructing boundaries in his third of four points. But I am suggesting that boundary construction, rather than definition-making, is foundational to how and why Scripture says what it says.

So it is that in the Matthean passage with which Rabbi Resnik begins his paper, Yeshua is not so much defining marriage as he is dealing with a machloket – a dispute, and not a friendly one, as the prushim are coming to test him. The verb is peradzo, and is used seven times in the gospels in the sense of Yeshua’s opponents seeking to entrap him.1 Therefore, I must offer this challenging thought: Yeshua is not giving a definition here so much as winning an argument. Rabbi Resnik rightly reflects the structure of Yeshua’s response which is this:

God made humankind male and female.

God decreed that man should leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, becoming one flesh with her.

They are no longer two but one.

Through this process it is God who makes man and woman one.

Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.

Yeshua’s argument begins and ends with what God has made and is followed by his comments about divorce having been a divine concession to man’s weakness, “But from the beginning it was not so,” emphasizing God’s preference for the indissolubility of the marital unity.2 However, we live not only between the “already” and the “not yet,” but also between the what used to be and what now is. “From the beginning it was not so,” but now it very often is.

Thinking of the testimony of Scripture as a whole concerning marriage, what is in focus in Scripture is not so much defining what marriage is, as rulings and guidelines on what is allowed and what is forbidden concerning one-flesh marital unities. For example, who is forbidden as a spouse? What of being married to an unbeliever hostile to one’s faith or not hostile to one’s faith? Why marry at all (for males, so as to not burn with passion)? What of inheritance rights? (Remember the daughters of Zelophehad). What if a male and female have sex prior to marriage? What of sex between people where one or both are married to another person (adultery)? In other words, the Semitic Scriptural mindset is concerned not so much with making definitions as with declaring what the boundaries are, what is in bounds and what is out of bounds. How does this marriage thing work out on the ground?

Let us beware of defining marriage. Let us instead describe how it acts and delineate what is in bounds and out of bounds concerning members of these one-flesh relationships and others who encounter them.

In the context of our present discussion, we will lay aside most discussion about prescribed and proscribed behaviors. Instead, I want to look more closely at the one-flesh unity of marriage, especially its relationship to sexual activity.

The water under the ice speaks of how we may misunderstand and misrepresent marital union as being intrinsically sexual.

I want to suggest the following:

As per Rabbi Resnik, marriage is a communally sanctioned, consensual and covenantal male-female one-flesh relationship that is the only allowable context for male-female sexual expression.

Such sexual activity may be considered as a seal of that one flesh relationship and/or an activity within that relationship, but that sexual union does not constitute the one-flesh unity of marriage, nor is it synonymous with it.

Some questions will assist us in seeing these as live issues:

Can a sexless marriage be termed a one flesh relationship, and if so, how?

Does a marriage become any less a one-flesh union when sex disappears, is not present, or for some reason, such as health, is no longer possible?

If the sex in a marriage is hot, is communally sanctioned, and was entered into consensually, but there is a lack of unity of lives psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually, do we still have a marriage, a one-flesh intimate relationship?

To get at these issues we might look briefly at 1 Corinthians 6:15-17 and at Rabbi Resnik’s treatment of the text, which, together with his treatment of Genesis 2:24, I find problematic. His discussion here and elsewhere illustrates our tendency, even our reflex, to equate one flesh marital unity with sexual union. Instead, I suggest that sexual union is properly associated with one-flesh marital unity but may not in itself effect that unity, at least not existentially, nor does sexual union constitute that unity.

Rabbi Resnik begins his treatment of 1 Corinthians 6:15-17 as follows:

This clear demarcation of marriage is rooted in our foundational verse, Genesis 2:24. The two becoming one flesh refers primarily to the sexual act, which is framed communally or covenantally as the man leaves his family of origin to cleave to his wife, and God brings the two together (Matt 19:5–6). Sexual acts outside of this framework also entail the two becoming one flesh: ‘Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body (eis sarka mian) with her? For it is said, The two shall be one flesh’ (1 Cor 6:16). But such acts do not in themselves constitute marriage, and aren’t legitimate without the communal and covenantal framework of marriage. (Emphasis and parenthetical Greek added)

Please note that although Paul tends in his writings to use sarx (flesh) and soma (body) interchangeably, in this passage he uses the two terms selectively:

Do you not know that your bodies (ta somata) are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body (soma) with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh (sarka).’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.

B. Ward Powers comments on this, saying:

While ‘flesh’ (sarx) can be used as a synonym for ‘body’ (soma), its normal use is with different meaning. It refers to all that it means to be human. To say, for example, that ‘the Word became flesh’ (John 1:14) means more than that Jesus had a body. A ‘one-flesh relationship’ means that marriage is a union of all that two people are as human beings in this life.

He goes on to suggest that Paul uses different words here because he wishes to establish not so much a connection, as a contrast. While sexual union with a prostitute is only “a union of bodies,” where the word soma is used by the Apostle,“the one-flesh union [of marriage rightly so-called] is a total union of two people.”3 This is God’s intended type of union for one-flesh sexual fulfillment. The one-body union, by contrast, is a mere physical coupling.

This brings us back to my plea that we speak not of definitions, but rather of boundaries, and of what is permitted and forbidden. Using the categories of Jewish life, Paul argues for an ascending scale of holiness in this passage. For Paul the Jew, sex with a prostitute is an unclean and unholy act, a mere physical body-coupling. In fact, in Jewish thought all sex makes one unclean. Sex with one’s spouse, in the context of a one-flesh relationship, is a holy act, and here not merely soma-coupling but manifesting a holy one-flesh relationship, and still one that renders one ritually unclean. And the holiest act of all, and one that does not involve uncleanness, is something which one-flesh union (which may involve sexual union too) prefigures, the joining of Messiah and his kehillah. However, we must always remember that one-flesh marital unity is deeper and greater than sexual union. Sexual union within a covenantal and communally sanctioned relationship is properly associated with one-flesh marital unity but does not alone effect nor constitute that unity. To be married is to be yoked together, and this is something much deeper and different than the sex act, although that act is meant to be an expression of that unity, and a means of deepening it. However, such sexual activity can also damage that unity and, in fact, there are some couples who would have a better one-flesh relationship without the sexual component. Is this “unbiblical?” Only if you insist on living in the world of definitions, what is permitted and what is disallowed. One-flesh marital unity refers to being joined together, and this joining goes deeper and is in some ways other than sexual union. Sexual union is a privilege and a sign of that unity, but one-flesh unity is not accomplished solely by sexual union, defined by sexual union, nor limited to it.

As to why this is important, this brings us to our third report of water under the ice. The water under the ice speaks of how we may do violence to people in pastoral situations by dragging them into our definitions as a sort of Procrustean bed for problem-solving rather than serving them by understanding, explaining, protecting, and preserving proper boundaries, and recognizing their absence or breach.

Let’s regard a marital relationship as a one-flesh unity of two people, a total sharing of life between a male and a female who are candidates for sanctioned sexual union. Their relationship needs to be within certain bounds: it is covenantal and it is communally sanctioned. But let’s avoid the kinds of definitional straight-jackets that oppress people. Let me illustrate.

In some marriages the wife is the dominant figure, and the husband responsive to the wife’s dominant personality. Is this an abnormal marriage needing pastoral intervention? In some marriages, sex is very occasional or non-existent, yet the couple shares a palpable one-flesh unity: theirs is a deep experience of life-sharing. Do we need to put them into therapy to adjust them to our definitions? And what about relationships where there is no real one-flesh unity, where one partner dominates, or neglects, or in some manner misuses the other, or where the partners are so utterly incompatible that intimate relationship on any level is laughable, but where there is no adultery to give evangelical justification for divorce. Is this a one-flesh relationship which we must seek to preserve? Some real-life examples follow. But you have others.

Jack and Jill (not their real names) were married by Messianic Jewish leaders who told them that if they could avoid fighting for one month, they would marry them. So they did. They married. Jack was a manic-depressive, taking lithium carbonate five times a day, and he was also mean. His wife was a medical professional, but around Jack, Jill adopted a little girl voice full of compliance lest she set him off. Eventually, one day he knocked her down and kicked her in the stomach. She divorced him, and in the process got her voice back. She began functioning entirely in her competent medical professional persona. Was she “wrong?” By the definitional approach, she was definitely wrong. But was his brand of behavior within bounds of the kind of one-flesh relationship God had in mind? I think not. My grief is that we often hold such parties hostage to our definitions.

A Jewish woman I know came to me. A little, gentle soul, she was married to a man who abused her, including pulling a gun on her during the sex act. At that point she stopped having sex with him. He eventually came back to her and said, “O.K. I’m sorry. Now you have to forgive me and have sex with me.” This guy who formerly dominated her with his fists now wanted to do so with his so-called confession.

They were going to an evangelical church at the time, where she taught Sunday school. She wanted to become a formal member of the church, but when she asked an elder he said, “Don’t join, because if you do we will have to denounce you from the pulpit because you are not making yourself available to your husband.” Now this church was being scriptural and she was not. She was not in compliance with 1 Corinthians and its reminder that spouses must not withhold themselves sexually from one another, except for agreed upon times of prayer and such. She asked me a question, “Stuart, if I divorce my husband, is there anywhere in the evangelical world I can go?” Good question. Should her elders have dragged her and him to a few definitional proof texts and said, “Since there is no adultery, you cannot divorce. And if you leave your husband, you cannot remarry.” Is that the way it works?

Or should we not rather do what Scripture appears to do: discussing situations, making rulings, responding to questions, determining what’s in bounds and out of bounds. My view is that the marriage in question was not a one-flesh unity, that her having sex with this man would not have been an act of holy obedience, and that despite the fact they had united sexually and had two children in the process, this was not a one-flesh relationship, and really, not a marriage, despite the covenant, despite communal sanction. And we will often be confronted with relationships that, under the name of one-flesh marriage, are plagued with out-of-bounds behaviors. Do these behaviors make any difference? Do they undermine or even disprove the one-flesh reality we claim to want to preserve?

And remember here that I am asking us to reconsider our habit of seeing Scripture, and Yeshua in the midst of Scripture, as providing definitions to govern our lives. Most often he is providing Torah, defining what is in bounds, what is out of bounds, commenting on righteous halakhic process, solving problems, and dealing with a machlokot – a problem handed him, often by hostile inquirers. We should learn to do the same.


1  Mt. 16:1, 19:3, 22:18, 35; Mk. 10:2, 12:15; Jn. 8:6

2   Throughout this paper I refer to the one-flesh relationship of marriage as a unity, reserving the term “marital union.”for sexual congress.

3   B. Ward Powers, “Some Implications Concerning Flesh and Body in 1 Corinthians 6:16,” May 6, (Accessed 2015).