I still remember when I learned one of the most important lessons about marriage. I had just become engaged and was walking down Kingston Avenue in Brooklyn when a rabbi I knew from Sydney, Australia, sprinted across the street toward me. Debbie had been working as a teacher in his school. Out of breath, he related to me that she had a special way with children.
I instantly loved this man; he dodged a bus just to increase my appreciation for my wife-to-be. It is a lesson I have sought to emulate, praising spouses to one another so as to increase their mutual affection.
People get married because it addresses the most fundamental of all human wants, namely the need to feel special, unique and loved. Being married resembles celebrity-caliber stardom. Your biggest fan has a picture of you on their wall, they wave to you from the airport terminal when you leave, and you’re what they talk about to friends. And although you may have only one admirer, it’s a real fan. A husband is supposed to feel that he’s the most special man in the world to his wife. A wife is supposed to feel that she’s the most beautiful woman in the world to her husband. Not the way Helen Rowland described marriage, as exchanging “the attention of many men for the inattention of one.”
That’s why I was intrigued to see in the headlines this week that New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez had allegedly “wooed a married woman.” The report clearly anticipated public condemnation for the interference in someone else’s marriage. The headline alone presupposed a respect for the sanctity and exclusivity of marriage, even in a society where most other sexual taboos have been discarded. Actively chasing a married man or woman, thereby trampling on the inviolability of marriage, is an unpardonable sin. America still understands that.
As a rabbinical student I was told the story of a newlywed couple who invited a prominent rabbi and his wife to their home for the Shabbat meal. Candles were lit on the table, and when the husband went to remove them his new wife informed him that it was against the halacha (Jewish law) to relocate the candles.
The husband disagreed and the wife turned to the famous rabbi to back her up. But he said, “I have forgotten the law.”
When they left the house, the famous rabbi’s wife said to him, “You looked ignorant. Why did you pretend not to know such a straightforward law?” Her husband responded, “Better I appear an ignoramus than make a husband look bad in his wife’s eyes.”
This was a sentiment that was inbred within us as a central staple of Jewish values. Always look to increase a couple’s love for one another. Young women in Orthodox seminaries were often taught that when accepting an invitation to a couple’s home they should consider wearing a touch less makeup so that the hostess would stand out in her husband’s eyes.
These teachings had particular resonance for me as a child of divorce and constituted the principal reason I devoted so much of my life to books about marriage and counseling couples in crisis. It reached its zenith when I hosted Shalom in the Home on TLC where I toured the country rescuing faltering marriages.
There are, conversely, those sad, desperate, individuals who cannot stomach another couple’s happiness and make it their business to rip marriages apart. I once counseled a man on this third marriage who had had an affair with a married woman. He came to me because his wife had thrown him out and he wanted me to persuade her to give him another chance. But he had no concern whatsoever regarding what he had done to the other couple’s marriage. We call a man like that a sociopath; utterly insensitive to the cruelty they inflict on others, completely incapable of feeling another’s pain.
We focus on Bill Clinton’s indiscretion during his presidency, that led to his impeachment. But we rarely focus on Monica Lewinsky’s role as a home-wrecker.
Lewinsky, a secretary in her mid-twenties, was an adult and knew exactly what she was doing having an affair with a married man. Was Hillary supposed to feel, after devoting her life to her husband, that she had to compete in her mid-forties with a woman half her age? The media never really reprimanded Lewinsky properly for the equal role she played in straining, and nearly destroying, another couple’s marriage.
The Menendez story may not be true, and clearly people enjoy the presumption of innocence. For all we know the story is tabloid invention. But the point is universal and transcends any individual story.
Marriage meets the fundamental need for primacy and exclusivity, the desire to be immersed in a relationship where we are the one and the only. It turns out that God Himself harbors similar needs, if such can be said. The first two of the Ten Commandments are, “I am the Lord your God” – put me first – and, “You shall have no other gods before Me” – brook no substitutes. Humans, created in God’s image, harbor these twin aspirations.
Few things are more soul destroying than a spouse feeling they have to compete for the attention that is theirs by right. Likewise, there are few things more immoral on the part of those who trample on the sanctity of another’s marriage by depriving a man or woman of the affection they have justly earned.
Moses first encounters God in the burning bush on what legend says was Mount Sinai. God’s first commandment to the great prophet was: “Remove your shoes from your feet for the ground you are standing on is holy” – do not trample upon that which God has consecrated.
Even secular society still sees marriage as that incontrovertible hallowed ground that we dare not desecrated.
The author is founder of This World: The Values Network, which is now launching the American Institute of Jewish values to promote universal Jewish teachings in the American media. He has recently published The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.
Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.