"When a man takes a woman to wife and becomes her husbandâ€¦." Deut. 24:1.
Is there a positive commandment to get married? What about polygamy, and the possibility of legal mistresses? And finally, how seriously do we take the talmudic principle "one cannot completely remove a verse from the context of its plain meaning"?
Maimonides derives from the above verse in the portion of Ki Tetze the basic source for the commandment of a man to marry (Book of Commandments, Positive Commands 213).
Interestingly enough, however, the "Rosh," Rabbenu Asher, basing himself on the unusual blessing of the groom under the nuptial canopy - not at all the usual blessing preceding the fulfillment of a commandment - insists that the command is "be fruitful and multiply," with marriage being merely the means (Rashi to B.T. Ketubot, commentary to Chapter 1, 12).
This difference of opinion is continued in our codes: the Shulhan Aruch Even Ha'ezer opens with: "It is incumbent on every individual to marry a woman in order that he may procreate, and whoever does not occupy himself with procreating is likened to someone who sheds blood, lessens the image of God within humanity, and causes the Divine Presence to be removed from Israel." Clearly, Rabbi Yosef Karo agrees with the Rosh: the major purpose of marriage is procreation.
The Ramah, Rabbi Moshe Isserles of Krakow, seemingly in agreement with Maimonides's view, adds: "Whoever is without a wife is left alone without blessing and without Torah, and cannot be called a whole personâ€¦" (ibid).
On the other hand, Rabbenu Asher's own son, Rabbenu Ya'acov, author of the Turim, appears to depart from his father's position when he opens the Laws of Procreation with: "Praised be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, who wishes only for the good of his creatures, and who understood that it is not good for the human being to be alone. Therefore He created for him a counterpart (in the form of woman and the institution of marriage). Additionally, since the purpose of creation is for the human species to procreate (and continue the species), which would be impossible without his female counterpart, the human being is commanded to cleave unto his counterpart."
There are many ramifications to this difference between these great halachic commentators: the basic purpose of marriage (and therefore what one must look for in a life partner), the permissibility of birth control and the possibility of marriage - even if a young couple is not yet ready to have children - the role of sexual relations within married life, etc.
Fascinatingly, however, although Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Rav, has spoken and written widely about the marriage experience (see for example The Lonely Man of Faith and Family Redeemed), he has never made reference to this fundamental dispute. The axiom of all of the Rav's thought is the tragedy of loneliness, human redemption through the marital relationship - which must include a meeting of souls and minds as well as bodies - and the necessity of profound communication between husband and wife in order for a family to enter into community with the divine.
It seems to me that for the Rav, God's own words in the beginning of Genesis, "It is not good for the human being to be alone," the majestic description of Adam and Eve's creation as two parts of one whole demanding a relationship of mutual respect rather than unilateral conquest, and the concluding crescendo, "Therefore shall a human being leave his/her father and mother, cleave unto his/her spouse, and they shall be one flesh" (Gen. 2:18-25), made the commandment of marriage a foregone conclusion, with polygamy and mistresses an aberration which was perhaps necessary during certain periods.
It is told of Moses Mendelssohn, 18th-century German Jewish philosopher and biblical commentator, that he fell in love with a student whom he was tutoring, Frumit Guggenheim. The problem was that Mendelssohn, albeit scholarly, was a poor, short hunchback, whereas Frumit was tall, beautiful, rich and accomplished. One day he began his lesson by telling her how he had dreamt the night before that - as the Talmud explains it - he heard the Divine announcement 40 days before his birth that the two of them had been ordained to marry. However, he also saw in his dream that she was to be born a hunchback. He then went before the divine throne, argued that since a husband and wife are truly "one flesh," he would request that her deformity go to him, and God granted his request.
She then demurely said: "If this is a proposal of marriage, I accept."
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.