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Jewish World Review
May 25, 2004
/5 Sivan, 5764
Shavuos: The eternal vow
Rabbi Yonason Goldson
What is marriage?
To the romantic, it is the consummation of true love. To the pragmatist, it is a contract for mutual responsibility and procreation. To the gold-digger, it is the key to the vault. To the philanderer, it is a legal fiction. To the seven-year-old, it is unimaginable.
In today's world of moral relativism, we have redefined marriage as whatever we wish it to be. But not so very long ago people shared a common view of marriage as an institution built upon foundational vows of mutual commitment "for as long as you both shall live." Divorce existed, but only as an option of last resort, not the likely conclusion of every second marriage.
What happened to commitment? What happened to vows? When did the definition of marriage become so random and so negotiable?
The Talmud describes Passover and the Exodus from Egypt as the betrothal of the Almighty and the Jewish people. But while Passover remains the most widely observed of all Jewish holidays, it is Shavuos, perhaps the most neglected Jewish holiday, which the Talmud compares to the marriage between the Jews and their Redeemer. It is sad but not surprising, therefore, that the declining attention to the holiday of Shavuos mirrors society's devaluation of the institution of marriage.
The kesuvah the wedding contract for this metaphysical union was engraved both upon hearts of the Jewish people and upon two hewn tablets. They were not called the "Ten Suggestions." In truth, they were not even called the "Ten Commandments." They were the Aseres HaDibros, the "Ten Statements" defining the relationship between the bride the Jewish nation and her Groom on high. They comprised the commitments, the responsibilities, and the obligations, as well as the affection, the privilege, and the intimacy of the relationship.
They defined the ultimate marriage as eternal and immutable. They made no allowances for annulment, no-fault divorce, "open-marriage," or renegotiation of pre-nupts. They were, both literally and figuratively, carved in stone.
After 3,316 years, a portion of the Jewish people still regard those vows as sacrosanct. Jews who live in the modern world of computers and cell phones and transatlantic flight and cyberspace still define their relationship with the Divine according to its original terms. They find nothing outdated, nothing unfashionable, nothing anachronistic in the generations-old dictates of those original "Ten Statements." Just the opposite, the vows their ancestors swore and the ethereal marriage those vows protect provide a safe harbor for the modern Jew against the ceaseless winds of social fad and the relentless tide of moral anarchy.
Tragically, there are other Jews who have either abandoned or reinterpreted the original vows of Sinai, who discard the moral clarity of their own eternal heritage in favor of the conventional wisdom of a society that defines exhibitionism as entertainment, pornography as art, and partial-birth abortion as the "right to choose." For them, marriage means no more than a contract of mutual gratification, to be brokered or broken at the whim of either partner. Their vision of relationship is blurred by their investment in an amoral culture where everything must be accepted and no judgments are allowed.
To them, everything may be sanctified, since nothing contains intrinsic sanctity.
Similar ideologies have sprouted like weeds through the cracks of time. But they have never lasted long, and have certainly not outlasted the original vows of Sinai, the same vows that have preserved the Jews and their Judaism, that have safeguarded the relationship between Jewish man and wife, as well as the relationship between the Jews and their Creator.
The Egyptians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans not only sanctified every corruption of human morality but sought to impose their own "morality" upon the Jews who lived among them. Some Jews embraced those nations and joined them on their path to oblivion. Indeed, nothing remains of the Hellenists, the Saducees, and the Karaites except a lesson that others like them refuse to learn: that spiritual revisionism leads only to spiritual extinction.
But some Jews have kept their vows and survived, cherishing the values and the commitments of their ancestors. And so shall it be until the final renewal of our vows at the end of days.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School and Aish HaTorah in St. Louis.
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© 2004, Rabbi Yonason Goldson