Pre-Marital Training:A Proposal/Rabbi Dr. Aton Holzer

Posted on November 18, 2013


As a surgical (Mohs) dermatologist, I daily excise skin cancers from the face and other cosmetically sensitive areas and repair them, with, thank God, excellent results. Nonetheless, I adhere to that which is drilled into us by mentors in residency and fellowship — the critical importance of managing expectations. The patient who arrives for excision of an inch-long tumor on the central face needs to understand that human biology dictates that there will be a scar. Ultimately, the patients that are forewarned and accept the risks are quite happy when the scar is less visible than they imagined; those that are not will tend to think they could have done better with a different surgeon, regardless of how good the outcome. If their expectations remain unreasonable, I refer them to the plastic surgeon of their choice to close the wound (and pass off the headache!). There is a motto that goes something like “If you’ve warned them, it’s an expected effect; if you haven’t, it’s a complication;” the pre-op conversation has a huge impact on the tenor of the surgeon-patient relationship in the days and weeks following surgery.

I suspect that the same principles are broadly applicable. Forewarned is forearmed. Couples need to enter a marriage with an understanding of the normal difficulties that arise, so they are not later racked by doubt when they do inevitably come to call. Couples need to identify potential areas of conflict, and defuse them or commit to working on them beyond the wedding. Catholics, who don’t believe in divorce, have a strong interest in ensuring marital success, so premarital counseling and conversations to ensure compatibility are mandatory. We should require the same of our kids, who at a very tender age are asked to have the maturity and insight to choose a life partner; the counseling has the potential to manage expectations, align goals, and change the tenor of the marital relationship and minimize “scars.”

My grandfather, may he be well, a product of RIETS in the 40’s and 50’s, had a profound sense of appreciation of his wife, my grandmother. At every reasonable public opportunity, he would extol her in the most superlative terms. Unfortunately, you just don’t see this anymore. Most who knew Rav Soloveitchik speak of his boundless esteem for his wife Tonya, who he called “a woman of great courage, sublime dignity, total commitment, and uncompromising truthfulness.” The same with many other Gedolim of the previous generation — for example, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who, at his wife’s funeral, famously said: “Although it is customary to ask forgiveness from one who has died, I shall not do so. Throughout our entire marriage we never offended or hurt one another. We conducted our lives according to the Shulchan Aruch, and I have no reason to ask her forgiveness.”

Nevertheless, the observation has been made that nowadays, a strong background in Torah study does not necessarily prevent acrimony in divorce. Despite the example of previous generations, despite Hillel’s executive summary of the Torah as “what is hateful to you, do not do unto others,” years in Yeshiva do not appear to necessarily insulate against marital strife. Is there anything that can be done? I suspect that well before couples meet, the groundwork can be laid for a relationship of mutual respect.  Furthermore, communication skills can serve well during marriage and even post-marriage, should a divorce occur.

There is no question that the explosion of Yeshiva learning, in which thousands of Jewish men spend their days engrossed in Torah study, has led to the emergence of the most knowledgeable Torah community in Jewish history. The philosophy that drives the Yeshiva movement is that of the Nefesh HaChaim, the work of Rav Chaim of Volozhin that develops the idea that Torah study is the loftiest of Jewish values, and Torah scholars are the most exalted among human beings and the purpose of creation. This philosophy is addressed to the menfolk, and does not in itself provide meaning to the female in traditional Judaism beyond a functional, supportive existence; hence there is no good conceptual reason for a young married avreich to treat his wife in a manner that is in accordance with the Talmudic dictum (Bava Metzia 59a) that a husband is well advised to “love her as his own body and honor her more than his own body.”

As a contemporary thinker, Rav Soloveitchik left a wealth of writings. He has left a message behind that touches upon male and female relationships. His magnum opus is considered to be Halakhic Man, a description of the personality type of the Torah scholar which is often seen as the development of the inherent theme of Nefesh HaChaim. However, there is another work, the text of a eulogy that Rav Soloveitchik delivered for the Talne Rebbitzen, which he authorized for publication in his own lifetime, (something he did quite rarely) in which he develops a second, parallel personality type. He writes:

“People are mistaken in thinking that there is only one Massorah and one Massorah community; the community of the fathers. It is not true. We have two massorot, two traditions, two communities, two shalshalot ha-kabbalah — the massorah community of the fathers and that of the mothers… Father’s tradition is an intellectual-moral one… What kind of a Torah does the mother pass on? …[T]hat Judaism expresses itself not only in the formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience. [My mother] taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life — to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive… The fathers taught generations how to observe the Shabbat; mothers taught generations how to greet the Shabbat and how to enjoy her twenty-four hour presence.” He proceeds to identify three aspects of the ‘Massoretic woman’ that were evident in the personality of the Talner Rebbitzen. (A Tribute to the Rebbitzen of Talne, Tradition 17:2 (Spring 1978) p. 76-77)

The Rav develops the theme in a manner that seems calculated to equate the respect to be accorded to the Jewish woman with his portrayal of Halakhic man. One of the most famous passages in Halakhic Man reads: “…The consciousness of Halakhic man, that master of the received tradition, embraces the entire company of the sages of the masorah. He lives in their midst, discusses and argues questions of Halakhah with them, delves into and analyzes fundamental halakhic principles in their company. All of them merge into one time experience. He walks alongside Maimonides, listens to R. Akiva, senses the presence of Abaye and Raba. He rejoices with them and shares in their sorrow… There can be no death and expiration among the company of the sages of tradition. Eternity and immortality reign here in unbounded fashion. Both past and future become, in such circumstances, ever-present realities.” (Halakhic Man, p. 120)

In this oft-overlooked essay, Rav Soloveitchik gives the Jewish woman who embraces the role of wife and mother a lofty status no less important than, and in every way parallel to, the Nefesh HaChaim’s ideal man, and thus a firm basis for mutual respect and admiration among the genders on the conceptual plane. Perhaps this essay should be required reading in our Yeshivos. It could well serve as a foundation for pre-marital training in today’s Orthodox world.

Rabbi Dr. Aton M. Holzer is a musmach of RIETS, and a physician, living in Miami Beach. He has authored essays on the thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l.



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