Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Good Wife Disagrees - The Majesty of Debate

by Rabbi Y. Y. Jacobson

Who's listening?

"How is married life?" Greg asks his old buddy Mike.

"It's quite simple," Mike responds. "When we got engaged, I did most of the talking and she did most of the listening. Later, when we married, she began doing all of the talking and I began doing all of the listening. Now, ten years later, we both do all of the talking and the neighbors do all of the listening."

The biblical description of the woman's role

This week we begin the Torah afresh. The opening portion section of the Bible, Bereishis, captures the first 1,600 years of human history. It is filled with enrapturing tales that encapsulate the most profound mysteries and challenges of the human condition, including the enigma behind gender relationships.

It all begins with one 'innocent' verse, describing the raison d'etre of having two distinct genders in the world. "And G-d said, 'It is not good for man to be alone; I will make him a helper against him (1).'" Until this point, Adam and Eve were fused into one body. Here they were divided into two distinct creatures, each one possessing his or her unique structure and personality (2).

Yet, the choice of words the Torah employs to describe the role of the feminine spouse — "a helper against him" — seems contradictory. If a wife is supposed to serve as a helper to her husband, she is obviously not "against him."

Much has been written to explain the meaning of this verse (3). One Jewish thinker, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (4), interprets the sentence exactly the way it sounds (5): The woman becomes a "helper" for her husband by sometimes being against him. What this may mean is that for a husband to become the maximum he can be, he must profess the courage to welcome the ideas and feelings of his spouse that are "against" his own.

The hollering husband

Some men cannot tolerate their wives disagreeing with them. They grow angry and frustrated, at times even yelling at their wives for daring to challenge their "sacred" views. What often transpires as a result is that the woman, in order to maintain a peaceful atmosphere in the home, remains silent or even removed.

Who loses the most?

It is the husband who loses most, according to this verse in the Torah. Frankly, a man at times must be saved from himself, from his ego, his insecurities, blind spots, rashness and temptations. When a man learns to genuinely embrace his wife's contrasting personality and her otherness, he will travel to places he could never reach on his own.

This does not mean, of course, that it is a biblical injunction upon every woman to disagree with her husband 100 percent of the time. (A man once asked me: If he stated an opinion alone in a forest away from his wife, would he still be wrong? I told him: Your mistake is that you think you need to state your opinion for her to know what you think.) For a relationship to work, wives and husbands need to learn the art of compromise. She must learn to see things from his perspective, and conversely, and they must both be flexible, kind, and reasonable.

What it does mean, though, is that it is unproductive and unhealthy when a man creates a climate in the home in which his wife must always agree with his opinions, answering "amen" to all his declarations and meshugasen.

Maintaining the balance

But how do couples guarantee that the proper proportions are preserved? How do we ensure that the "against him" component of a spouse does not overwhelm and subdue the "helper" dimension of a spouse?

The Talmud (6) states that in the beginning G-d planned to create man and woman as two distinct people. In the end, however, He created them as one (only afterward did He proceed to divide them into two, as stated above). Why did G-d "change His mind," so to speak?

Perhaps (7) He wished to teach us how a married couple ought to relate to one another. In marital relations, there ought to be both an "in the beginning" and an "in the end." In the beginning, husband and wife ought to be two; each party should express his or her opinion freely and uninhibitedly. Each of them ought to challenge his or her spouse to grow taller and deeper. Then, in the end, they ought to find a way to reconcile the different views into one unified pattern of behavior, making out of many -- one, E Pluribus Unum.

This may be one of the symbols behind an interesting distinction between the tefillin (phylacteries) that Jewish men wrap on their heads vs. the tefilin wraped on their arms. The tefillin we place upon our head is conspicuously divided into four sections or chambers. Each chamber contains another fragment of parchment inscribed with one portion of the Torah. The tefillin we place on our arm, however, is conspicuously made of one chamber and all of the four portions are inscribed on a single piece of parchment placed in one container.


On the "head" level — the analytical level — diversity between couples is desirable. Let each party argue his or her point. However, on the "arm" level — the level of implementation and action — there must be one path, one verdict, one pattern of behavior. If not, chaos might reign (7).

G-d's yearning not to be alone

G-d and His people are often compared in the Bible to a husband and wife (8). Thus, this verse — "It is not good for man to be alone; I will make him a helper against him" — may also be understood symbolically as a statement concerning the relationship between G-d and humanity.

Prior to the creation of the world, G-d, the ultimate "Man" was "alone." Even after creating the world, G-d could have revealed His presence in our lives so that we would still acknowledge that G-d is in truth alone, for the entire universe is essentially an extension of His light and energy.

Yet G-d chose otherwise. He chose to create a world that would eclipse His reality completely and even oppose Him. G-d chose to create a human being with the ability to deny Him, to ignore Him, to expel Him from his life. Why would G-d arrange such a situation?

The answer is, because "It is not good for Man to be alone; I will make Him a helper against Him." What this represents symbolically is that G-d's profoundest pleasure and help stems precisely from this opposition to Him. When a human being, who by his very nature feels himself absolutely detached from G-d, cracks the shell of his physicality to discover the light of G-d within; when a person challenges the coarseness of his nature to find the tiny flame of idealism etched in the recesses of his heart — this grants G-d a pleasure and joy that His being alone could never have achieved.

The purpose of our creation, in other words, was not to generate light, but to transform darkness into light (10).

So the next time your wife disagrees with you, or the next time you "disagree" with G-d emotionally or psychologically — don't get frustrated. On the contrary, this is an opportunity for you to experience the ultimate raison d'etre of your marriage.

You can watch a video class by Rabbi YY on this same theme.


1) Genesis 2:18.

2) This is clear from the biblical narrative. Cf. Talmud Berschos 61a; Eiruvin 18a; Midrash Rabah Bereishis 8:1; quoted in Rashi Genesis 1:27.

3) See Talmud Yevamos 63a; quoted in Rashi to this verse.

4) 1745-1812. Rabbi Schnuer Zalman, author of the Tanya and Shulchan Aruch HaRav, was the founder of the Chabad school of Chassidus.

5) Torah Or Bereshis pp. 4-5. A similar interpretation can be found in the commentary Haamek Davar and Harchev Davar by the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816-1893. He was the dean of the Volozhin Yeshiva and one of the great rabbis of his day.)

6) Talmud Berachos and Eiruvun ibid.

7) This idea was suggested by Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel (1883-1946), a rabbi in Lithuania, then in Antwerp and finally, from 1937 until his death, chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, in his work Hegyonos El Ami, on Bereishis. (An English translation, entitled Jews, Judaism & Genesis was published in Jerusalem in the year 2000 by the Rabbi Amiel Library, under the auspices of the American Mizrachi movement).

8) The entire book of Song of Songs is based on this analogy. Cf. Rambam Laws of Teshuvah ch. 10

9) See Ezekiel 1:26; Torah Or ibid. p. 5a.

10) See Tanya chapter 26.

11) This essay is based on a discourse by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (Torah Or referenced in footnote #5), and on the commentary of Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) on this verse in Genesis, see Haamak Davar and Harchav Davar.

Below is a new video from Rabbi Alon Anava: How do we maintain achdut in marriage?


Anonymous said...

How timely this was!!! It's hard feeling like you are disagreeing always, but......... it must be this way sometimes, i think... in order for all parties to grow?

Very good shiur and article... thank you so much...

Devorah said...

There used to be a rabbi here who would say that he decided all the big things such as whether Russia should invade Syria and who should be the President, and his wife decided all the small things, such as how to bring up the children and how they should live their lives.

Devorah said...

Just uploaded a new short Rabbi Anava video which is related to the topic.

Laura Cohen said...

Fabulous lesson and video!