In the introduction to his Laws of Marriage, the great medieval codifier R. Yehiel b. Asher compiled a series of talmudic and midrashic teachings relating to the value of marriage. He concluded: "Any man who lives without a wife lives without goodness and without blessing . . . without protection and without peace."
If indeed marriage was as fulfilling and blissful as Rabbi Asher suggests, it is little wonder that Jews through the ages made this institution so central to Jewish life. But, given the difficulties we moderns have in maintaining solid marriages, we might ask "Did our ancestors know the secret to marital success?" If so, what's the formula?
Though our sages offer little direct advice, their legal deliberations reflects values that promoted peace in the home. Much of their wisdom is still relevant today. In chapter five of tractate Ketubot, for example, the Mishnah lists the following as "work which a woman must do for her husband":
"She grinds and bakes and launders and cooks and nurses her child. She [also] prepares his bed and works in wool. If she brought one maidservant in [to the marriage], she neither grinds nor bakes nor launders. If two, she doesn't cook or nurse. If three, she doesn't prepare his bed or work in wool. If four, she may sit [at leisure] in the 'easy-chair.'" R. Eliezer says: Even if she brought in one-hundred maidservants, he may compel her to work in wool, for idleness leads to unchastity. R. Shimeon b. Gamliel says: Even if he took a vow that she should not work, he must divorce her and pay the worth of her marriage settlement, for idleness leads to boredom. [emphases added]
The Mishnah's list may sound rather conventional, requiring a wife to perform what we would stereotypically describe as "woman's work." A cursory reading suggests that the rabbis recommended adherence to traditional gender roles. A closer reading, however, leads to a more nuanced interpretation.
With the exception of nursing, the work described in this passage has nothing to do with raising children. In effect, this is a list of jobs which, apparently, are regarded as critical contributions to the marriage partnership. In their "dissenting" opinions, R. Eliezer and R. Shimeon b. Gamliel argue that, because work is fundamental to a woman's experience, even a wealthy woman should work. A woman's human needs must not be sacrificed for the sake of marriage. Productive creative involvement is so important--and idleness so contrary to human needs--that a man who insists upon such a condition may be forced to divorce his wife.
The wording of this passage suggests that the husband has a right to the proceeds of his wife's handiwork; he, in return, must support his wife. The rabbis instituted this reciprocal arrangement to avoid the husband's resentment--if he provides for his wife without gaining the right to the product of her hands, he might resent his obligation to support her. His right, therefore, is not a natural one but instituted to promote household peace.
Thus, a woman may, if she chooses, refuse support and keep the work of her hands. If she has a unique skill, for instance, she can choose to sell her handiwork and keep the proceeds. The prerogative is hers, by premarital agreement. In other words, if she is a woman of the traditional world, she can claim the right to her husband's support. But if she wishes greater financial independence, the right is hers.
If stated in terms of rabbinic advice, it would be: maximize choice and assure protection. It is a woman's right to choose whether she wants protection or (financial) independence. If a "traditional" relationship meets her needs, well and good. But if she wishes to define a less traditional marriage relationship, this should be supported too.
The rabbis did not shy away from the legal questions pertaining to "conjugal obligations." In the rabbis' view, a man is obligated to provide his wife sexual pleasure, and it is assumed that men who have greater leisure time will be more available to fulfill this obligation than men with more demanding work obligations. For example, a camel-driver traveling between relatively distant cities was obliged to have sexual relations with his wife once every thirty days, a normal laborer was obliged to sleep with his wife twice a week, and a man of independent means was obliged to do so every day (Mishnah Ketubot 5:6). In truth, these laws may have had more to do with procreation than pleasure. Most premodern peoples believed that both the woman and the man had to have an orgasm before pregnancy could occur. Nevertheless, the law is expressed in terms of assuring that a husband be attentive to his wife's sexual needs.
Whatever the wisdom of talmudic teachings, no set of precepts can guarantee marital success. Human relations are simply too complex. So, while there were surely many excellent marriages in the traditional world, there were many that were less-than-excellent as well. Leon of Modena, for example, a prominent rabbi of the 17th century, describes in his memoirs that he and his wife constantly fought, his talmudic learning notwithstanding. Personal documents discovered in the Cairo Geniza show that many traditional Jewish marriages in 11th - 13th century North Africa ended in divorce or abandonment. Again, traditional teaching offered no guarantee against emotional cruelty or worse.
All in all, the rabbis of the Talmud did offer sound advice for a better marriage: protect and support one another, respect each other's needs and independence, and be concerned for our partner's pleasure. But these teachers of Torah were human beings, with human weaknesses. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that they didn't get it all right.
This recognition suggests a lesson: We, today, should not panic if we occasionally get it wrong. Our ancestors sometimes did, yet they still successfully passed on the beauty and wisdom of Judaism from generation to generation. We, therefore, can do the same, even if our family relationships are not perfect.