Two events in the past week presented a contrast of extremes in the ending of marriage. In "Sin City," an Orthodox Jewish man celebrated his remarriage without having formally divorced first wife under Jewish law. Meir Kin did not give his wife a "get," or "writ of Jewish divorce," leaving her technically chained to him in marriage, and so unable to remarry. The cruelty persists even though the couple has been civilly divorced for seven years. For better and sometimes for worse, Jewish marriage is forever, unless something breaks the eternal bond of husband and wife.
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In Hollywood, a woman with Jewish roots and her husband publicly called it quits after 11 years of marriage. Gwyneth Paltrow announced the couple's separation on her blog – part of her website Goop.com, where she sells a “positive lifestyle,” with recipes for homemade artisanal foods, like kale and white bean and sweet potato korma, and luxury fashion items, like $3,500 bangles and $250 throw pillows. Paltrow neatly described the break-up as a “conscious uncoupling.” In the Goop lifestyle, marriage is apparently supposed to melt away with minimal resistance.
On her blog, Paltrow provided an eloquent explanation of conscious uncoupling. As explained by Dr. Habib Sadeghi and Dr. Sherry Sami, marriages were never meant to last very long. People used to live short lives, and their marriages lasted a lifetime. But now, they say, people live into their 70s and 80s, so marriage should not be for life: “The idea of being married to one person for life is too much pressure for anyone."
The doctors argue that we should be free to move in and out of marriage with the ease and simplicity of changing our socks. There should be no anxiety or resistance to uncoupling. This is the worldview of conscious uncoupling. The conscious uncoupling model offers the benefit of avoiding any heartache and pain associated with divorce. Conscious uncoupling, then, is an extreme view of marriage as dogmatically temporary. Life commitment is too much pressure.
At the other extreme, people around the world are outraged that Kin is holding a woman hostage by refusing to give her a get. Outrage is appropriate. It’s disgraceful when religious people exploit religious law to imprison others, and we refuse to stand for it. But the flip side of the brutal state of the "agunah," or "chained wife," is the idea that Jewish marriage is eternal.
Jewish marriage is the foil to conscious uncoupling. A Jewish marriage is a lifetime commitment. When presented with challenges, we embrace those challenges and work toward an even better marriage. Every moment of marriage intertwines the couple in a more intricate web that binds them together. Marriage is the ultimate commitment. The couple agrees to do everything in their power to make their union stand the test of time. They commit to work hard to raise their children together, under one roof. Marriage is meant to be permanent.
Unfortunately, not every marriage is healthy, and though painful, sometimes a marriage must end. If a couple finds that their challenges become insurmountable, they begin the tortuous process of untangling their lives and getting divorced. But there is great agony in this extrication process. To borrow a Talmudic metaphor, it is like removing a thorn entangled in wool. It’s inevitable that some wool will be pulled out with the thorn. There is going to be pain. We don’t enjoy the discomfort of separation, but when our hearts ache, we know something profound is being lost.
It might sound appealing, utopian even, to imagine a divorce process that is pain free, like removing a hair from milk, to borrow another Talmudic metaphor. But the worldview of conscious uncoupling is not ideal.
I’ve heard that Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin worked on their marriage. I don’t question their decision or their level of commitment to each other and their marriage. But conscious uncoupling projects a vision of marriage that deemphasizes the pain of separation and almost discourages investing the time and energy required to develop a marriage of lifetime commitment. It represents a version of marriage that just makes it too easy to part ways.
The beauty of lifetime marriage comes from accumulating experiences, memories, struggles and joy together. Marriage should be cumulative. When marriage is a lifetime commitment, we give ourselves permission to embrace our challenges. Over time, the marriage grows and each successful day fuels the next day. A marriage that perseveres gains strength and power as it progresses. The longer the marriage lasts, the more profound it can be.
Jewish marriage is eternal. It’s hard to build. It’s even harder to break. But for all its trouble, lifetime marriage weaves a mighty tapestry that adorns our lives. We can only hope the tapestry of our marriages are luxurious enough to sell on Goop.com.