Monday, July 16, 2012

Justin Bieber's Young Love and Judaism's View of Relationships

JUSTIN BIEBER CHURNS OUT top hits on what feels like a daily basis. "Boyfriend", his most recent chart topper, explains why he would be a great, well......boyfriend. Aside from the fact that he's 'got money to blow', he pledges to never let this girl go and keep her on his arms for ever and ever.

While I find the latter gestures to be charming and chivalrous, the reality is that staying in a long term relationship- for Bieber and the rest of American society- is hard to do.

These days most people seem to only be loyal to themselves. With divorce rates higher than they have ever been, it seems laughable for anyone, let alone a pop-star, to sing about commitment in relationships. I often wonder why they and their song writers broach this delicate topic.

But let's be honest: doesn't Judaism take a fairly liberal view on commitment? Was it not the great sage, Rabbi Akiva, who ruled that a man may divorce his wife on the grounds that he finds a more attractive woman? The rabbis of the Talmud took it even one step further and ruled that a man can divorce his wife for absolutely no reason. Indeed, Judaism views marriage as a contract that can be easily voided as opposed to Catholicism, for example, that sees it as an eternal covenant. When husband and wife marry under the chuppah (wedding canopy), we hope and pray their relationship will have that enduring quality. Unfortunately, it doesn't always turn out that way.

Before I leave you with the feeling that Justin Bieber is more loyal to Selena Gomez than Rabbi Akiva was to his dear wife, Rachel, I need to paint a fuller picture of the Jewish view on staying in a committed relationship. It's true that as far as Jewish law is concerned, loyalty is not necessary or required. 'Till death do us part,' is not part of the fabric of the Jewish legal system. However, when reflecting upon the great characters and personalities of the Bible, we are faced with a conflicting set of values.

The wives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all had considerable difficulty conceiving.
The Torah even described them as 'barren.' Had the patriarchs divorced their wives based on this, no one would have been surprised. Nevertheless, they remained loyal and happily married. Jacob's loyalty to his wives is even more evident. His father in law tricked him into marrying Leah instead of Rachel and instead of sending her away; she became an integral part of the Jewish future as his wife. In fact, a quick scan of the biblical personalities shows just how rare it was for them to go through a divorce or separation. No matter the enormity of the challenges the couples faced, they usually made it work.

We are taught that the actions and traits of our forefathers serve as our guiding light (maaseh avot siman l’banim). While the letter of the law is just and an integral part of Judaism, the examples our leaders set for us often serve as the true Jewish ideals. In my estimation, staying in a committed relationship is an important Jewish value. As Justin Bieber said, we must never let them go.

At the same time, it is important to remember that in Judaism, there is an 'out'. We just hope that it never gets to that point.

Rabbi Joshua Hess is an Orthodox rabbi in Linden, New Jersey. Together with Rabbi Jason Miller, he is a co-founder of the blog. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiHess.