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Waffling on marriage: How to fight the patriarchy and please parents?

Dear Rabbi Bernath,

I love my partner, but don’t love how everyone always wants to know about our marriage plans. In fact, I hate it. How do I cultivate a meaningful, monogamous, long-term relationship without reinforcing an institution that has historically been terrible to women? Should we even bother with marriage any more, civil or religious? Is there a way to rehabilitate the good parts without bringing the patriarchy along for the ride? Can a young Jewish person ever speak truth to power AND make parents happy at the same time?


Conflicted in Calgary

Dear Conflicted in Calgary,

I think you’re right. Why bother getting married? If we love each other, isn’t that enough? Why do we need the chupah and the rabbi? The divorce rate is somewhere around 40%. Would someone in their right mind sign a lifetime job contract? Especially to something so apparently ‘patriarchal’?

There’s no question that marriage is in decline in the Western world. In 1970, the average age of marriage was 21.8 for women and 24.7 for men. in 2013, the average age has jumped significantly to 28.8 for woman and 30.3 for men. Millennials, for now, are not buying into it. And from a ‘me’ perspective, I think they’re right.

We are a generation of self-sufficient people. We are ME people. We used to rely on others, we used to need others. Today, we have our own jobs, our own homes; we can afford to go on nice vacations and buy ourselves designer clothes. Why give up that independence? Especially if you’re a woman who wants her independence from men?

Is there a way to rehabilitate the good parts of marriage without bringing the patriarchy along for the ride?’

In my experience, our generation’s independence is incredible in every way, aside from the way we date. Years ago, people looked for one big thing in a life-long partner; today we look for many little things. Because people who are financially independent have greater choice in their lifestyle, they need to make up a laundry list of things that they want to find in a marriage. When it proves impossible, they give up.

So why get married?

According to Kabbalah, the desire to have a lifelong commitment is an expression of our soul’s deepest ambition. This subliminal signal from the soul has caused the “logic-defying” institution of marriage to be an integral part of the fabric of human life. The soul’s desire to connect and commit makes the aspiration for marriage one of our most basic instincts

‘there’s something that the chupah does to a relationship that nothing else can’

Kabbalah explains that two considerations drive the soul’s desire to marry. One, a desire to be complete; two, a need to transcend itself.

Adam and Eve were initially part of a single, two-faced body. Afterwards, each soul became only a half-soul, and through marriage, they reunite and become whole once again. The body is selfish and egocentric, but the soul is totally selfless. In order to become whole again, we must access the selflessness of the soul; transcend ourselves by connecting to someone who is quite different than us — our soulmate.

A relationship sans marriage is by definition in existence only as long as I will it to be. If the second I decide it’s over, it’s over. But true marriage is an institution that transcends one singular relationship. Even if you decide it’s over, it’s not over yet. It transcends you. That level of commitment is what facilitates the soul’s journey to transcendence and completion. If you’re not “stuck” in a commitment, nothing will push you to transcend yourself. You’ll just call it a day and move somewhere else when life gets hard.

‘it’s scary to give yourself to an institution you feel will oppress you… But at the end of the day, it’s about you and your partner’.

That’s why the “ME” generation doesn’t get marriage. Ego and marriage are opposites. Marriage ideally teaches you to transcend your ego and become a better person. So people ask — who wants that?

The fact that you feel that historically marriage has not been good to women, we will leave for the historians to argue about. What I can tell you is that in today’s world, right now, when both husband and wife strive for transcendence and complete each other, it is a marriage filled with respect, care and love. A marriage on equal footing. “Patriarchy” means that only one party is doing the selfless stuff, while the other is benefiting happily. I think we can all discard that. But If you and your partner are on the same page, you will both become better people.

I know it’s scary to give yourself to an institution you feel will oppress you because it may have oppressed other women in the past. Even today, in our Jewish world, some terrible situations persist. But at the end of the day, it’s about you and your partner. Do you really trust each other?

(It should also be noted that if you care about children, having parents who can’t just suddenly burst apart without civil or religious recourse is very important for their well-being.)

So maybe your mother knows best. Maybe there is something that modern society hasn’t taught us. I’ve heard your complaints from many people over the past years. I’m always amazed when I speak to couples a few months after the wedding and ask them if anything changed since the chupah. I get their glance-at-each-other-infectious-smile. We must face it: there is something that the chupah does to a relationship that nothing else can. Marriage magic.

Make yourself happy, make your parents happy, and I hope — make your future children happy. It would be my honour to be there to bless your union.

Rabbi Yisroel Bernath

Have a question for Rabbi Bernath email him at

Originally published at on September 5, 2017.

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