Seeing marriage through the prism of time

Marital Friendship and Covenantal Partnership by Noam Zion (Zion Holiday Publications)

Marriage has fallen on hard times. According to Statistics Canada, in 1981, 61 per cent of the Canadian population over the age of 15 was married. By 2011, that had dropped to 39 per cent, despite the fact that during that time, Canada legalized gay marriage, thus making it an option for more people. Over the same period, the percentage of divorced or separated Canadians doubled.

Noam Zion’s new book, Marital Friendship and Covenantal Partnership: Comparative Models of Love and Marriage, sheds light on the history of marriage and on confusion about it in contemporary society. Zion, a senior fellow at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a gifted educator with deep Torah knowledge and secular erudition, is best known for his popular participatory Passover haggadah, A Different Night. In this thoughtful 700-page volume, he summarizes and contrasts a wide variety of models of marriage: rabbinic, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, romantic, existentialist and postmodern.


Even in the patriarchal world of the past, not all models of marriage were the same. Time and again, Zion returns to the understanding of marriage that was promoted by Moses Maimonides (1138-1204). He wrote that “a wife is not like a captive,” and has a right to leave a marriage if she finds her husband repugnant – a right that, sadly, not all rabbis over the ages have agreed with.

The second half of the book centres on the modern Western world, where no clear and compelling model of marriage has yet emerged. This was the part that I found most interesting. Zion outlines the result of “the withering of a strong voice of inner conscience and of normative social frameworks for policing courtship and marriage.” He writes that “characteristic of American teenagers and college students since 2000, casual sex has been decoupled not only from marriage but from professions of love and the quest for ‘a relationship.’ Without prelude and without follow-up, these sexual ‘hook-ups’ are considered playful connections whose pleasure is enhanced by the freedom from responsibility.” Thus, for modern men and women outside of traditional religious communities, what was over the ages the most common incentive for marriage has lost its power.

He frequently cites Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz, who has written that in our modern world, “Stable, intimate relationships are difficult to achieve, especially for women, because men are emotionally elusive and routinely resist women’s attempts to commit to a long-term relationship. A woman’s desire to commit to a man is as self-evident as is the male’s resistance to it. A display of care and love, far from enticing a man, often makes him ‘run away.’ Only exceptionally are ‘normal’ men willing to commit to a relationship.” (This point about sexuality, relationships and the essential differences between women and men is amplified in Miriam Goldstein’s hard-hitting book, Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student, which was published around 10 years ago.)

Zion contrasts contemporary “commitment phobia” with the values of the 19th century. “For the Victorian, a suitor proves that he possesses a moral character and integrity by living up to his promises. But these 19th century values have lost their moral self-evidence.” Now commitment phobia is no longer perceived as irrational, but as “a reasonable value choice for the post-modern who prioritizes his freedom over continuity in relationship. Today’s potential marriage partners are unwilling to close their options to what might be a better partner in the future. If those reticent to commit are accused of lack of constancy of character, they reply that openness to growth is preferable to the inertia of constancy.”

Those who, despite everything, would like to enter into a lasting relationship are torn between conflicting, perhaps mutually exclusive models of how to initiate a successful modern marriage. The romantic model tells us that we should be swept off our feet by our spouse and fall in love without calculating whether the relationship makes sense. “Love at first sight” is seen as ideal. But “computer dating is the epitome of the anti-romantic. In a highly selective dating process, someone who wishes to put in a request for a proposed mate must first analyze the exact qualities and tastes s/he prefers as well as to present oneself under those analytic categories.… After completing punctilious computer spade work, the couple meets on a date, in which they pray for a romantic spark that will sweep them off their feet. When Cupid strikes, his arrows will have been directed by a sophisticated computer-guidance system to land precisely and efficiently within the ever-narrower range of compatible candidates with whom, according to the statistics, one might reasonably hope to live successfully, sharing the same lifestyle and a compatible personality.… Thus, paradoxically, the late 20th and early 21st (century) simultaneously generated fantasies about love-at-first-sight sweeping people off their feet, and yet produced endless columns of psychological advice for the lovelorn and sophisticated computer dating programs to rationalize the choice of potential mates.”

Seeing marriage in the context of ancient and modern times is an illuminating way to understand why the institution is in trouble in the 21st century.