This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Tzeitel's Dilemma*

In Sholom Aleikhem's familiar tale, when Tevyeh's daughter Tzeitel insisted on taking a husband of her own choice, the incident was portrayed as a seismic crevice in the fabric of religious orthodoxy, and as the first in a series of skirmishes with modernity that would eventually culminate in the total breakdown of traditional Jewish life as it had been known for centuries.

Although we might be accustomed to regard the institution of arranged marriages as a hallmark of traditional Judaism, an examination of classical Jewish sources suggests that the practice, as it evolved in many medieval communities, really has a questionable status within the structures of Jewish religious law.

In fact, the evidence in the Talmud suggests that the practice of imposing marriages on brides was altogether prohibited, at least for young girls. The authoritative pronouncement on the subject was ascribed to the third century Babylonian scholar Rav who stated: "It is forbidden for a father to arrange a marriage for his daughter when she is still a child. He must wait until she is old enough to say 'I choose So-and-So.'" In keeping with the usual rules of halakhic decision-making, Rav's statement was adopted as the normative position of talmudic law.

However, the transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages was marked by an extreme about-face on this topic. Whether in the Middle East, in North Africa or in Europe, the widespread practice was for Jewish parents to arrange the marriages of their children, often at very tender ages, and to compel girls to accept the husbands that were chosen for them.

The medieval rabbinic authorities were well aware of the discrepancy between their norms and the teachings of the sages in the Talmud. They proposed several different ways to reconcile the apparent contradiction.

In the eyes of some commentators, the Talmud's insistence on obtaining the bride's consent to her marriage was utterly unimaginable, a blatant violation of respectable standards of conduct. A medieval head of the Babylonian yeshivah expressed outright defiance of Rav's statement when he insisted that an unmarried woman, if she was twenty years of age, ought to be residing in her father's home and should be subject to his patriarchal authority when it came to choosing a mate. The eminent scholar did not mince words when he declared: "There is no greater insolence or effrontery to be imagined in a daughter of Israel than for her to voice her own opinion and to declare 'I wish to marry So-an-So'!"

No less than their Middle Eastern colleagues, the rabbinic authorities of medieval Europe were also committed to the perpetuation of imposed marriages; however, they did not have the audacity to reject an explicit ruling of the Talmud. Their usual tendency when faced with such contradictions was to resolve the conflicts by introducing creative interpretations of the problematic sources.

Among the scholars who were most adept at this kind of learned virtuosity was the twelfth-century French scholar Rabbi Jacob Tam. He argued that, contrary to the impression created by an initial reading of the text, it was wrong to assume that Rav's ruling was accepted by the Talmud's compilers as normative law. Rabbenu Tam drew on his extraordinary erudition and halakhic ingenuity in order to demonstrate that Rav's opinion was really an isolated one, and should be rejected in favour of other passages in the Talmud that adopted the contrary position.

An even more imaginative interpretation of the problematic talmudic text was put forward by Rabbi Menahem Ha-Me'iri, the distinguished thirteenth-century halakhic authority from Perpignan, Provence (southern France). Me'iri went so far as to interpret Rav's words as if he intended to say: once a girl reaches adulthood, we may safely assume that she is so desperate to find a husband that she will agree to any man whom her father finds for her!

Other commentators were more frank when it came to confronting the contradiction between the talmudic precedents and their contemporary practice. They tried to justify the contemporary predilection for arranged marriages by pointing to mitigating historical and social factors that had given rise to the practice.

Thus, after surveying all the relevant talmudic quotations related to the topic, the Tosafot acknowledged nonetheless that "in our own times, we usually arrange our daughters' marriages even when they are still minors. The reason for this is that with each day the burdens of the exile become more difficult for us; and even if today a man might find himself with the wherewithal to provide a dowry for his daughter, perhaps in a short time he will no longer possess those means, and his daughter will be forced to spend the rest of her days in spinsterhood."

Some other medieval rabbis adduced an additional consideration that made it advisable to contract child-marriages: the difficulty of finding a suitable partner provoked the apprehension that, if people were to wait until their daughters were old enough to pick out their own husbands, the pool of appropriate mates might be depleted by then, especially in unstable times.

This concern found poignant expression in the words of Rabbi Elijah of London who wrote: "Our numbers are so diminished nowadays that we are worried lest somebody else might steal away the prospective mate. It is for this reason that we arrange marriages for young girls."

It is natural for us to lump the practice of arranged child marriages together with other archaic institutions that combined to subjugate women and restrict their life choices. Surprisingly, many advocates of Jewish religious reform in nineteenth-century Europe viewed the matter from a decidedly different perspective.

For all their progressive ideas, the eastern European proponents of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, subscribed to an outlook that we would now brand as male chauvinism. Basing themselves on the dominant social and psychological theories of the time, they believed that a harmonious household required that the husband be the master of the house, with the wife ever subservient to his authority. Several of the Haskalah authors grounded their opposition to child marriage in the fact that the grooms were also likely to be very young. They found that such unions served to undermine the patriarchal ideal by placing the wife in a position of dominance over her husband.

The reason for this had to do with the discrepancies between the respective paces of physical and emotional maturation that distinguish males and females during their adolescent years. Accordingly, even if a teen-age boy were to be married to a girl who was slightly younger than himself, it is likely that her personality would be more developed than his, and that he would be at a disadvantage when it came to asserting his authority in the domestic arena. Opposition to enforced marriages was therefore linked to a belief in the subservience of women. The dysfunctions, traumas and family breakdowns that resulted from this state of affairs were described in intimate detail by some of the Haskalah advocates as they led the fight against the medieval social structure.

In our contemporary situation, with the average North American Jewish marriage age (at least in non-Orthodox circles) weighing in at thirty-one years, those tender marriages are starting to look more appealing. A bit of arranging, whether by the parents or by other helpful parties, might be the best way to get those unmarried children out of your basement.

This article and many others are now included in the book

On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

published by

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