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A Wild Idea: The Kabbalah of Marriage

Marriage is a pretty bizarre concept. It must have been G‑d's idea. Who else could think of such a wacky plan like bringing together two opposites and putting them under one roof to share a life? And who else could invent an institution as beautiful and powerful as marriage? It's wacky—but it works. It is precisely its absurdity that makes marriage an experience not to be missed.

One of the most exciting aspects of marriage is the discovery of the profound differences between men and women, and learning how they complement each other. These differences are not just biological. On every level of our being—intellectual, emotional, psychological and spiritual—men and women seem to be from different planets.

You don't have to be married to realize this. We see it in our parents, our siblings, and our friends. But only in marriage do you start to appreciate and enjoy these differences. What you made fun of in your little sister you may love in your wife; and the things that made your brother an obnoxious brat could make your husband into the man you love.

But we should ask: what is it that makes us different? Is it just social conditioning that makes a man a man and a woman a woman, or are we born that way? Is masculinity a hormone, a feeling, or a way men are educated? Are women trained to be feminine or do they innately know how themselves?

There are many theories on the gender issue. In the works of Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah, the question is dealt with extensively. The Kabbalah's approach is both unique and revolutionary. It says that the source of male/female identity is beyond both nature and nurture. It is our very soul. Men and women have totally different soul-roots, and that is why they are different.

In Kabbalistic terms, men's souls come from the world of divine transcendence; women's souls come from the world of divine immanence. Transcendence is the divine quality of being beyond; immanence is the equally divine quality of being present. These are the male and female aspects of the Divine, and are reflected in man and woman respectively down here in the human realm.

Although every individual is unique and we don't all fit into over-simplified definitions, in a general sense there is a clear distinction between male and female spiritual postures. Their diverse soul-sources translate into two very different personas. Perhaps it can be expressed like this:

Men are more removed souls; they are geared to provide the direction in the relationship.

Women are more involved souls; they have the capacity to bring presence to the marriage.

This becomes clear as we analyze and contrast the respective natures of men and women. There are certain situations in which this contrast becomes more obvious and exaggerated. Let's look at a few examples.

In the lead up to their wedding, Joanne complains that Eddie doesn’t seem so excited. When it comes to choosing the menu, Eddie tells Joanne that she can decide on her own—he really doesn't mind if the salad is served with French or Italian dressing. The color scheme is totally up to her, he'll go along with whatever she likes, even if it's mauve (he's not even sure what 'mauve' is). Joanne is running to see how the invitations turned out, and Eddie doesn't even bother to look at them. When she shows them to him he doesn't even notice the watermark in the paper that spells their names in calligraphy. Any mention of the wedding and she is overcome with excitement; meanwhile he hasn't even bought a suit yet.

Eddie can't help it. It isn't that he isn't excited—he is, in his own way. But Eddie is a man. He is excited to get married, but for him getting married has nothing to do with a menu or decorations. It is an event—the details don't interest him. But for Joanne, every detail of the wedding makes the event. In each detail is the stamp of her personality. She is involved. He is removed.

Another example: Adam and Lisa just attended a self-help lecture. The speaker spent an hour and a half suggesting strategies to improve your life. Lisa is on fire, inspired, and ready to start implementing major changes in her life. Adam is still wondering how much the speaker gets paid per appearance. When asked how he found the speech, he responds with words like "interesting," "well-presented," "entertaining"--all distant and impersonal assessments. Lisa may or may not ever change her life, but she definitely thought about it. For Adam, the ideas were good, but it would take time and great effort to even realize that those ideas may apply to him too. Adam is removed. Lisa is involved.

Raymond and Tammy are together reading this very article. By the look on Tammy's face you can see exactly what she is feeling. She is infuriated. All these generalizations and blanket statements about men and women. I don't fit into these stereotypes! After three paragraphs she walks away. "I can't read this junk," she says. Raymond, not hearing her outburst or noticing her departure, reads on. His face is mostly blank—the only reaction he offers is a slight raise of the eyebrows. He finishes the article, not even realizing that this paragraph was written about him, and moves on to look at the advertisements. He may have agreed with the article, or maybe not. You would have to ask him to find out. Raymond is removed. Tammy is involved.

Tammy is right. We don't all fit exactly into these molds. In fact, we each have elements of both gender groups—our male and female sides. But in a general way, there is a male and a female attitude. The male is removed and aloof. The female is present and involved.

There is nothing wrong with either attitude. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes it's good to be removed. When it comes to seeing things in context and making judgments, aloofness and objectivity are essential. You can only see things for what they really are when you remain outside of them; once you are involved you can no longer see the big picture. This is the strength of the male soul—distance that allows objectivity.

But objectivity has its downside too. You'll get nowhere if you stay on the sidelines of life and remain a spectator. To be alive and real means getting involved, and for this you need to come down out of the world of theory and immerse yourself in the moment. This is where the female element comes in. It is her sense of involvement and presence that gives life colour and personality. It is the woman who makes life real and vibrant, who takes things from the analytical to the experiential, from theory to practice.

Marriage is the ultimate partnership between the two worlds of immanence and transcendence. By each partner learning to share his/her unique perspective while appreciating and connecting to the other's parallel perspective, husband and wife become a perfect balance of complimentary universes. The man guides the woman, the woman leads the man. Man gives perspective, woman gives experience. One without the other is an incomplete picture. Together, they form a unit that has the best of both worlds.

With this definition of male and female we can understand two ancient Jewish traditions. In the days before the wedding, it is customary for the groom to be called up to the Torah in synagogue, and for the bride to immerse in a Mikvah. On the surface, these two activities seem worlds apart. Saying blessings over a Biblical scroll and dunking in a ritual pool hardly resemble each other. Why such diverse practices for man and woman?

Perhaps one answer is that these acts are a way for bride and groom to plug in to their respective spiritual sources, to emphasize and nurture the unique contributions each party will bring to the future marriage. The man is to provide direction and stability to the marriage, so he plugs in to the ultimate source of direction and stability—the Torah. The woman is to bring vitality and experience to the union, so she immerses in life-giving waters. His is an act of theory—a reading. Hers is an act of total envelopment–-an immersion. He has connected to the source of transcendence; she to the fountain of immanence.

It is no small feat to unite man and woman—two opposites as diverse as heaven and earth, heart and mind, theory and practice. We prepare ourselves by first dipping into our respective spiritual sources—the holy words of Torah and the sacred waters of Mikvah. At the Chuppah, a canopy of divine light fuses our souls together as one. Then, after the wedding, we have a lifetime to learn how to work together and discover the wonder and beauty of two worlds becoming one.

A pretty wild idea. A pretty good one, too.

Aron Moss is rabbi of the Nefesh Community in Sydney, Australia, and is a frequent contributor to


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