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Torah As A Marriage Contract

There is one verse in the haftarah so deep that it deserves special attention. God is telling the prophet about the time yet to come when He will bring His people back to the places they once visited, the desert where they first pledged their love, and there they will renew their relationship: “In that day, declares the Lord, you will call Me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call Me ‘my master.’ ”

The resonances of this sentence are impossible to capture in translation. The key words in Hebrew are “ish” and “ba’al,” and they both mean “husband.” Hosea is telling us about two kinds of marital relationships – and two kinds of culture. One is signaled by the word “ba’al,” which not only means “husband” but is also the name of the Caananite god. Ba’al, one of the central figures in the pantheon of the ancient Near East, was the storm god of lightning and the fertility god who sends rain to impregnate the ground. He was the macho deity who represented sex and power on a cosmic scale.

Hosea, punning on the name, hints at the kind of world that emerges when you worship sex and power. It is a world without loyalties, where relationships are casual and people taken advantage of and then dropped. A marriage predicated on the word “ba’al” is a relationship of male dominance in which women are used not loved, owned not honored. The word “ba’al” means, among other things, owner.

Against this, Hosea describes a different kind of relationship. Here his literary device is not pun but quotation. In using the word “ish” to describe the relationship between God and His people, the prophet is evoking a verse at the beginning of Genesis – the words of the first man seeing the first woman:

“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. She shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”

Daringly, Hosea suggests that the making of woman from man mirrors the creation of humanity from God. First they are separated. Then they are joined again, but now as two distinct persons, each of whom respects the integrity of the other. What joins them is a new kind of relationship built on fidelity and trust.

How we understand the giving of the Torah depends on how we see the relationship between God and the people He chose to be His special witnesses on earth. Inevitably, the language of Judaism when it speaks of God is metaphorical. The Infinite cannot be compassed in finite categories. The metaphors the prophets use are many. God is, among other things, artist, creator, king, master, warrior, shepherd, judge, teacher, redeemer and father. From the point of view of God-as-king, the Torah is the code of laws He ordains for the people He rules. From the perspective of God-as-father-and-teacher, it represents the instructions He gives His children as to how they should best live. Adopting the image of artist-creator, Jewish mystics throughout the ages saw the Torah as the architecture of the universe, the deep structure of existence.

Of all the metaphors, however, the most lovely and most intimate was of God as husband, with Israel as His bride. Isaiah says: “For your Maker is your husband, The Lord Almighty is his name… (54:5).

Likewise Jeremiah: “ ‘Return, faithless people,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I am your husband’ ” (3:14).

This is how Ezekiel describes the marriage between God and Israel in the days of Moses:

“Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord God, and you became mine” (16:8).

From this perspective, the Torah is more than a constitution and code of laws, more than a set of instructions or even the metaphysical DNA of the universe. It is a marriage contract – a token and gesture of love.

When attraction, that most fleeting of emotions, seeks to perpetuate itself as love, it takes the form of marriage: marriage as covenant, in which both parties pledge themselves to one another, to be loyal, steadfast, to stay together through difficult times as well as good and to achieve together what neither could do alone. A marriage is created not by force or coercion but by words – the word given, the word received, the word honored in faithfulness and trust. There are such things as the laws of marriage (the respective responsibilities of husband and wife), but marriage of its essence is more than a dispassionate set of obligations and rights. It is law suffused with love, and love translated into law. That, according to this metaphor, is what the Sinai event was.

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.


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