“When Man Acquires Woman…” Wait, What?
What Does The Torah Say About Marriage?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Let’s talk about the Jewish view of marriage. Did you know that when the Torah talks about marriage in Bereishit, it says that a man “acquires” his wife? What is with that? Can you get any less romantic? But more than that, to our modern ears, it seems so primitive and backwards.
Does the Torah think that married women are just the property of their husbands? If this is the Jewish view of marriage, it’s positively cringe-worthy. But what if we’ve got it all wrong? What if “acquisition” isn’t about ownership at all?
Join Rabbi Fohrman as he explores this idea through the Bible’s first marriage: between Adam and Eve. A deeper look at this story helps us see that the Biblical view of submission in marriage isn’t sexist – far from it. It also answers some of the most fundamental questions about love: Why do people get married? What are we looking for in our love relationships?
Teacher Guide: “When Man Acquires Woman…” Wait, What?
Outline: “When Man Acquires Woman…” Wait, What?
Bereishit: Does Man 'Acquire' Woman?
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, welcome to Parshat Bereishit.
I would like to focus on something kind of controversial today: The sort of decidedly un-egalitarian aspect of traditional Jewish marriage.
Jewish Views of Marriage in the Torah: Why Do Men 'Acquire' Women?
The very first mention in tractate Kiddushin describes marriage as an act of acquisition undertaken by the male of the female. It makes you cringe if you are a modern-day, 21st-century kind of folk.
"Ha-ishah niknet." The woman is acquired by the man, in an act of marriage. It sounds like she is chattel, like she is just a thing to be acquired.
Is this really what we think is happening under the Chuppah, that romantic moment of marriage where the bride circles the groom seven times, is he acquiring her like he’d acquire a pair of shoes? How do we wrap our minds around this?
The answer, I believe, can be found in this week's parsha, in the Torah’s description of the original romance between the original couple, between Adam and Eve. I want to learn that with you and see what we can make of it.
What Does the Bible Say About the First Marriage?
So the truth is that the story of this romance starts off in a decidedly unromantic way. God says, "lo tov heyot ha-adam levado." It's not good for man to be alone, "e'eseh lo ezer k'negdo." I am going to make a companion to be there alongside him.
Now if you were God and you decided it wasn't really good for man to be alone, time to make another creature, what would you do next? Well, now, you know, this would be a really good time to create Eve, what do you think?
But that's not what God does. Look at the very next verse, God creates all the animals out of the dust of the earth, "v'yatzar HaShem Elohim min-ha-adamah, kol chayat ha-sadeh v'chol ouf ha-shamayim," and brings them to Adam and Adam has to name them all.
It seems like a big dating game: God brings the hippopotamus to Adam, and then the flamingo, then the giraffe and, one after another. Adam "lo matza ezer k'negdo," man cannot find a good companion among any of them. What is going on here? It sounds like a Purim play, just this crazy charade, this dating game with the animals, what was that all about?
Finally, the dating game was over, God creates Eve, "va'yapelHaShem Elokim tardamah al-ha-adam." God puts Adam to sleep, takes a rib from him, builds it into a woman and brings the woman to the man.
Then we have an interesting aside, "vayomer ha-adam," man said upon seeing his new bride, "zot ha-pa'am," finally this time, "etzem me'atzamai u-basar mibasri," bone from my bone, flesh from my flesh, "v'l'zot yikare ishah," I therefore call her woman, "Ishah,” "ki me'ish lakcha zot," because she was taken from man. 'Ish' – the word man; 'Ishah' – from man.
What Is the Purpose of Marriage According to the Bible?
Now in the very next verse, verse 24, the narrator steps aside and speaks directly to us, the readers of this story. The narrator says, "al-ken ya'azov ish et aviv v'et imo," this is why a man will leave behind his mother and his father, "u-davak b'ishto,” and he will cling to his wife, “v'hayu l'basar echad," and become one flesh with her. This is why a man will get married.
What do you mean this is why a man will get married? 'This is why' means because of what was said in the last verse, because of what man said when he first saw his bride, Eve. It was something about what he said, then, which explains why men get married. More than that, it explains why men leave behind their mother and their father to get married.
What is that mysterious thing, what it is about what Adam declared upon seeing Eve that helps us understand the drive to marriage?
"Zot ha-pa'am,' this time, "etzem mi'atzamai u'basar mibasri l'zot yikrah ishah ki me-ish lakcha zot."
If we can understand what that mysterious declaration was all about, why it is that that gives us the essential drive of man to even want to get married. The sense that if it weren't for that he would never leave behind his mother and father for some reason. What do his mother and father have to do with this?
If we can understand all of that, maybe the whole dating game would make sense. More than that, maybe we can understand why Jewish marriage makes sense, what this notion of acquisition is all about.
The True Meaning of Marriage in the Bible
The verse is actually saying something quite simple. What is the common denominator about these two relationships that verse 23 and 24 are talking about here? The first one, marriage, as expressed by Adam's declaration about Eve: A bone from my bone, flesh from my flesh. And the next kind of relationship, which is described in verse 24: this is why a man will leave behind his mother and his father.
What's common between the man's relationship with mother and father and a man's relationship to his wife? And how do each of those differ from man's potential relationship with any of these other mates, any of these animals that God parades before Adam in this charade?
And the answer is obvious. The animals were never really part of him. They were fundamentally foreign to him and therefore can never be a good mate.
Not so Eve. Eve came from him. Eve was a lost part of him.
Why Should We Marry, According to the Bible?
Adam senses, in the bride being presented to him, that she represents a piece of him that was lost.
When God took the rib from him, God took the feminine part of man and built it into a separate being. The man senses the loss of his feminine side and wants to recapture it in marriage. In seeing Eve, he declares: ”This is it. She is the lost part of me. Zot ha-pa'am. This time, etzem mi’atzamai, a bone from my bone, flesh from my flesh, this is why I will call her woman because she is from man, that name describes her essence. She is the lost part of me, she is that which was taken from me.”
And that's why men get married. If it weren't for this they never would. Why? They would always stay with mother and father, because they were once one with them.
Unities are very compelling. I feel I was once part of this unity. I was once part of mother and father, how can I ever leave them? The only thing that will compel me to leave that unity is the chance to fully come into myself, by reuniting with the lost part of me and reclaiming that unity.
It's only the chance to recapture the union of masculine and feminine, the original one being, that allows me to leave behind my mother and my father when I was once one being with them.
Understanding the Jewish View of Women in Marriage
So I want to suggest a theory here. It's a kind of radical theory but bear with me. And the theory is this: we misunderstand the concept of acquisition, we think acquisition is about owning things, about controlling them, and to some extent, when acquisition is about things, maybe it is.
But there are kinds of acquisitions that the Torah speaks of that have nothing to do with control, nothing to do with ownership. The Torah itself is one of those, the Torah speaks of Torah as a whole, as a kind of acquisition, but if Torah is an acquisition, do you really own it, do you control it? If anything, it controls you.
The Torah commands a certain lifestyle of you and yet, you acquire it. Acquisition, at this level, has very little to do with control. What it has to do with, is completion. A relationship with Torah completes you and your obligation towards it is therefore to treasure it, to appreciate it for what it is and to keep it safe.
A man acquires a woman but he doesn't own her. She completes him and because of that he treasures her immensely, he keeps her safe. At its deepest level maybe really that is what acquisition is about: it is an attempt to complete ourselves.
It doesn't always work: When you try to complete yourself by acquiring things, you fail. If I just have the next Lamborghini maybe I will feel okay but it doesn't work, so I need another car, I need another motorcycle. I am a billionaire and if I just get the next million dollars, I will feel okay – this desperate attempt to complete yourself. But it never works because you are never one with that thing, it was never part of you. So of course, it cannot complete you.
That which really does complete you, you don't own, you don't control. But in coming into a relationship, you acquire a missing part of yourself and make yourself whole, and it has nothing to do with power, everything to do with appreciation.