In the long chapter of Genesis 24, we read of how Abraham instructed his servant to travel to Aram-Naharaim, where the rest of his family was located, to choose and bring back a wife for Isaac, his son. It is an extraordinary passage. Isaac takes no part in the process. We do not read that his father consulted him; that he gave his consent to the arrangement; or that his views entered into the episode in any way. All we read, when Abraham servant returned with Rebecca, is that:
Isaac conducted her into the tent and took her as his wife. So she became his wife, and he loved her and was consoled for the death of his mother (24: 67).
It is yet another detail in the general picture we have of Isaac as a figure in the shadow of Abraham, who does what his father does rather than strike out in any new direction of his own.
Esau and Jacob are different. They choose their own marriage partners. Yet once again there is an emphasis on parental wishes. Of Esau we read:
When Esau was forty years old, he married Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite and Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite. This was a source of bitter grief to Isaac and Rebecca (26: 34-35).
Jacob, by contrast, "obeyed his father and mother" by going to Paddan Aram to find a wife from his mother's family (28: 7).
The question that arises from these episodes - especially that of Isaac - is to what extent they are normative. Do they constitute a precedent? Does a parent have a right, in Judaism, to determine who their children will marry? May a child choose a marriage partner against the wishes of a parent? In the case of conflict, whose view do we follow?
The issue arose in the Middle Ages. We must remember that we are talking about an era in which parental authority, as well as respect for age and tradition, were far stronger than they are now. Normally it was expected that a child would act in accordance with the will of his or her parents.
Indeed, as late as 1680, Sir Robert Filmer (in his Patriarcha) argued for the divine right of kings on the basis of the absolute authority - even the power of life and death - of parents over children, and did so on the basis of biblical texts.
Strikingly, though, the halakhists did not follow this line. Writing in the thirteenth century, Rabbi Shlomo ibn Adret (Rashba) argued that getting married is a positive command, and parental wishes may not override the fulfilment of a command by a child, since the wishes of G-d take precedence over those of human beings.
In addition, the Talmud states that "Forty days before a child is formed, a heavenly voice declares: the daughter of X to the son of Y." Marriages are made in heaven, and presumably the child is in a better position than his parents to recognise his soul-mate.
As for Isaac, Rashba's explanation is simple. Isaac was a "perfect offering", a child of special sanctity, who (unlike Abraham and Jacob, both of whom travelled to Egypt) was not allowed to leave the land of Israel. Had this is not been so, says Rashba, he would certainly have undertaken the journey himself to choose a wife (Rashba, Teshuvot ha-meyuchasot le-Ramban, 272).
R. Joseph Colon (Maharik, 1420-1480), considering the same issue, refers to a responsum of Rabbenu Asher in which the author rules that a son is not bound to obey his father if he tells him not to speak to X with whom the father has a dispute. The command to love your neighbour overrides the command to obey your parents. Since the love of husband and wife is a supreme example of love-of-neighbour, it too takes priority over a parent's wishes.
There is a further consideration. Children are bound to revere and honour their parents and do them service, specifically in matters that concern their welfare. It does not extend open-endedly to deferring to their wishes in matters relating not to them but to others, including the child itself.
Elaborating on this position, Rabbi Elijah Capsali gave the following ruling in a case where a father forbad his son to marry the woman whom " his soul desired":
Though the command of filial honour and reverence is inexpressibly great . . . nonetheless it appears in my humble opinion that if the girl about whom you ask is a proper wife for the aforementioned Reuben - that is, there is in her or in her family no blemish - then the command of filial honour and reverence is irrelevant, and the son is not to abandon her so as to fulfil his father's command.
For it is nearly certain that this father virtually commands his son to violate the Torah . . . for we see (in the Talmud) that a man ought not to marry a woman who does not please him. So that when the father commands his son not to marry this woman, it is as though he commands him to violate the Torah; and it is well known that the son is not to obey his father in such cases . . .
Now, if we were to decide that the son is obliged to obey his parents and marry, though his heart is not in the match, we would cause the growth of hatred and strife in the home, which is not the way of our holy Torah - most certainly in this case, where he loves her. Indeed, we can cite in this situation: "Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it" (Song of Songs 8: 7). Were he to marry another whom he does not desire, his entire life would be painful and bitter.
Moreover we may also argue that the Torah obliges the son to filial honour and reverence only in matters that affect the parents' physical well-being and support . . . but in matters that do not affect the parent in these areas, we may say that the Torah does not oblige us to be obedient. Therefore, the son is not obliged by the rules of reverence and honour to accept his father's command in the matter of marriage. (See Gerald Blidstein, Honour thy Father and Mother, pp 85-94)
On the basis of these responsa, R. Moses Isserles rules (Rema, Yoreh Deah 240: 25): "If the father objects to his son's marriage to the woman of his choice, the son is not obliged to listen to his father."
What we see from all these sources is that Jewish law - despite its immense emphasis on honouring parents - also insists that parents make space for their children to make their own decisions in matters affecting their personal happiness. The rabbis extended to parents nothing like the absolute authority attributed to them by figures like Sir Robert Filmer. Abraham did not command his servant to find a wife for Isaac because he believed he had the right to make the choice, but because he knew that Isaac was not allowed to leave the land and make the journey himself. There is great wisdom in this approach. The Jewish family is not authoritarian. It is based, rather, on mutual respect - the child's respect for those who have brought them into the world, and the parents' respect for the right of an adult child to make his or her own choices free of excessive parental interference.
Public Versus Private
BBC Radio 4
Thought for the Day 22 November 2002
A story creating debate in America this week is the revelation that Colin Powell decided not to run for election as President because his wife threatened to leave him if he did. She said: "If you run, I'm gone." That was back in 1995, when polls showed that he would have won the Republican nomination and defeated Bill Clinton in the Presidential race. At the time, all he said in public was that he decided not to run because he lacked the passion and commitment. When he said those words, his wife Alma beamed. Now we know he did it for her.
What a choice to make! Public life or private life? It's one of those ultimately personal decisions for which there are no rules. People in public life are under relentless scrutiny from the media. They have to be prepared for criticism, fair and unfair alike. In some cases there are physical dangers. Mrs Powell believed that as the first black to be elected president, her husband would be at risk of assassination. And of course it's not only those in the limelight who have to pay the price. Sometimes it's harder on their families than on them. So I admire husbands and wives who make sacrifices for their spouses' career. But I respect no less, those make sacrifices in their career for the sake of their wives or husbands.
And there's a detail in Judaism that could almost be a commentary on Colin Powell's decision. In a week's time we'll be celebrating Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. Hanukkah commemorates one of the greatest victories in Jewish history, when, over 2000 years ago, a small group of Jews overcame the Syrian army of the Alexandrian empire and won back their religious freedom. Remembering that time, we light candles for eight days.
But what do you do, asked the rabbis, if you find yourself on Friday afternoon with only one candle? Do you light it for Hanukkah or for the Sabbath, which also begins with lighting candles? Their answer was simple. You use it as a Sabbath light, not a Hanukkah one. The reason they gave was that the Sabbath candle symbolises shalom bayit, peace in the home. And peace in the home - between husband and wife, parents and children - takes precedence over even the greatest victory in war.
So I salute Colin Powell, who valued marriage more than ambition, his wife more than his career, reminding us that the private light of family burns no less brightly than the public light of fame.