Creating a Resting Place for the Shechina

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Portait of a young Family

Marital integrity, happiness and success are fundamental to the Jewish community, and indeed to any organized society and community. The concept of zachu shechina beneihem [1] is not only a spiritual statement of God’s Divine presence, but also a symbolic formulation of the psychological and relational impacts of shalom bayis.

The spousal dyad is the central grouping of the family and the building block of the communal system as a whole. The marriage dynamic is the context for the parent-child relationship, and is the model by which, and through which, children learn the most basic truths about themselves, their world and their place in it – including their relationship with Hashem. The concept of shlosha shutfim b’adam [2] is not merely a reference to conception and birth; parents partner with G-d throughout a child’s developmental stages, as he grows up to become himself.

From my perspective as a clinical psychologist and as the clinical director of a large behavioral health clinic serving the needs of the full spectrum of the Orthodox, Yeshivish and Chassidish communities, the marital core and its challenges are among the most pressing issues facing the community, as a stressed and under-performing marriage can be the cause of many family and community ills.

Notwithstanding the growing number of “relationship improvement programs” being offered within the community from professionals and paraprofessionals, we are still far from addressing this issue adequately and effectively. To be clear, this is not due to the lack of genuine effort, but rather reflects the fact that the issues of successful marriage are inextricably linked to the array of complex, nuanced, and pernicious systems issues that the community faces and has yet to solve. Presented below is an approach to some of these broader issues and the impact they are having on our communities. Hopefully, this article, and this issue of Klal Perspectives, will trigger a dialogue that leads to practical solutions, both from short and long term perspectives.

Research and Empirical Data

As suggested by many commentators, including authors in the first issue of Klal Perspectives, a responsible approach to communal challenges must be premised upon meaningful research and data. As a maturing and increasingly sophisticated community, it is critical that we evolve from reliance solely on intuition-based models of decision making to an emphasis on empirically-based models that can inform leadership’s decision making.

Reliable research should not be confused with the arcane number crunching taking place in the sterile halls of the ivory tower of irrelevant academia; rather, research must be an accessible engine that can revitalize the hallowed institution of marriage. This requisite investigation can create, through comprehensive needs analysis and careful diagnosis, a real-life action plan for couples in our community.

Given the cohesive and organized nature of our community, prospective research and its translation can be exceedingly powerful. For example, through using the interconnectivity of the community and its many touch-points (e.g. yeshivas, kollel, mikvah, kallah teachers, shuls, schools/pre-schools, and community organizations), we can create a marriage-wellbeing surveillance and support network, akin to the best of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has done for health. [3] Empirically-developed questionnaires that are simple and focused can be used as a newlywed screening system to test for the stress fractures in marriage, leading to quick intervention when necessary. This is one way our tight-knit communal network can actualize its function of areivus and mutual support. [4]

Influences and Unintended Consequences

Communal steps to better prepare young adults for marriage must consider and evaluate the variety of influences that impinge on the marriage experience. Marriage is the insulating unit that forms the basis of family and community, but it is not built on lofty ideals alone; there are many insidious, extrinsic factors that affect marriage. Some of these factors are externally generated while others are internal, communal influences.

The most oft discussed are the external influences of general culture from non-Torah sources – most notably those attributed to the Internet and media exposure. These intrusions impact the core values of developing youth and young couples, by shaping their images of marriage and their conceptualization of love, attraction and sexuality. Appropriately, a great deal of focus is placed on these forms of influence.

While focus on such external influences is crucial, we as a community must also be conscious of elements from within our own communal system that are potentially harmful, and/or which require attention. The nature of our community, and many of its attendant practices, can sometimes influence the way marriage is structured and experienced in a less than ideal manner.  Even some practices that are wholly justifiable, if not very important, contain negative implications, falling within the well-known rule of unintended consequences. These consequences must be recognized and addressed.

A significant example of internal, unintended yet seriously negative influences relates to decision making in shidduchim. For example, our soon-to-be-released study (Ehrenpreis and Schechter, 2012) found that there are significant differences in Body Mass Index weight categories in a sampling of self-identified Modern Orthodox, Modern Yeshivish and Yeshivish women. Prior to the release of the study, researchers, clinicians, and educators were surveyed for their predictions of any differences that might be found between women of the different socio-religious categories. Many surmised that the Modern Orthodox sample would be lower in weight due to increased exposure to media and the “Hollywood” ideals of thinness and beauty. Others predicted that the Yeshivish sample would lean towards thinness, due to the pressures of shidduchim. In actuality, the Yeshivish and Modern Yeshivish groups were skewed towards thinness to a statistically significant degree. More important than the socio-religious comparison, this finding potentially highlights that unique internal systems (e.g., shidduchim) can have even greater influence than external ones (e.g. media exposure).

Obviously, great importance and many values are associated with the community’s system of dating.  But what, to a large degree, began as a practical system, now represents the prevailing cultural and institutional norm, and, moreover, has been imbued with spiritual and religious value. There was no directive of gedolai Yisroelto shape the shidduch system so that it should be precisely as it is, such as the set of questions to be asked. Similarly, many other particulars of the community’s internal processes are also products of ad hoc and non-deliberate development (e.g. selection criteria for yeshivas, wives working as they do, etc.).

A common example of a positive practice having unintended consequences on marriage stems from the Orthodox community’s significant emphasis placed on tzniyus, gender-separation and kedusha in matters of sexuality and intimacy. For some, attitudes about marital and sexual intimacy may, at times, be overly influenced by this intense communal focus.   Of the large numbers of people who present with problems in their intimate relationships (whether sexual or interpersonal), many are likely suffering from excessive inhibition, and lack a basic comfort level with their bodies and drives.

Having correctly understood that modesty is a great value, those with particular personality styles may internalize the Torah values of modesty in a manner that imposes a generalized discomfort with physical and sensual pleasure. Experiencing normal urges and natural arousal – even when appropriately channeled – may create tension, as intimacy and sexuality, by their very nature, require a psychological and physiological disinhibition and relaxation. Thus, an individual uncomfortable with “letting go” in mind and body has a severely diminished capacity for emotional and physical intimacy. Many of our young people find this expectation and aspiration to be counterintuitive, and perhaps even antithetical to their implicit (and often explicit) training.

Another, related, consequence of our community’s intense training of its youth is the frustration of many individuals’ capacity to have personal experiences. Our community encourages children to accept the “correct” beliefs, both in terms of what they should think and what they should feel. Proscribed beliefs, feelings and attitudes, and the demands for acceptance of these inclinations, can, at times, supplant personal experience, displacing genuine feelings and mood states.

Furthermore, the urgent sense of obligation to comply with lofty Torah imperatives, or to live up to aspirational models of mussar and self-growth, may lead some to deny their actual yet imperfect tendencies and emotions and become alienated from themselves. They are convinced that being an oved Hashem (servant of G-d) requires ridding one’s self of all negative feelings, urges, instincts and reactions but, as we are taught in Mishlei, yodea tzaddik nefesh behemto (the righteous understand their animal soul – 12:10). [5] A healthy person must own, experience and struggle with his or her feelings and emotions rather than succumb to the platitudes of hollow and disingenuous denial. At times, the individual must reject the incongruous “baruch Hashem” in favor of a more honest but pained “eicha?! (how could this happen?!)” [6]

Owning one’s personal experience – the good, the bad and the ugly – is not only essential for healthy growth as a person and as a Jew, it is also critical for marriage. To enjoy a successful marriage, we are forced to engage with another who sees us as we really are, without the mask of distance. Vulnerability, in fact, actually serves as the greatest evidence of trust and security, as well as strength. Efforts to hide or suppress genuine feelings are rarely successful, since such feelings surface inevitably, whether through direct communication, reactivity, or otherwise. Furthermore, when family relationships are based on “what should be,” rather than on “what is,” they become disingenuous, or even hypocritical, and emotionally disconnected, resulting in ultimate disappointment and an unsustainable situation.

Moreover, children are the keenest of observers, and can quickly identify the type of person an adult really is, whether as a parent or as a spouse. They are especially adept at perceiving authenticity and hypocrisy. The “do as I say” approach is utterly transparent to adolescents, who readily reject it (to the great disappointment of adults).

Another possible example of unintended internal influences that may impact the married lives of couples is a divergence between boys’ and girls’ educational systems, even as far back as elementary school. Boys’ schools (especially in the more yeshivish circles) focus on the primacy of learning Torah above all else. This educational model values the academic and intellectual rigor of shakla ve’tarya (give and take),chiddushim (creative thinking) and charifus (sharpness), as well as kushiyas(questioning), upshlugging (disproving) and the rischa de’oryasa (fiery passion of Torah) in a way that may devalue other forms of personal expression, emotional experience and interpersonal domains (e.g. plays, non-academic creativity, sports). Together with this single-minded focus may come sharpness in discourse, an inclination toward potentially harsh, authoritarian discipline and a tendency toward elitism.

Girls’ education is radically different. First, girls’ education includes the development of an appreciation of social interactions, experiential learning, cooperation, creativity and expressing talents in both academic and non-academic domains (e.g. plays, dances, chesed, G.O.). Furthermore, girls are not encouraged to engage in the same elitism, and certainly not the same adversarial and caustic forms of debate and intellectual confrontation promoted in in the education of boys.

When educators of boys and of girls get together, there is often discussion of this gender gap and speculation about how it may translate to different worldviews and expectations during marriage. Looking at the world through the distinct lenses of shakla v’tarya and rischa d’oryasia for the boys vs. respect, cooperation, personal experience and growth for the girls can certainly contribute to the difficulty in communication that challenges many frum couples at the start of marriage.

These differences certainly do not necessarily lead to difficulties in communication, nor is this observation intended as a critique of an educational system that successfully focuses on the primacy of Torah. But these distinct backgrounds must be addressed and efforts must be made to ensure that these factors do not unintentionally impede spouses’ ability to appreciate each other’s experiences and views. [7]

Expectations, Ideals and Challenges

Another source of marital stress is the common tendency of couples to begin their married life with unreasonable expectations and to allow those illusions to drive their marriage and family goals. Often, young husbands and wives become beholden to the ideal images of their perception of those around them, setting themselves up for failure. The elusive ideal, not reality, has become their standard for comparison.

These ideal images span a wide range of life dimensions: “My spouse and I should be happy and joyful at all times,” “My children should all love learning more than anything else,” or “be sweet and well-disciplined and at the top of their class,” or, commonly, “We will have the same spiritual and material blessings as our neighbors.”

As a composite illustration of this hope, a young couple will imagine their perfect Shabbos table, with the radiance of the holy Shabbos permeating their home as he, the proud baal habayis, recites Kiddush with utmost kavanah (concentration), and as she, the gracious baalas habayis, having prepared a glorious seuda, beams with pride throughout the meal, as all the gorgeous children sit with blissful obedience, listening quietly to, or reciting, many thoughtful divrei Torah.”

Ultimately, however, reality will set in, as children are hardly known for accommodating such dreams. As healthy children, they will bicker during Kiddush, fidget during divrei Torah (if they stay at the table at all) and don’t seem to do much of anything with blissful obedience. Moreover, mother and father, exhausted from a hectic week and last-minute Shabbos preparations, will often come to the table with feelings of inadequacy in their struggles – for parnassa, in learning and in child-rearing – and frustrated at the shattering of their sublime image. If they fail to shed their unrealistic dream of the “ideal” Shabbos, this couple will almost certainly suffer the loss of joy in Shabbos and beyond – and their children will suffer all the more. Rather than mourning over fleeting and unrealistic ideals, couples must overcome the disappointment, learn to recognize and adjust to their realities, and embrace and celebrate the blessings they have.

In a very different, but increasingly common situation, my staff and I confront the distraught, young wife who has recently discovered that her husband, whom she believed to be – and who indeed is – a serious ben torah, has at some point been exposed to inappropriate images on the Internet. She is jolted by the discovery and seeks to reassess her relationship with her world. Confronting disappointment in one’s spouse may appear in even more subtle situations. A young wife may discover that her husband is not quite the masmid (committed student of Torah) or oved HaShem (servant of G-d) she had expected him to be, or a husband finds that his wife is less capable of managing stress than he imagined, or that she is less attractive to him than she was while dating.

A significant impediment to successful marriage is the inability to adjust when reality deviates from expectations, and unanticipated challenges arise – especially for those who are the source of a challenge. How do we respond if life is different from the idyllic image created for us by our communal imagination? Will we be able to embrace a realistic and affirming model and to fulfill the verse ki nafalti kamti; ki eyshev bachosech Hashem ohr li (When I fall, I will rise up; when I sit in the dark, Hashem is my light – Micha 7:8).

This is a critical developmental challenge for couples – one young people are not sufficiently prepared to address.

Form Versus Substance

Interrelated with several of the earlier discussions is the struggle to avoid choosing form over substance. This challenge, of course, confronts all community members, but plays a particularly acute role at the advent of marriage.

In any community, those focusing on serious goals – whether religious, social, material or spiritual – must live up to demands and expectations in order to achieve and maintain those aspirations. In our community, most of our communal ideals emanate from a substantive core of religious values and spiritual yearning. Over time, however, vitality and idealism can be lost in the practical steps being implemented to achieve the goals. The individual who gets stuck in the practical structure can forfeit the cause, with the entire effort becoming an empty and hollow shell of its ideal self.

Marriage is no different. Though the goals of marriage may be lofty, the intense efforts necessary to achieving these goals risk serving as a distraction to the goals themselves. How often have we observed that even the choice of spouse and the wedding preparations fall into this trap? For many, unfortunately, getting married has become divorced from being married.

Navigating challenges in a successful marriage requires flexibility, forbearance, genuineness and cooperation. Yet for many, these building blocks of a life partnership are incidental as they seek a spouse, with checklists stressing instead (at times exclusively) appearance, body type, yeshiva/seminary attended or hyper-specifichashkafas (approaches to Judaism). These factors, of course, bear little on the joys, tribulations and success of marriage in the real world. There is no checklist for a loving marriage – it is crafted out of connection and shared experience.

It is not just the young couple that falls into this trap. Many parents, as well, undertake the goal of marrying off their children with little thought about how the marriage will unfold.[8] For some, the parental role is solely to get the child to thechupah, with insufficient attention to the personal details or to preparing for the wellbeing of the child from that point on. One parent, whose nine married children all suffered exceedingly conflicted marriages, rebuffed a therapist’s recommendation with: “You can’t tell me what to do. I got nine kids married; obviously I know what I am doing” (as if merely effectuating a child’s wedding is evidence of parental wisdom).

When marriage is treated as merely an automatic step on the social escalator of community accession, is failure not to be expected? Where is the room in this process for personal experience, responsibility and growth? If a young couple, either individually or as a couple, want something or experience something different from their friends and neighbors, how do they find the fortitude to chart their course orsolve problems?

Children in our community are guided in their transition from physical separation to sexual intimacy. They understandably cannot be expected to achieve that transformation spontaneously. Similarly, our children must be guided in embracing emotional closeness with their new spouse, as well as the attendant psychological and personal experiences.

As one newly married individual articulated the needed approach, “I don’t want to just play house – I want to know what to do and how to do it as a mature and responsible adult.” Learning what is right is not just relying on community guideposts or informal surveys of friends – it is an internalization of the deep values instilled by parents, family and an education system, that must be maintained even when it runscounter to community expectations.

Body without soul is, of course, not unique to marriage. It can be found in the learning/yeshiva experience without internalization of values, in tefila without beseeching G-d, and in Shabbos with only eating and sleeping. It is by imbuing meaning and substance into the structures of our life that we ultimately enrich our personal, spiritual and marital relationships.

Practical Implications and Recommendations

Emerging from this discussion come several practical recommendations. They are listed below by developmental stages and targets of intervention. In my experience developing and implementing aspects of these programs in mosdos across the world, tailor-made interventions – that appreciate the particular community, parents and young adults – are most successful. I, therefore, offer the readers these recommendations as guideposts for forming such programs for your family, school or community.

Elementary School (6-8th grade)

Early experiences are critical to personality development and adult behavior. The issues must be addressed early to create the positive and successful marriage. Skills learned at a young age can shape responses to self and others throughout life.

š Mesivta/Bais Yaakov/High School

š For Those “In the Parsha

š For Those Soon to Be or Very Recently Married

š For Parents of Children Soon to be Married

š For Rabbonim, Rebbetzins and Teachers of Chassanim/Kallahs

š Community-wide Recommendations

With this comprehensive approach may we be able to enjoy the fruits of great and successful marriages and build a community with a firm and solid home for theShechina to dwell within us.

This has been reprinted from the Klal Perspectives Journal with edits. Klal Perspectives is an electronic journal dedicated to addressing the unique challenges facing today’s Orthodox communities. Each issue consists of a symposium in which a diverse group of rabbinic and lay leaders share their different perspectives on a given topic.

Yitzchak Schechter, PsyD, is the Clinical Director of the Center for Applied Psychology (CAPs) at Bikur Cholim in Monsey, NY and is the Director of the newly launched Institute for Applied Research and Community Collaboration to study psychiatric, psychological and social issues in the community.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.