Preparing To Accomplish Shalom Bayit

close up photo of gold wedding rings
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A few years ago, I spoke with Rabbi Address about working on a special kind of premarital counseling guide. I had spent 40 years as a divorce professional, first as a litigator, and then 25 years mediating with couples whose marital relationships had failed, helping them create new working relationships. I counseled with over 1000 couples, so I had an idea of what people should look out for when moving into another marriage. When I entered my ordination program, working on this project was a great combination of my prior life and the future one I was designing.

In one of my first classes, in 2016, we wrote our own obituaries. My children were horrified that I wanted to read it to them, until they heard “Carl Brian Viniar died peacefully yesterday, just shy of his 110th birthday.” It went on to mention that at age 70, he achieved his longtime dream of ordination, and after years of helping couples split up, was very happy helping people get the foundations they needed to have long, happy, satisfied lives together. Amazingly, this fantasy obituary also predicted that I would write a book called Staying Together, which provided a “spiritual and transformational way of looking at relationships, and focusing on the future.”

As a podcast was posted on August 12 in which Rabbi Address talked to me about the results of the project, I went back over a lot of my files and found that obituary.

As an aside, writing your own obituary is a great way to discover and create your purpose. It is a nicely worded bucket list. And it can be looked at regularly so you can check off things you have done, remove things you no longer want or need to do, and add things that you are now committed to doing. I will have to go back and change the name of the book.

It turned out to be A Pre-Marital Counseling Guide For Clergy Working With People Remarrying Or Marrying Later In Life (you can find it in the resource section of this website. It will soon also be available on my own website). But the intention perfectly aligned with what I said in the obituary: helping people look at their married lives, in advance, to get the tools to have a successful relationship.

I another realization. The Jewish principles that are behind this manual are very much the same as the ones that have always informed my work. The most obvious and important are Shalom Bayit and Tikkun Olam.  Our sources are filled with stories and opinions and even commandments about these two principles. In Jewish thought, marriages are treated as holy. The betrothal ceremony is called Kiddushin (meaning sanctification or consecration). By declaring the marriage sacred, both wife and husband recognize and treat each other as creations in God’s image, living lives filled with love and chesed.

In that holy life they are commanded to do what it takes to have shalom bayit, peace at home. For example, although lying is almost always forbidden, shalom bayit warrants engaging in a white lie. The Talmud says, “How great is peace that even the Torah has stretched the truth in order to bring peace between Abraham and Sarah.” Sarah laughed when God said she would have a child, because she was old, and Abraham was really too old. The rabbis comment that when Abraham asked why Sarah laughed, God omitted Sarah’s mention of Abraham’s age, in concern for their shalom bayit.

The Talmud also tells us that the Mizbaeach itself cries for a couple going through divorce. Why did the Talmud use this metaphor of a “crying altar?” It has been explained that the altar was the scene of bloody activity on a daily basis. It had become de-sensitized to blood and gore. Yet it could not tolerate the scene of a couple seeking to end their marital relationship. So great was the goal of Shalom Bayit.

Rabbi Akiva taught: The words [איש ish] man, and [אשה isha] woman are almost identical; the difference

between them is the middle letter yod in ish, and the final letter heh in isha. These two letters can be

joined to form the name of God, spelled yod heh. If the ish and isha merit reward for their devoted marriage, the Divine Presence rests between them. But if due to impropriety they do not merit reward,

the Divine Presence departs, leaving in each word only the letters alef and shin, which spell esh, fire.

Therefore, fire consumes them. There is either peace and godliness, or fire and destruction.

Tikkun Olam, is a Jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world. The phrase is found in the Mishnah, and in modern times is often used when discussing issues of social policy. When I speak of Tikkun Olam, I am recognizing that in preserving and keeping marriages vital, by lowering the number of failed marriages, and lessening the horrendous conflicts seen in divorce, we are healing the world, one couple, one family, at a time.

This tikkun is actually a reason I have aimed my guide at working with older people. The U.S. divorce rate has declined slightly over the past three decades. Yet “gray divorce,” for those aged 50 and older has more than doubled since 1990. (Watch therapist Linda Hershman discuss this issue on the Seekers of Meaning podcast from 7/15). I used to rarely see people in their 50’s or 60’s for divorce. If they made it that far, even if they were unhappy, they remained married out of convenience or inertia. Many thought, “I don’t have that much longer to live, divorce would be worse than sticking it out.”

Now the longevity revolution has people looking ahead at the possibility of a whole new chapter, without the children, and either independent or perhaps with a new person who brings them joy. And having seen so many divorces, the taboos around evaluating your relationship and wanting something different are no longer controlling. Being 50 or 60 is no longer too old to start a new career, or a new adventure. But this new adventure, without the proper preparation, may turn out to look a lot like the old one. It has one person who is the same, another person who often resembles the first spouse, and a whole list of unforeseen issues.

So it is the job of the premarital counselor to warn the couple of these issues, and resolve them, or more likely show them how to deal with the issues when they arise, before there is a crisis. In my guide, major issues are raised like blending families, blending finances, expectations for intimacy and sharing time, aging and illnesses. Each of these is broken down into smaller issues, so the parties can together explore their values and their commitments. The guide tells the counselor to ask about the baggage each person carries into this relationship. That baggage is as varied as families of origin and major debt. It could also be good baggage, like the deceased perfect spouse (to whom this one eventually won’t measure up).

This guide provides a heads up. If you are clergy doing pastoral counseling, use it be prepared for your sessions. If you are looking at getting married, entering into some sort of committed relationship, or know someone else who is, the manual might provide a road map of obstacles, but I urge you to have someone guide you. And of course, as I know, we all need someone we can lean on, if you want it, you can lean on me. If you have questions, or think you could use my counsel, please reach out to me.

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