Wednesday, January 11, 2017

An Epidemic

R' Yoni Lavie 

What is the greatest strategic threat for the nation of Yisrael today? Well, it all depends on whom you ask.

- We can assume that security experts will talk about the Iranian nuclear threat. If this radical Islamic state manages to develop an atomic bomb, it will pose a direct threat to the State of Israel.

- Social activists will speak about economic gaps and about the increased poverty rate, while others will point out the dangers of the polarization between different segments of the nation, and the growing hatred among the people.

- Religious people might point out the dwindling of our Jewish identity and abandonment of traditional values, or the assimilation and mixed marriages which vigorously nibble away at world Jewry and have even started to appear in Israel.

However, it seems to me that there is one important statistic that remains below the threshold. It is usually treated as a natural phenomenon, such that nothing can be done about it, except to give a brief sigh and then move on to the next topic. However, the truth is that it is serious and destructive, and it has many serious repercussions. The numbers are hard to grasp: 11,114 couples divorced in Israel during the last year. It’s true: eleven thousand, one hundred and fourteen!

To put it another way: Last year, more than ten thousand homes in the State of Israel were blown to bits, leaving behind them a huge and bleeding trail of broken hearts and large numbers of children who have lost their footing, when the two people closest to them have grown apart and often even became bitter enemies.

This is no less than a national epidemic which we must take into account, in order to decide on ways to prevent its spread. The main nucleus from which a nation is built up is the family unit, and this is based on a couple, a man and a woman, who join together in love. This can provide a suitable platform for the growth of healthy and happy children who will – with the help of G-d – establish their own families. The separation of a married couple is not at all like a business partnership that is dissolved or a move to a new home, it is a terrible destruction of a life partnership, of dreams and hopes, and it provides a moral blow to the children involved. Our sages expressed the seriousness of the matter by saying that the Altar sheds tears when a divorce takes place (Sanhedrin 22a).

It is true that sometimes the relationship between the couple is so clouded and negative that the only viable alternative is to separate, but the fact that this has become so common is terrible and frightening, and we must not accept it as inevitable.

We cannot take any comfort from the fact that the situation in Israel is better than in the Western World in general, where divorce rates can be as high as 50 or even 80 percent, but rather we must wake up and do whatever we can to stop this epidemic in our midst, which leaves behind it scorched earth and severe spiritual, economic, and educational damage.

Is Companionship a Result of Intuition?

It is possible to analyze the reasons for the epidemic of divorce and then to propose ways to cope with the situation. But it would seem that beyond all the actions we should take there is a basic realm where essential change is needed.

In the religious sector, it is common for a new couple to go to guidance sessions before their wedding. The formal reason for this the need to study the laws of family purity, which have not been studied systematically before this point (as opposed to such subjects as Shabbat, kashrut, and so on). Together with the study of formal halacha, practical guidelines are taught which involve intimate matters between the couple. Women attend most of such sessions, but men too tend to go through brief guidance study. As an aside, the young couple is sometimes exposed to the subject of companionship, if this can be squeezed into the busy schedules before the wedding.

The secular community, on the other hand, does not in general have any organized guidance before getting married. (After all, it is assumed that the halacha is not relevant for them, and that they have their own intimate experience in their relationship.) Those who register with the local Rabbinate are given a very brief halachic overview in a single session (which may or may not succeed), about the concepts of a mikveh and ritual impurity.

What will happen to a new couple right after their wedding? How will they cope with differences and gaps that may appear as they continue to live together? Will they be aware of the different stages of marriage and know how to build up the next stages in their relationship? How will they cope with crises, difficulties, and external threats to their companionship?

In all of these matters, the somewhat surprising answer is that we depend on the natural intuition of the couple, and we hope that the wonderful and complex “ship” of their companionship will manage to navigate through the stormy waters of life, without any prior maps that can show them the proper way, and without experts who can teach them how to cope with an endless number of obstacles that they will encounter.

However, what can we do when it turns out that things just do not work that way? It is a basic truth that everything that is complex and meaningful in life must be studied in depth, it requires ongoing maintenance and a strict adherence to proper behavior patterns. When none of this takes place, we should not be surprised that the “ship” of marriage in the Western World founders like the Titanic...

Teaching Couplehood

There is no alternative to a radical change in awareness. We must develop guidance and accompaniment for new couples not only for the initial stages before a marriage but mainly after the wedding has taken place.

If Israel would take on this challenge in a systematic way (is there some MK who will take hold of this gauntlet?) and build up a national system of seminars which will also include workshops on companionship and personal guidance, we might see an improvement in a very short time. The sessions should be divided according to various styles – religious/chareidi/secular – with free choice for everybody. At least two sessions a year should be held. An incentive of a tax break can be offered for the participants. In this way we can save a multitude of homes from destruction.

The cost of setting up and operating such a system would be small compared to the great economic damage of the destruction of tens of thousands of homes every year, with the resulting loss of work days, unnecessary legal struggles, the need for extra living facilities (for the man and the woman), the psychological damage to the children, and more. The profit of greater stability in Israeli society due to the strengthening of the family unit will be much greater than any financial cost of this new system.

Will anybody rise to the challenge?