To Love, Honour and Obey?

Parashat Bereishit 2015
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

To Love, Honour and Obey?

The leaves are turning, the evenings are lengthening and the chagim have drawn to a close: time for a weekly ritual of watching ‘Downton Abbey’ on iPlayer. Apart from the completely ahistorical and socially inaccurate way class relationships are depicted, the series usually showcases a wedding or two. Last week’s episode saw the wedding of Mr Carson, the Abbey’s loyal butler and Mrs Hughes, the House’s devoted housekeeper. After much back-and-forth about the appropriate venue, they finally settled on getting married in the Schoolhouse with a spread laden on trestle tables with ‘honest rustic fare’ that would be the envy of Jamie Oliver. So we caught a snippet of the vows in which Mrs Hughes promised to ‘love, honour and obey’ her husband.

An observant watcher may have been alerted to the retrograde nature of those vows. Do Christian brides these days promise to unilaterally obey their husbands? In search of the answer, I scouted out the Church of England’s wedding resources on and the sample vows given there, at least, are entirely gender egalitarian and reciprocal where both parties promise to love, protect and honour each other (no obedience to be found).

This is a liturgical innovation similar to ours in the Reform Movement where the bride likewise states ‘atah mekudash li’, ‘you are sanctified to me’ during the ring exchange.
The old-fashioned vow, existed of course, and was commonplace. It rested on an interpretation of the second chapter of Genesis which describes the second creation account of man and woman. Throughout Judaeo-Christian history, this particular reading of Genesis sees Eve as submissive and second-rate to Adam. Historically, women as a category were singled out for oppression and exclusion on the basis of this Biblical passage, which reads:
 “And the Eternal God caused a slumber to descend on the human, and he slept. And He took one of his ribs and closed flesh in its place. And the Eternal God built the rib that He had taken from the human into a woman and brought her to the human. And the human said, “This time it is: bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh. This will be called ‘woman,’ for this one was taken from ‘man’. (Gen. 2:21-23).

The narrative continues in Chapter Three where Adam and Eve suffer the consequences of flaunting God’s prohibition to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.
As punishment, Adam is forced to work for his daily bread by the sweat of his brow. Eve, on the other hand, is punished with the curse of pain in childbirth and her husband ruling over her, as the Hebrew states “v’hu yimshol bach”, ‘and he shall rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16).
These passages are in stark contrast with the first account of Creation in Gen. 1:27, where man and woman are created equally and in the Divine Image.

So what do we make of these differing accounts of the creation of Woman?

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a very famous 20th century Modern Orthodox rabbi known as ‘the Rav’, wrote an eloquent and existential book called ‘Lonely Man of Faith’ where he uses the two contrasting creation accounts as a springboard to discuss two typologies of Man (in the gender non-specific sense of the word): Adam the First, who is seen as industrious and Adam the Second, who is seen as contemplative. Soloveitchik writes:

“There is no doubt that the term ‘image of God’ in the first account refers to man’s inner charismatic endowment as a creative being. Man’s likeness to God expresses itself in man’s striving and ability to become a creator. Adam the first who was fashioned in the image of God was blessed with great drive for creative activity and immeasurable resources for the realization of this goal…
Therefore, Adam the first is interested in just a single aspect of reality and asks one question only---‘How does the cosmos function?’
…Adam the second, is like Adam the first, also intrigued by the cosmos… However, while the cosmos provokes Adam the first to quest for power and control… Adam the second respond to the call of the cosmos by engaging in a different kind of cognitive gesture… His inquiry is of a metaphysical nature and a threefold one. He wants to know: ‘Why is it?’ ‘What is it?’ ‘Who is it?’”

Soloveitchik uses the metaphor of B’reishit to explain the fundamental dual nature of people: to stand in awe of a universe that we try to control at the same time. Like the ‘yetzer hatov’ (good inclination) and ‘yetzer hara’ (evil inclination), we need both impulses to live a full human life: to strive after creativity and productivity as well as open ourselves to philosophical contemplation.

The power of Soloveitchik’s philosophy is that it turns the Creation Stories from a prescriptive into a descriptive text. No longer do we need to see Genesis at odds with itself as well as condemn humankind to a fallen life of sin and subjugation. Rather, Genesis becomes an existential roadmap; a descriptor (though not in a literal sense) of what once was and what may one day be restored in a redeemed world.

Woman, then needs not to be relegated to a life of obeisance to her husband based on her place in the Creation order, but rather we can take the Hebrew at face value: ‘hu yimshol bach’ can be read in the descriptive future tense rather than the prescriptive imperative tense (both are at times identical in Hebrew).

Unlike a Downton Abbey wedding, this is not just a fancy or a literary indulgence. To this day, women (and men!) experience the fallout of unequal gender relationships that have been enshrined in these texts for thousands of years. Providing an alternative reading, where Eve is an ‘ezer k’negdo’, not a mere ‘helpmeet’ but a ‘strength corresponding to Adam’ as it could be translated, redeems our Biblical text in light of our modern, egalitarian values and loops it straight back to what we could see as the original Divine intent: humanity, created in equality, finding fulfilment within the polarity of its own being but always authentic and whole, at peace with ourselves. This interpretation is both conservatively faithful to the text as well as radical in what it posits: gender equality is God-ordained.
‘To love, honour and obey’ has hopefully become obsolete as a wedding vow just like we rethink ‘Kiddushin’, the ‘purchase’ of a Jewish bride, in the Progressive Jewish tradition.

However, if we can love, honour and obey our innate being and unify the disparate aspects of self as described by Soloveitchik, we might learn to be kinder to each other as well as ourselves. B’reishit teaches us that God loves difference and embraces a mission for us to find our authentic voice. ‘Ayeika’, God asks Adam: ‘where are you?’

Let us sanctify our design for equality—not just because it’s a secular idea with moral currency but because it is what the God of the Torah wishes for His/Her children—that’s a Biblical idea that we ought to be married to.

Shabbat shalom.


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