Monday, September 25, 2017

What a statistic! The current issue of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action reports (https://www.ou.org/jewish_action/03/2017/data-divorce-q-dr-yitzchak-schechter) a study by Dr. Yitzchak Schechter (a clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Applied Psychology at Bikur Cholim in Monsey, New York) that reveals that the overall divorce rate in the American Orthodox community appears to be around 10 percent. Dr. Schechter notes that there is some variation, that the percentage is slightly higher for the non-Chasidic Orthodox population, slightly lower for the Chasidic population.

Dr. Schechter observes:

“We sometimes need to step back and see the big picture. Out of our zeal to solve all of the problems, we forget to put them in the proper perspective: A 10 percent divorce rate is amazing! (For the sake of comparison, the divorce rate in the general population is about 48 percent.) Also, because so many people get married in the Orthodox community—we have a very high marriage rate (between 80 and 85 percent of Orthodox American Jews are married)—the 10 percent statistic is even more meaningful. In other words, because the marriage rate is so high and the divorce rate is so low, marriages among the Orthodox population are, generally speaking, lasting.”

Most rabbanim would agree that a 10 percent divorce rate in our community is too high, and that significant and varied effort should be made to reduce this percentage. Moreover, it is beyond a doubt that further steps are needed to boost the percentage of marriage in our community to an even higher level. Nonetheless, the comparison to the broader community is nothing short of breathtaking. Please permit me to suggest some reasons for this statistic.

The observance of taharat hamishpacha obviously plays a significant role in strengthening and stabilizing Orthodox couples. Rabi Meir (as presented in Niddah 31b) already taught that unrestricted access leads to boredom and that restraint recreates the fresh experience of the wedding night every month.

But there is more to it than taharat hamishpacha. Shabbat and Yom Tov compel couples to take a break from the workplace and to focus on family. Moreover, the focus on family and marriage as a central pillar of the Jewish community and life makes it as a higher priority in Orthodox life than in other communities. The sheer and incomparable joy experienced at an Orthodox wedding testifies eloquently to this very healthy attitude.

While these are contributing factors, it seems that there is one factor that is more fundamental and influential than all the others. This factor is none other than the Kabbalistic concept of tzimtzum.

In order for any relationship to flourish, each party must submit to certain limitations on their behavior. In a successful marriage, one spouse does not unilaterally decide where to go and what to do during a vacation. Decisions are made collaboratively, with each spouse compromising their desires for the sake of the other. Practically, making concessions to one another is not burdensome, since the benefit derived from the relationship far outweighs any personal frustration caused by the need to compromise.

Hashem, surprisingly, also limits Himself for the benefit of others. The masters of Kabbalah teach that Hashem contracted Himself—in order for the world to exist—in a phenomenon known as tzimtzum. Because Hashem is infinite, He must minimize Himself in order for anything else to exist. He must also engage in tzimtzum in order for human beings to have free will. Thus, Hashem places limitations on Himself to afford us the opportunity to live and thrive in His world.

Accordingly, it is reasonable for us to reciprocate this gesture, to accept limitations on our behavior and lifestyle in order to create a space for Hashem in our lives. Just as both members of a loving couple must accept restrictions in order to create a healthy relationship, the same expectations apply to our bond with Hashem. The result is a satisfying, mutual exchange. We both engage in tzimtzum in order to create space for each other. Thus, Torah restrictions should not be viewed as a nuisance, but rather a wonderful opportunity to help us cultivate a relationship with our Creator and Father in heaven.

In other words, Orthodox Judaism is geared to fostering a healthy relationship with Hashem, a relationship compared in Tanach and Chazal to a marital relationship. Orthodox Jewish life is thus permeated with relationship-building activities and boundaries. One who develops a healthy relationship with Hashem is well-trained on the basic building blocks of a relationship of a spouse. He or she experiences the benefits accrued from exercising restraint and creating space for and being sensitive to the other.

Ashreinu ma tov chelkeinu, what a wonderful lot is ours to observe the Torah. So much of the joy in life derives from a satisfying relationship with one’s spouse. Although it does not guarantee marital bliss, an Orthodox lifestyle dramatically tilts the odds in one’s favor. The dramatically lower divorce rate is yet another confirmation that Orthodox Judaism is the Rolls Royce of lifestyles, the best possible way to live one’s life.

By Rabbi Haim Jachter

 Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a Rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a Dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.