Deciphering Talmudic Allegory
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Reader: I read the article in the Jewishtimes 3/11/22 on Bashert. Although I like the article, it raises more questions than answers, especially on [the rejection of] predestined partner. I don’t think the totality of the ways of God can be subjected to rational analysis, as God stated in the book of Isaiah, “Just as the heaven is higher than the earth, that is how high His thoughts are higher than us.” While speaking to the prophet Jeremiah, He stated that, “even before he was born, God had know him,” hinting on predestination.
The question is whether God predestines the right partner for some individuals or not. What about the prayer of the servant of Abraham seeking a partner for Isaac? He said that he was looking for the one that “Hashem had appointed” for Isaac. The ideal of marriage as seen in the Torah was stated by Adam, “bones of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” That seems to mean that the consideration for a partner is the divine ordained match. The last related question is, is interracial marriage really kosher? Is it really the perfect will of Hashem?
Rabbi: Although “God’s thoughts are higher than ours,” this does not mean we are ignorant about everything:
Let the wicked give up his ways, the sinful man give up his plans; let him turn back to the Lord, and He will pardon him to our God, for He freely forgives. For My plans are not your plans, nor are My ways your ways—declares the Lord. But as the heavens are high above the earth, so are My ways high above your ways and My plans above your plans (Isaiah 55:7-9).
God can tell man that he is ignorant of certain knowledge, as He told Moses and Job. Acknowledging our ignorance is knowledge. But here God tells us more. God’s claim here of being “higher than man” is intended to be understood, not that God is telling us that we know nothing and our knowledge of Him is completely outside rational analysis. Here, the rabbis say God means this: although man feels once he sins, he remains eternally damned, this is not so. God completely removes the penitent man’s sins, as if he never sinned:
If the wicked one repents of all the sins that he committed and keeps all My laws and does what is just and right, he shall live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions he committed shall be remembered against him, because of the righteousness he has practiced (Ezek. 18:21,22).
Thus, God’s ways being higher than ours does not mean all His ways are unintelligible, but that He acts differently, but yet, in a manner we can grasp. We can’t now what God is essentially. But when He communicates, He is sharing knowledge on man’s level of grasping.
Next, God’s “knowing Jeremiah before he was born” (Jer. 1:5) means Jeremiah had a mission. Not that Jeremiah had no free will.
You also cite marriage as preordained. Talmud Sota 2a says:
Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzḥak says: “When Reish Lakish would introduce his discussion of the Torah passage of sota he would say this: ‘Woman is matched to a man only according to his actions, as it is stated: “For the rod of wickedness shall not rest upon the lot of the righteous” (Psalms 125:3). But Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: “Forty days before an embryo is formed a Divine Voice issues forth and says: ‘The daughter of so-and-so is destined to marry so-and-so.’”
There is no contradiction. This [latter] statement by Rav Yehuda is with regard to a first match [zivug], while this statement of Reish Lakish is with regard to a second match. A first match is decreed in heaven; a second match is according to one’s actions.
If one is attracted to the mystical, he won’t question this portion and will feel secure about some “providence” regarding marriage. But a thinker will ask this:
Of what sense is it that a marriage is predestined, if the Talmud says one can have a second marriage, meaning I’ll divorce or lose my first wife? This means I am predestined for headache! And even if certain righteous people are under God’s providence, Sforno says most Jews are not (Lev. 13:47).
Thus, this talmudic portion must mean something other than providential predestination. And Maimonides teaches that, “Marrying a good woman is a mitzvah and God does not decree a mitzvah. And marrying an evil woman is a sin and this too God does not decree.” So this talmudic portion cannot be suggesting that marriage is divinely ordained.
This talmudic portion also says that one’s first marriage is different from his second marriage: one’s first wife has some “heavenly voice” determining his wife 40 days before the person is formed in the womb. What this “heavenly voice” refers to is this: natural biological, psychological design, which is the cause of gender attraction. Instinctual (psychological) attraction alone is usually how man is drawn to his first wife when younger. But once older and one has learned life’s lessons, he no longer marries based purely on instinct (formed on the womb), but based on his level of perfection and his intelligence—“Woman is matched to a man only according to his actions.” Here, in one’s second marriage, he has learned that attraction is only skin deep. Man now chooses a mate based on his actions, i.e., his experience and knowledge.
“Let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’—let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac’” (Gen. 24:14).
Rashi understands the word “decreed” to mean “fit,” and not that she was preordained, but that she of her own perfection fits the model of a suitable wife for Isaac. Sforno states that Eliezer was not seeking magical signs, but that he prayed that matters should unfold this way. He sought a certain quality in a wife, not that he would take anyone who suddenly appeared. For had Rivka not offered to water the camels too, Eliezer would reject her. Thus, he sought character, not magic. But with the Torah’s words “before he finished speaking, Rivka came out…” we are taught that this marriage was preordained. But this was an exception, not the rule.
Adam saying, “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” expresses a strong identification with Eve, not preordination. But despite his words, in truth, this was another rare case God’s preordination. But Rivka and Eve are rare cases, from which we cannot derive rules. Maimonides teaches that only a perfected person earns God’s providence.
Finally, interracial marriage was performed by Moses, Joshua, Joseph, King Solomon and Ruth. Humans are equals and we should value and marry good people of all races.