A response to Rabbi James Kennard on why some Jewish marriages fail

My 2009 response to Rabbi James Kennard’s column on why there is such a high failure rate in marriages in the Jewish community.

The following letter was published in full (see letter “Hidden Anguish in Marriage”) in the Australian Jewish News on Nov 6, 2009, in response to Rabbi James Kennard’s Matters of Principal column “Building the blocks of marriage” (AJN; Oct 30 2009 p23).

A copy of the column appears below my letter.

In talking about why so many marriages in the Jewish community are failing, Rabbi James Kennard neglects to mention two of the most important attributes a person must bring to a marriage: honesty and integrity. Without either, any marriage is doomed before it has even begun, no matter how hard the couple perseveres.

Roughly five to 10 per cent of any population is not attracted to the opposite sex, but rather the same sex. In the Jewish community this is often conveniently swept under the carpet and ignored, if it is ever even acknowledged. Many of these same-sex attracted people get married under pressure, possibly have children, find themselves in loveless relationships and the next thing is their marriages have fallen apart and they’ve got broken homes. Sadly I’ve met all too many of these people.

What is lacking in these marriages is honesty and integrity, and the reason why is because of intolerant attitudes in the community that make it a taboo to be in a relationship with a person of the same sex. The net result is false, hollow heterosexual relationships. The Orthodox community won’t even tolerate the idea of recognising same-sex Jewish relationships, let alone considering same-sex marriages (despite the position of the federal government). In this atmosphere of intolerance, same-sex attracted people will always be second-class and the marriages they find themselves in will inevitably be unhappy.

Perseverance is not the answer to sustaining a marriage if the foundation it’s build on is one of lies. What we need to teach our children is honesty, integrity and that it’s ok to have relationships with the people they want to love, not the people they are expected to love. We might then find that the percentage of happy marriages actually increases.

Michael Barnett.
Aleph Melbourne.

Australian Jewish News
Oct 30 2009
Page 23

Matters of Principal
James Kennard

Building the blocks of marriage

In an age of instant gratification, we are failing to teach our children the skills of perseverance, especially when it comes to sustaining a marriage.

GOOD news! Australia’s divorce rate last year was its lowest since 1992 and the number of marriages is on the rise. But before we become too complacent and begin to believe that we live in the land of matrimonial harmony, we must note that even this record low constituted no less than 47,000 divorces, compared to only 118,000 nuptials. Four in 10 marriages are still estimated to end in divorce.

So although the short-term trend is encouraging, the longer-term changes over decades show a significant decline in the number of marriages both commencing and enduring.

Every divorce is a personal tragedy. Often no-one is to blame, although many have to suffer. But as parents and educators, we must ask if we are preparing our children well for what will be the most important and consequential task of their adult lives – creating a loving and lasting marriage, for their own sake and that of their own children.

In some crucial respects, we are not succeeding. We are failing to teach our children to compromise or to persevere.

In striving to give our children self-esteem – a vital and difficult challenge in the world of competitive and sometimes cruel teenagers – we too often confuse self-worth with self-importance.

We put our children on a pedestal and tell each of them they are the most important person in their world. Bar and bat mitzvah parties turn into coronations of princes and princesses, with no indication that the youngster has any more to achieve in order to reach perfection.

Yet marriage requires precisely the opposite approach. Suddenly each partner in a couple has to realise that they are, at best, the second most important person in the world. They have to learn to share, to compromise and to yield. When in our children’s childhood and youth do we teach them these skills?

If a marriage hits a bumpy moment, as it often does, are future partners prepared? To the delight of advertisers and manufacturers, we live in a culture of “ending is better than mending”.

As soon as the iPod or iPhone looks tarnished, it’s time to get a new one (and that’s if we haven’t already upgraded simply because a new, slightly improved, model has been released). If a child has problems at school, the solution is to try a new one.

Clothes that suited us well 12 months ago are now “so last year”.

The same applies to challenges. In an era of instant gratification, if a problem cannot be solved quickly, it cannot be solved at all.

But marriage requires a mindset that is diametrically opposed to this cult of the new. We have to find opportunities to teach our children that often it is the old things that are worth preserving and that persevering with a problem may, in time, bring a solution.

Our children are not helped by the messages about relationships they receive from the media. The most popular movie genre, the romantic comedy, follows the same formula as the fairytale that was its cultural antecedent: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again – and they live happily ever after.

Dramas, on the other hand, usually start with a couple in a relationship and chronicle its dissolution. So the real (and best) story, of a couple working on their marriage and making it last, is rarely told.

One message that young people learn from their peers – that may or may not be endorsed by their parents – is the devaluing of sexual intimacy. In the past, society understood that sex was reserved for marriage and, even though this convention was often ignored, the expectation itself showed how physical relations can serve as a unique bond between couples permanently committed to each other for the long term.

Now such a view seems quaint or even so antediluvian as to be laughable. But if sex is used today to say “I like you” or even to say “hello”, what is left to say “I love you”?

The decline of marriage matters. It is not only human beings – parents and children – who suffer when a family is shattered, but society as a whole. Nature (whether the designer is God or Richard Dawkins) has arranged for the children of human beings to live with their parents for longer than the young of any other species, so that they can learn values and skills with which to prosper and build the next generation. The family is the building block of society itself.

A stable family does not guarantee stable children and many single or separated parents raise happy and confident young people. But to help our own children with the challenge of building their home and hence creating their own world, we must show them that the greatest happiness may take much time to achieve, but can last forever.

Rabbi James Kennard is principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College, Melbourne. His column appears monthly.

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