Thursday, June 01, 2023

As we continue to explore the role of friendship in marriage, it strikes me how relevant this topic is to the month of Elul. During this period of time, when we are preparing to be forgiven for our sins, we are expected to pay close attention to our interpersonal relationships; this obligation is reflected in the well-known acronym for Elul: “Ani L’Dodi, V’dodi Lih—I am for my Beloved and my Beloved is for me.”

Moreover, if we consider that the mitzvot guiding all of our interpersonal relationships are referred to as “bein adam l’chavero,” literally translated as “between man and his friend,” then surely friendship plays a dominant role in loving relationships.

Last month, I expressed my concern over a rabbi, a popular columnist, who responded to a young woman’s angst over the absence of friendship in her marriage. Rather than addressing her call for help, he dashed her dreams of attaining this goal and attempted to convince her that she was a victim of a cultural myth regarding the importance of friendship in marriage. Worse yet, he trivialized the idea of friendship, and cut her off with stating that “marriage and friendship are so vastly different from each other that it would be erroneous even to compare the two. Friends,” he claimed, “enjoy each other’s company, but spouses devote their lives to each other.” Yet, after studying the Rambam’s view on friendship, I believe that the Rambam would voice his strong disagreement to this perspective on friendship in marriage.

In the Rambam’s commentary, in Mishnah Avot: 1:6 on the verse in Pirkei Avot: “Asei lecha rav, u’k’nei lecha chaver—Provide yourself with a teacher and acquire yourself a friend,” he offers a clear and well-developed hierarchy of friendship. In doing so, I believe, he presents a compelling case that friendship plays a dominant role in all relationships, particularly in the holy union between man and wife. He begins by noting the shift in verbs in the above verse, whereby the word “provide” is used when securing a teacher, while the verb shifts to “acquire” in the case of obtaining a friend. This is intended to “emphasize the importance of friendship,” as well as to make a distinction between these two types of relationships. Thus, the teacher/student relationship is conditional, with the teacher (the giver), being hired and paid for a service he provides for the student (the receiver); in contrast, friendship speaks to the mutuality of the relationship, with both partners giving of themselves “unconditionally.” He also elaborates on the extent to which one must go in order to secure such a relationship, as well as the notion that friends are expected to know each other fully and to willingly subsume their desires for the sake of fulfilling the needs of the other: “For a person should always have a friend who will always help him better all aspects of his conduct; as our Sages commented: ‘….either comradeship or death.’ If one does not find one easily, one must make efforts in this direction… One should not cease accommodating oneself to the other person’s nature until such friendship has been established. Thus, the ethical masters have taught, ‘Do not establish friendship according to your nature; establish friendship according to your friend’s nature.’ When each of the friends conducts himself according to this directive, the desire of each one will be to fulfill the will of the other.”

In the next section, the Rambam goes on to distinguish between three hierarchical levels of friendship: (1) “A friend befriended for the sake of benefit,” such as teacher and student whose relationship has also developed into one of friendship, (2) “a friend befriended for the sake of satisfaction” and (3) “a friend befriended for a higher purpose.” In the case of friends befriended for the sake of satisfaction, the Rambam includes two separate but necessary elements: a) “trust” and b) “pleasure.” As he elaborates on this level of the friendship relationship, I believe that the Rambam is in fact describing what experts in the field refer to as “emotional safety.” This is true in marriage as well as other friendship relationships. The Rambam explains that when attaining this level of friendship, each partner “can rely on him (or her)  without holding anything back… and “can recall to him or (her) all his matters, both good and bad, without worrying that his friend will shame him—either in private or in public. When a person is able to trust a friend so thoroughly, he will derive tremendous satisfaction from talking to him (or her) and sharing his (or her) company.”  In describing the category of a friend befriended for a higher purpose, the Rambam refers to “a situation where both desire and focus on a single object,” for example, “doing good.”  This level of friendship in marriage, I believe, refers to one where the spouses have included God as a partner in their relationship, and they share spiritual values. “This,” the Rambam proclaims, “is the type of friend the Mishnah commanded us to acquire.”

There is no doubt in my mind that the Rambam’s compelling view of friendship, which includes the physical, intellectual emotional and spiritual aspects of the relationship, speaks to the ideal marriage we can all strive to achieve, at any stage of our lives. During Elul, a propitious time for teshuva, there is no better time to work toward this ideal, in our relationships with our spouse, children and friends, as well as showing respect and compassion to the others who come our way. In the merit of these efforts, may Hashem forgive us for our mistakes and hasten the geulah, b’miheira biyameinu.

By Renee Nussbaum, Ph.D Part II

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