By: Noam Safier  | 

From The President’s Desk: YSU President Noam Safier on Failing Marriages

An unstable marriage can be a source of relentless stress and burden for the people experiencing it and those around them. When a couple feels they can no longer bear the lifelong commitment they once made to each other, they are forced to acknowledge the uncomfortable divide that exists between them. For many struggling couples, marriage counseling is an important yet often last resort that can provide them with the tools they need to get their relationship back on track. The proper therapist can bring stability back to the couple and create the framework in which they can begin to once again imagine their lives as a single unit.

A marriage is very similar to a community. A community joins together over a shared set of values, goals and aspirations, much like a marriage. A community must make decisions that affect all others within it and can be fraught with problems, just like a marriage. And, just as a marriage can fail, so can a community.

The Modern Orthodox community is like a failing marriage. Changes to traditional, Orthodox practice has sparked what has metastasized into a full blown communal schism. For example, disputes regarding the place of homosexuality in our community or those about expanded women’s roles are two of the major issues tearing at the fabric of our union. Division lines fall among neighbors, friends and family members and tempers flare, quite strikingly. The problem is growing. We are indeed in a troubled marriage headed towards divorce.

An oft utilized tool in couples counseling offers insight on this decline. Marriage therapists recommend to couples the use of verbal validation to serve as the foundation of disagreement. A failure to convey a sense of empathy with the other’s concerns creates a significant roadblock to resolution. Verbal validation, according to Psychologist Karyn Hall, is “the recognition and acceptance of another person's thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors as understandable.” It involves communicating a clear sensitivity and appreciation of the issue that the other is struggling with. Hall stresses that validating someone’s concerns does not necessarily condone their actions, but rather accepts the person and appreciates the issues that are troubling them. A failure by our leadership specifically, and community more generally, to validate those among us who find difficulty with traditional Orthodoxy has widened the gap between us.

A clear indicator of our improper attitude took place in 2014 when two girls in SAR began to wear tefillin in school. Some in the Orthodox community responded with anger and disgust, instead of sensitively, with warmth and compassion. They leveled accusations of efforts to destroy traditional Orthodoxy or utter rejection of the mesorah. They denounced supporters as misguided Jews, drunk on the feminism that modernity, not Judaism, values. Instead of conveying a sense of understanding and acceptance, these voices pushed away others and reinforced the painful, anger-stricken rift that we so clearly find in our community. And, in the short span of two years, the chasm between the sides has seemed to increase and grow.

When a member of our leadership makes an insensitive remark about others’ beliefs or practices, it serves only to marginalize and isolate the people they’re referring to. The weight of our rabbinic leadership is diminishing as a result; their authority, weakening. Inappropriate statements broadcast a lack of appreciation for the significance of the problem and understanding of the issue. As a result, outside of the walls of YU, and even within them, the clout of our leadership is waning. People are increasingly turned off by a governance they dismiss as “out of touch”. Although some in the leadership have made attempts at conveying understanding, these endeavors seem to be overshadowed and outnumbered by more negative statements. To be clear, I am not advocating a unilateral embrace of the proposed changes. Tradition is of the utmost importance to Judaism and, I believe, changes should be left only to our most trusted sages. I do, however, feel we must alter the way in which we approach these changes and more importantly, the people driving them.

However, like a marriage should be a two-way street, everyone in the community must communicate appropriately. The side seeking to make changes must also recognize the positions of the establishment pushing against them in a way that expresses respect and appreciation for their reasoning. Strongly worded reactions from both sides tend to fall on deaf ears and only serve to keep a solution out of reach. Only once we create an atmosphere of mutual respect for every side of the issue can we begin to heal the fracture.

We must listen and validate. When we disagree, we must do so respectfully, bearing in mind that we are rejecting the idea, not the person. Although no obvious solution exists, it is the obligation of our leadership to create transparent lines of communication that effuse a deep, sensitive understanding of the problem. It is very important that we do not see these issues as the sole responsibility of the struggler to resolve. This “blaming” outlook will develop a relationship that will only worsen when stressed. To revert to the example of marriage, therapists emphasize that couples must view problems as not the responsibility of “him” or “her”, but of “us”. If one member of the community struggles, the problem belongs to the collective.

As a student leader, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with people on both sides of the issues and this idea is a product of those conversations. This concept, however, is not new. In fact, Rav Kook espoused the same notions in the early 1900’s. In response to the drastic changes enacted by the Enlightenment (to be clear, I am NOT comparing the changes introduced by some in our community to the Enlightenment but Rav Kook’s response remains salient), Rav Kook, who believed there was a kernel of truth in every ideology, advocated for a response that stressed sensitivity and warmth. Although he never shied away from refuting what he believed were false claims, he always did so in a way that communicated kindness and respect. When we angrily react to our struggling spouse we push them, and a solution, away.

Marriage therapy, although often resisted by struggling couples, has an incredibly high success rate. Couples report stronger, healthier relationships after attending a number of sessions with the proper therapist. We must begin to view our community as a valued marriage; one in which we exhibit genuine care for the other members and their problems, one in which we validate, even if we do not agree with, the desires of every member. As a nation that values achdut, it is our duty to do all that we can to ensure the bonds among us remain unbreakable and, like the struggling couple, embark upon the path towards recovery.