The old joke about why Gittin appears before Kiddushin in Shas (because G-d created the refuah before the makkah) is somewhat upended in this weeks parsha, where the sources for marriage and divorce appear in the same verse (24:1), with “kicha”, the term used for kiddushin, clearly preceding the appearance of “sefer kerisus”, the term denoting a get. The way the verse is written almost makes marital discord and divorce appear to be an inevitable consequence of marriage.
Further study of much of the halachos regarding marriage and marital conduct seems to mostly deal with what can, and will, go wrong, this even before it deals with issues of marital misconduct and divorce, a world all its own. (Maybe my Shabbas Nachamu criticism of religious figures’ involvement in matters of the heart may have been a bit harsh, at first glance; the halachic literature ostensibly doesn’t really give them that much to work with.)
I think the Torah boils the notion of marriage down to one very basic premise: no sexual relationship should ever be commenced until the parties are prepared to sign a contract regulating it. No matter how committed or in love two consenting adults really think they are, without this willingness, the relationship won’t be worth the paper its printed on. The Torah points out that there are going to be times this happens even when said paper does exist.
Furthermore, the marriage verse may seem to warn us that, if we are to think that the Torah is inevitably androcentrically misogynist, sometimes we might think again. We can examine a few of these bon mots, starting with 24:1.
The assumption in the verse seems, at first glance, to blame the ostensible dissolution of the marriage on the woman—“ki matza ba ervas davar”, he has found some unseemly thing in her. It doesn’t take much in the way of imagination to propose that the fault is with the male for being so fault-finding, maybe he is simply looking for a way out. (Why does the Torah give it to him? That’s another discussion. Start with the machlokes Bes Shammai/Bes Hillel at the end of Gittin about grounds for divorce. Rabbeinu Gershom must have thought along similar lines.)
The Gemara (Bava Basra 132b and elsewhere) states unequivocally that a woman wants to marry more than a man. In light of everything we’ve seen up to this point, this might simply be a topical restatement of the notion that women are simply more inclined toward monogamy than men are. That would make evolutionary biology as androcentric as the Torah, which complicates matters considerably.
The last item I would like to examine is the Talmudic statement “Tav le’meitav tan du mi’lemeitav armelu”, which at its most basic is translated “Better to settle as two than to settle [alone][lit 'a widow']”. This has been seized upon to mean that the Talmud is suggesting a woman is better off settling, even with a “bad” match, than with no match at all. This unnecessary translation is something that both what I would call Ultra-Right Fundamentalists and Doctrinaire Marxist Feminists would have us believe.
A closer examination of the hermenuetuical makeup of one of the sugyas in which it appears (Kiddushin 41a; this statement appears in Shas four other times) should put the lie to both sides of this debate. The Gemara has just finished explaining why a man must see his prospective bride before betrothal, lest he not like what he sees and then find himself in violation of “You should love your neighbor as yourself” (!). The Gemara uses this statement to answer why the converse would not apply to women; one might even say it means that, all other things being equal, looks aren’t an ultimate dealbreaker from her end the way they might be from his. All in all, the Talmud just finds its own way of stating that the male is more spatial. Hardly politically correct, but just as hardly misogynist.
(If you think the two are synonymous, you are just as much a fundamentalist as leftist, if not worse of one, than your religious/right counterparts. But that’s another discussion still.)
The debate regarding halacha’s ostensible misogyny will never end as long as there is ink to spill (better that than blood, though at times it seems we might be coming a little too close). My contribution in this discussion is the following suggestion: the Torah has its own agenda. One must be careful in explaining it in terms of other socio-political labels and phenomena, no matter how much of a surface resemblance there seems to be.
We do ourselves—and Torah—no favors by attaching labels to its precepts. They stand on their own.