Spouses, Parents and In-Laws: Halakhic Perspectives on Addressing Conflict[1]

How does one handle family conflict? It’s natural for people to come into conflict with those to whom they are closest, as we are bound to have different ideas, desires and goals/aspirations. We give children life, raise them and yet ultimately they become independent human beings, with their own thoughts and opinions. We grow up in the same house as siblings, raised by the same parent(s) and yet we ultimately go different ways in life.

Much of Genesis is about life and all the messiness it contains: the story of the first families to inhabit the earth, the first examples of sibling rivalry and parental estrangement. It is very difficult to read many of these stories, yet strangely it gives us comfort in knowing that it could always be worse than our situation. I only know of one family in which the siblings agree on everything without conflict.

One of the sources of conflict begins after the creation of Eve. There our portion takes a rare moment to provide us with a homiletical teaching: על כן יעזב איש את אביו ואת אמו ודבק באשתו והיו לבשר אחד, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they shall be of one flesh.”[2] There’s an inherent cruelty to this verse: a man needs to leave his parents, the ones who gave him life? One needs to abandon their family of origin? That doesn’t sound like a positive message from a tradition that values family.

Rashi teaches us that’s not what the verse is saying. Rather it says that a man goes from being the product of his parents to producing his own children with his wife. He writes, “ושם נעשה בשרם אחד” in that child their flesh becomes one.[3]  That child will in turn grow up and do the exact same thing, leaving his/her parents to find a partner and create future children with them. Ramban or Nahmanides derives a different lesson. He says that the goal is not procreation per se for then humans would be no different from animals. Rather it is men “cleaving to their wives, seeing them as if they were with them as one flesh”[4] like Eve coming from Adam’s rib.

The rabbis, however, recognize that one never truly leaves his/her parents and that spouses must honor this. The Shulchan Aruch teaches that it is an obligation to honor one’s in-laws and that is a derivation of honoring one’s spouse.[5] Rambam, or Maimonides, teaches that “a man should tear his clothing upon the death of his father-in-law and mother-in-law out of respect for his wife; similarly, a woman should tear her clothing upon the death of her father-in-law and mother-in-law out of respect for her husband.”[6] At the same time, the rabbis teach that there are boundaries that need to be honored by both husband and wife. The Maimonides teaches “If a man says to his wife, ‘It is my wish that your parents and siblings not come into my domain,’ we accede to his demand, and his wife must obey him. She may go to her parents’ house if the occasion calls for it. She may also go to her parents’ house once a month, and for each holiday. And they shall not enter her home except in the instance of a significant event such as her falling ill or giving birth. We do not force a man to allow others into his domain. Similarly, if she says ‘It is my wish that your parents not enter my domain,’ or ‘I will not dwell with them in the same courtyard because they upset me and cause me distress,’ we accede to her wishes. For we do not force someone to live together with others in his/her domain.”[7] Raavad qualifies this as saying it only applies when the parents enter the children’s realm, not when the children enter the parents’ realm.[8]

While the rabbis establish the importance of domains and boundaries, they also indicate the danger of separation. The Talmud teaches that when Joseph said העוד אבי חי, “is my father still living?” that he had been separated from him for 22 years just as Jacob was separated from Isaac for 22 years (when he fled from Esau).[9] There’s something extremely sad about this type of separation, as well as the rabbinic tradition that the Maharam of Rotenberg did not visit or receive his father because he was unsure whether he should stand before his father to fulfill his obligation of כבוד אב (honoring his father) or whether his father should stand before him because he was a great scholar.[10]

למאי נפקא מינה-what’s the lesson that we derive from this? It seems clear that our tradition puts the spousal relationship on a silver platter, making that unit the one where both members need to take into account and honor the feelings and perspective of the other. Our tradition teaches that a man must מכבד אשתו יותר מגופו, show honor to his wife more than he does to himself,[11] and in our egalitarian society, the inverse is true as well. At the same time, our tradition recognizes the importance of a spouse giving honor to their partner’s parents and siblings. Though couples share an eternal bond, they do not do so in a vacuum but rather with each having grown up in a family of origin that needs to be respected. Our tradition teaches us that we avoid conflict both by honoring and respecting siblings and parents and by setting boundaries with our life partner (if we have one). In so doing, we can avoid some of the mistakes made by our ancestors in Sefer Bereshit.

[1] These sources are from a course entitled “Spouses, Parents and In-Laws: Halakhic Perspectives on Addressing Conflict” taught by Dr. Eliezer B. Diamond at the Rabbinical Assembly Convention 2016.

[2] Genesis 2:24

[3] Rashi on Genesis 2:24 ד”ה לבשר אחד

[4] Ramban on Genesis 2:24 ד”ה על כן יעזב איש את אביו ואת אמו

[5] Shulchan Aruch Even HaEzer Siman 240

[6] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mourning, 8:5

[7] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Marriage 13:14

[8] Raavad gloss on Rambam 13:14

[9] Babylonian Talmud Megillah 17a

[10] In Shlomo Luria, Yam Shel Shlomo, Kiddushin 1:72

[11] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Marriage, 15:19

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