In this week’s parsha God gives Moses the laws specific to Aaron and the priests. These laws include the prohibition against a priest marrying a divorced person.
Purity is the reason often cited for the laws surrounding priests and their marriages (the other people they are not allowed to marry are prostitutes, ‘profane women’ (who have had sex outside of marriage), and widows (in the case of high priests).
With the movement for ‘no fault divorce’ gaining considerable momentum in English civil law I was interested to discover what would be considered ‘impure’ about marrying a divorced woman, who, theoretically, had not transgressed any other laws.
Dr Eve Levavi Feinstein posits that the problem with a priest marrying a divorced woman was that she retained a ‘psychological essence’ of her previous partner which might pass to the new partner. She states something of this idea “can be gleaned from the law of levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5–6). If a married man dies childless, his wife is to marry his brother to produce an heir to bear his name. Her ability to produce an heir for her dead husband suggests that she retains some of his essence even as she cohabits with his brother.”
“Normally, the transfer of ‘essence’ within or from a licit marriage seems to have been unproblematic. In the case of a priest, contact with the essence of any other man had the potential to degrade his holiness. For an ordinary priest, this could occur when marrying a divorcée (not a widow), since perceptions of contamination are based not on any physical property, but on psychological ideas about a thing or person and its history.”
It would be easy to take a negative message away from these laws but in her analysis Dr Feinstein, perhaps unintentionally, highlights that Jewish law recognises a very special aspect of marriage. In entering a partnership with another human being, two consenting adults are agreeing to give a part of themselves to another. Romantically, this is often symbolised in the Western world by giving another person one’s ‘heart’, but the idea here that, when married, one shares one’s very essence with another, is in fact a powerful and inspiring suggestion.