I was on the plane home from our summer vacation when I saw something disturbing. After landing, the lady across the aisle from me began throwing up into a plastic bag. Fine, so she gets sick from turbulence.
The disturbing part was how her husband responded: he didn’t. While she sat hunched over her bag, everyone around her darting looks of pity, her husband stood in the aisle staring straight ahead, waiting to take down the overhead luggage.
I had the sniffles throughout the flight, and my husband was practically fawning over me, jumping up to get me tissues when I sneezed and checking in every so often to make sure I was doing alright. That was how I would expect any husband to react to a vomiting wife. Why wasn’t he comforting her, offering her water or tissues?
At this point, you might be thinking, “Gee that husband is a jerk.”
Or, if you tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, perhaps you’re thinking, “Maybe he didn’t notice she was hurling.” (He did.) Or, “Maybe she likes to be left alone when ill and he was simply respecting her privacy.”
But what if I told you that they were both Hasidic? That her skirt went down to the floor and his beard and peyes reached his chest? Would you, as I did, jump instead to the conclusion that his lack of response was a result of them being Hasidim, because their marriage was likely arranged and they may hardly know one another?
I saw this all take place, and my knee-jerk conclusion was, “Of course he’s ignoring her. This is what happens when you don’t know your spouse until you’re married, when you don’t marry for love, when the only point of marriage is to bear children, not for companionship.” I pitied the woman and harshly judged the husband. I felt superior since I am Modern Orthodox and not Hasidic, since our kind marry for the right reasons and theirs the wrong ones. In the course of five seconds, I zipped through a hundred unoriginal prejudices, smugly concluding that those who claim marrying will lead to love even if it doesn’t begin with it are just lying to themselves. Hasidim are backwards, I decided.
And then I realized what I was doing. I pulled back. I was using one incident, to which I was an outside, uninformed viewer, to judge an entire group of people. The same situation could have easily taken place between a secular, or even Modern Orthodox, couple, and I wouldn’t have judged them in the same way. Jeremy, after hearing my reaction, gave it a fancy-pants psychology name: “out-group homogeneity effect,” the tendency people have to see members of other groups as all the same while seeing members of one’s own group as diverse.
This is something people do instinctively, but it’s completely irrational. Maybe she really does like being left alone. Maybe he gets violently ill when he sees vomit, and she’s okay with him ignoring her. Or maybe, yes, they do have an unloving marriage —not because they’re Hasidic but because sometimes that just happens. I have no doubt that there are many Hasidic couples out there who love and care for each other.
And what if, as I initially thought, their marriage is more about halachic obligations than love —that they were in niddah, and therefore wouldn’t touch each other? Maybe they’re very strict about it. Maybe he wouldn’t even bend down next to her because that would lead to a comforting touch, which they perhaps believe is forbidden. Just because I wouldn’t want my husband to take the obligation of niddah more seriously than my need for him to tend to my feelings doesn’t mean that living a highly halachic life is a bad choice. They might see love as secondary to the Torah. Does that mean I’m right and they’re wrong?
It’s easy to judge a group of people based on one person — but I wouldn’t want to be responsible for representing all Modern Orthodox women, or all young people, or even all Jews. Why should I place that responsibility on others?
Judging a Hasidic Marriage Against My Own
Simi Lichtman is a contributor to the Forward.