The Loss of Shame

      Monday’s Wall Street Journal carried a picture of a contented Andrew Cuomo on his first full day as New York’s new governor, leaving church services with his daughters and his “live-in girlfriend,” a celebrity TV personality. It looked like one happy family, except it was a “family” only according to a peculiar and ultra-modern definition of family.

    There was a time not long ago when men (or women) who had paramours outside the framework of marriage sought to keep that information private. A family in the eyes of society was a husband and wife, with children following the marriage – rather than preceding it. That was considered normal and appropriate, and admirable, worthy of emulation. To use an archaic term, it was moral. When such relationships become so mundane and unremarkable that paramours are unashamed to come to church together, and are apparently warmly received when there, we have witnessed both the death of morality and the loss of shame.

     It is widely expected that Cuomo’s “companion” will serve New Yorkers as “First Lady,” or something of the sort. If they should part company, the debonair politician will likely soon find a new companion to carry out the needs of his constituents. And if they should marry, well…. they probably will, but why ? And if they will marry, why didn’t they marry already? This is certainly not meant to single out Cuomo, whose father cut an admirable figure as a family man. New Yorkers have become accustomed to this state of affairs, as NYC’s Mayor Mike Bloomberg lives with a similar arrangement – a “companion.” This deprecation of marriage has been duplicated innumerable times across the United States, which has become very un-judgmental about such matters. In the 1950’s, Adlai Stevenson’s candidacy for president was marred by the fact that he was divorced (he would have lost anyway); by Ronald Reagan’s time, his status as America’s first president who actually was divorced drew little attention. That our current president, Barack Obama, was conceived before his parents married is of no interest to anyone (his father then disappeared soon after Jr. was born).

    Children born out of wedlock, adultery, and promiscuity are all considered private matters, with no obvious public concern. Undoubtedly, the advocates of same-sex marriage have successfully advanced their cause – to the extent they have – partly because of the decrepit state to which marriage generally has fallen. At a recent public event under secular auspices, I noticed that when the host acknowledged the presence of a couple married for 37 years, the assembled broke out into spontaneous applause. I wondered, why ? Was it happiness at the couple’s longevity ? Was it sympathetic encouragement for having endured such a long sentence ? Or was it – as I like to think – an innate recognition that marriage is a noble and virtuous institution (yeah, yeah, who wants to live in an institution. I know the joke) that serves a vital function for both the individual and the society ?

    Many people tend to view such discussions from the perspective of “judgmentalism,” as if there are some who are ordained to sit in judgment of others. That is not my interest here. It is not the act of passing judgment on people that interests me, but rather society’s imprimatur on conduct traditionally held to be immoral and unbecoming. We bestow legitimacy or illegitimacy by social endorsement or rejection of certain behaviors, and remaining passive in the face of a collapse of a social norm is itself passing judgment.

     Moreover, it is apparent that marriage and family have become completely detached from religion or morality. Both are now personal choices and conveniences (or inconveniences) that lack any moral dimension, similar to dress or occupation. It is all about practicality, personal fulfillment and autonomy. What’s G-d have to do with it ?

      Well, plenty. Judaism, of course, takes the opposite approach. Marriage, family, dress, speech, deportment, and occupation all have profound moral dimensions and concomitant obligations. Indeed, there are few areas of life – if any – that lack a moral component and Torah guidance on it. The deterioration of standards of decency in society is also reflected in the proliferation of vulgarity in the public domain and even private interactions. There are some (Frank Rich comes to mind) who seem to feel that nudity in entertainment is the height of sophistication and style, and vulgarity a sign of cultural classiness and advanced wit. But neither is in the slightest, but rather indications of a paucity of creativity and a lack of cleverness. That also another symptom of the loss of shame. But even beyond the religious domain, there is a loss to society in the loss of shame associated with the decline of marriage.

      Marriage is critical to society because it represents the culmination of a mature commitment between a man and a woman to build a home together as a unit that is part of a greater whole, the operative word being “commitment.” The relationship of singles or paramours, as intense as they might feel it is, lacks that sense of commitment. It is not even a question of permanence, although unmarried couples tend to stay together for shorter periods than married couples (even given the relative scarcity of long-term marriages today). Since marriages are harder to disentangle than relationships, the parties will have a greater commitment to each other, and a stable society – homes, families, schools, businesses, and neighborhoods – depends on the abundance of such relationships. The “piece of paper” does matter, but not as much does the commitment it symbolizes.

     I heard not long ago of a shul wrestling with the issue of how to deal with a couple living together without marriage, something as prevalent in the Torah world as is big-game hunting. The details notwithstanding, there is something appealing about the fact that the couple is discreet about it. (It reminds me of a quaint time when someone who drove to shul on Shabbat, in violation of Shabbat laws, parked two blocks away – knowing that what he was doing was wrong and so not insisting that his community accept it. Today, it is not uncommon for drivers to demand the parking lot remain open for their convenience, and often a dispute ensues.) Would that such discretion prevailed throughout society, as that alone would reinforce and strengthen social norms and our capacity to impart them to our children.

     Consistency and faithfulness are laudable objectives, but constructive hypocrisy greases the wheels of civil society and enables us to co-exist, with all our foibles, and never be content with our spiritual attainments at any juncture. Women, especially, have a vital role to play in this, for withholding their physical love until marriage not only preserves their dignity and sanctifies marriage – but it also will encourage more and quicker marriages. As a crass single who plays the field once explained to me: “Why purchase the cow when you can get the milk for free ?” Women who constantly cater to and service men in the hopes of attracting them are literally selling themselves short. A couple’s love should naturally eventuate in marriage, and to be taught otherwise lacks in both common sense and human dignity.

    Perhaps that is why marriages are celebrated to excess in Jewish life, and become public spectacles – as both a personal celebration of the couple and a recognition that the couples’ marriage is an indispensable building block of our society. It is unarguable that children benefit from two-parent homes and committed, long-standing relationships – but that is not the primary reason to marry. We marry because it is a convention that G-d created for our benefit, fulfillment and happiness – to teach us commitment, unselfishness and partnership in the most important areas of life.

    When the uncommitted relationship becomes so common that it goes unmentioned, and accounts of those relationships – in public, in church, and elsewhere – are considered blasé, then we have crossed the Rubicon into the dissolution of the fabric that holds society together. It is a wake-up call before a descent into utter, “Fall of the Roman Empire” reminiscent, decadence.

5 responses to “The Loss of Shame

  1. Rabbi,

    Is your problem that Andrew is not civilly married to his girlfriend or is it that he is not religiously married? As an observant Jew, I would never consider living with a woman I was not Religiously married to, but civil marriage is another thing. The amount of extra taxes one has to pay because of the various marriage penalties built into our tax code makes staying “civilly single” but “religiously married” an idea worth considering.

    • Both. The average person actually gets a bonus by being married under the tax code, as the tax structure exists to encourage marriage. The cases where marriage is “penalized” would be when one party continues to receive alimony or social security payments when single but not married. But if they are married in any sense, and the person continues to receive the money intended only for the single person, that is obviously stealing.
      – RSP

  2. It’s not actually a mystery why they’re not marrying. Both Cuomo and Sandra Lee are divorced Catholics (Cuomo at least as a result of his wife’s infidelity). They can’t marry each other without an annulment (which considering that Cuomo has three kids would be difficult to do with any honesty). Nor is this a new problem, as it dates back to at least Henry VIII. It does say something about modern morality that no one is suggesting that an appropriate solution would be executing Kerry Kennedy (who did after all fail to provide him with a male heir), or declaring himself the Supreme Head of the Church of New York like Henry did.

  3. Quotable:
    “We bestow legitimacy or illegitimacy by social endorsement or rejection of certain behaviors, and remaining passive in the face of a collapse of a social norm is itself passing judgment.”

    “We marry because it is a convention that G-d created…”

  4. Thank you !