“Do you love me?”
Most people see such a question and assume it comes from some starry-eyed indvidual–thrilled with emotion, but quivering that the feelings are not mutual. Depending on the experiences of the reader, the reactions might range from a nostalgic “How sweet!” to the hardened “How stupid!” to the cynical “How naive!” There might even be the pseudo-scientific “The Darwinian drive to perpetuate the species rears its ugly head yet again.”
As it turns out, the question is posed by a wizened, abjectly poor Jewish farmer to his equally wizened wife of some 25 years. In the musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye and Goldie are contemplating the arranged marriage of the first of their five daughters in the pogrom-ridden, Russian village of Anatevka around the turn of the Century. They are wrinkled, rather shapeless, shabbily dressed and, maybe worst of all, just oh so tired by the years of peasant life. Those who gravitate towards calculators will estimate that this couple is likely in their late 30’s. The ringed eyes and furrowed brows say otherwise.
In today’s western world the question may sound quaint at best. That two people who first met on their wedding day should commit to a life together seems ridiculous. That this same couple should have next to no say as to just who this partner would be would outrage romantics and rights activists alike. No matter that the modern method of dating, pre-marital sex,, and delaying marriage for as long as possible has led to a divorce rate of well over 50%, an epidemic of depression, widespread pornography and pharmaceutical profits. No, “arranged marriages” should be tossed on the same scrap heap as Santa Claus and silent movies–cute, perhaps, but not fulfilling for educated, sophisticated adults.
The Bible–perhaps another relic to be dismissed to the past and the ignorant of the present–has a different take on the question. There is an unheralded verse describing the betrothal of the patriarch, Isaac, and Rebekah after the servant, Eliezer, brought her to him from their homeland in Ur: “Then Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah, his mother, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her.” (Gen 24:67) Note that “he loved her” comes only after “she became his wife.” There is no “falling in love” and certainly no Cupid shooting arrows. This love comes only after time and commitment.
The same is true in many cultures in the East. While not prudes—as anyone who has seen the voluptuous idols in Hindu temples or the stories of Krishna cavorting with nubile cowgirls would agree—love and, more importantly, family relationships, were deemed too important to rely on youthful inexperience and raging hormones. Arranged marriages were the norms in the past and continue to be so in many areas today. It can be fairly argued that this was as much to do with protecting the class divisions of the caste system as it was with personal happiness. Yet the divorce rate in India hovers around 1%–rising most notably in urbanized society where arranged marriages are far less common. No, divorce rates are not by themselves an indicator of personal happiness. Nevertheless, considering the impact on families and communities as a whole, divorce cannot be considered a good thing.
So how does Goldie answer Tevye’s question. She hesitates. “Do I love him?” She prevaricates. “Why talk about love right now?” She reminisces. “For 25 years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow…” She deflects. “I’m your wife!” Tevye sighs: “I know…but do you love me?” She concedes, finally. “I suppose I do.”
It is not the most ringing of endorsements; nor the most passionate. Goldie’s and Tevye’s conclusion that, “It doesn’t change a thing but, after 25 years, it’s nice to know,” is not the stuff of bodice ripping Harlequin novels. Nevertheless, even the most contemptuous intellectuals of today might agree it is preferable to the all too common refrain of another song, Peggy Lee’s wistful “Is that all there is? If that’s all there is, then let’s keep dancing. Let’s break out the booze and have a ball…if that’s all, there is…” As superior moderns as we smugly think ourselves to be, we may be far more knowledgeable about a lot of things, but we may not know what true love is all about.