When I was in ninth grade, my Torah teacher told me what I should look for in a wife. He said that while outward beauty was important, it was not the critical ingredient for marital happiness.
He urged me to stay away from girls who wore lots of make-up and who were acquisitive. For long-term happiness, he said, you need a girl with good character, who is kind and understanding, soft in deed and word. His words made an impression on my young mind, and I generally found myself dating those kinds of girls.
In secular literature, it’s hard to find such a concern for good character when looking for a marriage partner; in this realm, the key ingredients for marital bliss are wealth and eligibility, not good character.
For example: In Jane Austen’s classic novel “Pride and Prejudice,” the parents of Elizabeth Bennett want her to marry a person of means. And in Henry James’ “Washington Square,” Morris Townsend, the suitor of Catherine Sloper, is portrayed as a fortune hunter, one interested in Catherine’s assets and not her character.
One notable exception to this pattern is Edward Rochester’s oblique pursuit of the title character in Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.” This famous novel has inspired a number of film versions, the best being a PBS production directed by Susanna White, originally released as a miniseries and starring Toby Stephen as Edward and Ruth Wilson as a luminous Jane.
In these works, Rochester – after ostensibly courting the wealthy and attractive socialite Blanche Ingram – finally confesses his love for Jane, whom he regards as a pure, simple and virtuous soul. Clearly, he values substance over form and good character over physical charm and beauty. It is of interest to note that Rochester is many years Jane’s senior, a person with much more life experience than Jane.
Similarly, the biblical courtship of Isaac for Rebecca (which is the topic of an extended narrative in the Bible) describes a relationship where the man is much older than the woman. But the age difference counts for little when the two lovers are on the same spiritual wavelength, and the quest to find a wife is a major task of Jewish men. To find one’s bashert (destined one), a person must exert great personal effort and may also need to consult with many friends and relatives, including, of course, one’s parents.
In the Bible, Abraham is actively engaged in finding a wife for his beloved son Isaac. He charges his trusted servant Eliezer with this responsibility, and so the latter travels to Aram-Naharaim, where Abraham’s family lived, in the hopes of finding a spouse for his master’s son. The servant journeys there with 10 of his master’s camels.
The great explicator of biblical text Rashi observes that the camels were identifiably those of Abraham because they were muzzled. Abraham’s camels would go out muzzled because of his concern for theft: He did not want his animals to graze in the field of others.
Obviously, honesty was paramount to Abraham. For such a man, the litmus tests for a suitable wife were tests of truthfulness, sincerity and kindness, not the possession of wealth. Thus, Eliezer determines that the woman for Isaac will be she who gives water to not only the traveler but to his camels as well; for she has demonstrated that she cares for all living creatures.
That such a process is undertaken proves that Isaac’s quest for a wife is an early precursor of Rochester’s love for Jane. Both courtships remind us that, in the final analysis, wealth and beauty are passing; what remains is good character that lasts for a lifetime.
BY RABBI HERBERT COHEN / AJT Contributor
Editor’s note: Rabbi Cohen, former principal of Yeshiva Atlanta, now resides in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Visit koshermovies.com for more of his Torah-themed film reviews.