While discussing the punishment given to a Jewish woman who committed adultery having formally married her husband (kiddushin) but not yet having moved in with him (nissuin), the Mishna (Ketubot 4:3) in today’s daf (Ketubot 44a) addresses whether all the specific details of this punishment are equally applied to a Jewish woman who had previously converted to Judaism – and among the various permutations considered within this discussion, the Mishna speaks of a case of a woman who was conceived while her mother was not Jewish but who became Jewish when her mother – while pregnant with her – underwent conversion. And it concerning such a situation that the Mishna uses the phrase היתה הורתה שלא בקדושה – ‘her conception was not in sanctity’, ולידתה בקדושה – ‘but her birth was in sanctity’. In contrast, when speaking of someone whose mother converted prior to them being conceived, the Mishna uses the phrase הורתה ולידתה בקדושה – ‘her conception and birth were in sanctity’.
On first glance what this phrase seems to suggest is that the determinant of sanctity at the point of one’s conception is whether one’s mother is Jewish at the time. However, not only do I strongly question such a simplistic reading of this rabbinic statement – which implies that sanctity is something one has rather than being something one fulfils and pursues, but I also query its corollary that every Jew who conceives a child does so with the fullest sense of the word, בקדושה (in sanctity).
To explain what I mean, I would like to reference Rabbi Eliezer Melamed’s book on Marital Intimacy titled ‘Simḥat Ha-bayit U-virkhato’ (which can be read, in full, online, both in its original Hebrew and in an English translation – see http://bit.ly/38l8gC1) who explains that ‘there are two levels in the sanctity of marriage. The basic level is when a couple upholds their marriage vows, remaining faithful and not betraying each other. The higher level is when a couple also tries to deepen their love, makes efforts to please and satisfy each other to the best of their ability, and intend to have children and raising them for a life of Torah and mitzvot. The more mindful and intentional they are, the higher they rise through the levels of sanctity.’
Reflecting on the first level, Rabbi Melamed proceeds to explain that ‘the basic level of sanctity is the faithful preservation of the marital covenant. Even if each spouse is more interested in satisfying their own drives than giving their spouse pleasure, as long as they do not betray one another, there is sanctity in their marriage. As the Sages said, “If husband and wife are worthy, the Shekhina is with them; if they are not, fire consumes them” (Sota 17a). Rashi explains: “‘If they are worthy’ – they walk the straight and narrow; neither he nor she commits adultery.” Accordingly, the marital bond between husband and wife is called “kiddushin,” which is related to the word “kadosh,” sacred.’
What this teaches us is that the first measure of sanctity is fidelity, and as such, our Mishna’s discussion of a Jewish woman who committed adultery having married her husband (kiddushin) and whose mother converted either prior or once she conceived – with the apparent difference being whether she was conceived בקדושה (in sanctity) – is, to my mind, meant to be a critique of the adulteress who does not appreciate how ‘the basic level of sanctity is the faithful preservation of the marital covenant’.
Returning to Rabbi Melamed, he then continues by explaining how, ‘the higher level of sanctity is that of those who achieve unity through true love. In the case of a husband, the more he thinks about his wife’s well-being, the higher he ascends in this sanctity. In order for him to want to pleasure his wife, their sexual union must be enjoyable for him too, though his primary goal remains bringing his wife pleasure. Should a conflict arise between his own desires and what his wife enjoys, he prioritizes her enjoyment over satisfying his desire. The same applies to the wife; the more she considers the well-being of her husband and brings him joy through her passion, the higher she ascends in sanctity.’
Having explained all this, Rabbi Melamed concludes this section by teaching us that: ‘the two levels of marriage reflect the two meanings of the word “kadosh” (“sacred”): a) separate and distinct, and b) transcendent, eternal, and divine. When a marriage is at the basic level, the husband and wife separate themselves from all the other men and women in the world. When a marriage is at the higher level, the couple’s intimate connection reveals the spark that is divine, eternal, and transcendent.’
Ultimately, marriage begins with the kiddushin ceremony to remind us that sanctity stems from fidelity and not doing harm to the integrity of one’s marriage, and it grows from generosity and sensitivity by investing time and energy to show love and affection within a marriage. In short, sanctity is something one has only because it is something one fulfils and pursues.