Once upon a time, a beautiful bride married a handsome groom. All of their friends and family gathered to celebrate the happy occasion. At one of the tables sat a young man and a young woman. This was not the first time they had met. They had encountered each other
when they were children — twice — at B’nai Mitzvahs. But this third time, that was the charm. They were in their 20s, and something clicked and sparked. They dated, they married, and now they have children and happy lives.
But ask the star of that story, Miriam Steinberg-Egeth, if she believes in the Jewish concept of bashert, and her answer is: not so much. “Lots of things fell into place in order for my husband and me to meet that third time, but I don’t think it was fate,” she says. “It was happy coincidences. My cousin, whose wedding it was, had thought, ‘Might as well sit Miriam with the single guys.’ More than that, my husband and I both thought there was enough ‘there’ there to work through logistical hurdles.”
Chief among those was that she lived in Boston while Marc Egeth lived in Philadelphia. That made patience, selflessness and commitment more important than feeling fireworks and seeing rainbows, Steinberg-Egeth believes. “We could have said, ‘We live in two different cities and have different careers and lives, so this isn’t a relationship we want to pursue,’ ” she says. “That would have been a justified, logical choice. But we shared the same values and had similar goals — and had the time and emotional resources to make it work. Those are the ingredients for a good marriage. So while the ‘how we met’ part is a cute story, the ‘how we make our relationship work’ is a longer, less cute, but more meaningful story.”
That’s the story that Steinberg-Egeth tries to communicate as director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia’s Jewish Graduate Student Network and through her Jewish Exponent blog, “Miriam’s Advice Well.” Problem is, many people in their 20s and 30s aren’t listening, because they are too hung up on the idea of bashert. “I believe that in modern dating, people psych themselves out and think, ‘If it’s bashert, it’ll happen,’ and that’s totally wrong,” Steinberg-Egeth opines. “Bashert can become an excuse. ‘If it’s meant to be, I’ll somehow meet him or her.’ Or, ‘It wasn’t love at first sight, so it wasn’t bashert.’ Both of those attitudes get in the way of meeting the right person.”
What exactly is bashert — and how did it come to be part of Jewish culture? No one seems quite sure. Even Saul Wachs, chair of the education department at Gratz College, director of its doctoral program and the Rosaline B. Feinstein professor of education and liturgy, has no idea. “I know of no biblical sources for the concept,” he says. “Some rabbis say that God decides on soul mates. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yehudah says that they are determined by heaven when one is born — technically 40 days before one is born. However, given the large number of tips offered by the rabbis on how to choose a spouse, it is clear that many disagreed that the choice is made in heaven.”
But then there is the bashert tale that many Jews were taught as children. Steinberg-Egeth calls it the story of the “roley-poley people.” It goes something like this: The soul of every man and woman is created as a conjoined, celestially circular unit. The souls are separated when they are put into bodies. The Almighty orchestrates a series of coincidences and twists of fate to lead us to our other half — our soul mate. When we find him or her, it is bashert.
From her adult point of view, Steinberg-Egeth realizes that the story is not only oversimplified but improperly heteronormative. However, Wachs points out that bashert is based on a mystical concept that is hard to prove or disprove. “Judaism, like all religions, operates on two levels,” he explains. “There is what is official, and there is folk religion. When they are in conflict, one overcomes the other and, in fact, folk religion is typically stronger. The line between ritual and magic is very thin and easy to cross. But there are many who believe that one’s ‘intended’ is intended from on high. Depending on your point of view, that is either profoundly true or a superstition.”
What Wachs calls a folk tale, Rabbi Nachum Braverman calls a fairy tale. Braverman wrote his book, The Death of Cupid: Reclaiming the Wisdom of Love and Marriage, after seeing the unhappiness caused by disastrous dating. He, too, blames “The One” and Hollywood’s version of bashert.
“We grow up reading fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty,” Braverman says. “I always point out that when the prince falls in love with Sleeping Beauty — she’s asleep. He doesn’t know if she gets along with her mother or if she likes the same things he does or if she has emotional problems. He just knows that she’s beautiful. She wakes up and falls in love with Prince Charming because he’s charming, not because he’s a good man. Is that a recipe for a healthy relationship?”
Indeed not, agrees Steinberg-Egeth. She points to modern examples of Hollywood’s influence on bashert. “How I Met Your Mother is one of the most popular TV sitcoms among people in their 20s and 30s, and the entire series revolves around meeting The One,” she says. “All romantic movies are based around that, and they all have perfect endings. I think it leads to unrealistic expectations of relationships and marriage. People are missing out on great relationships with great people because they don’t feel that magic or see fireworks. They keep looking for their bashert — and in the meantime, they are alone.”
Braverman says it’s safe to assume that God does not want humans to be alone and partner-less. “While the Bible doesn’t discuss bashert, it is filled with examples of love and marriage and the struggles in the relationships of our forefathers and foremothers,” he says. Braverman points to Abraham and Sarah’s epic but not easy marriage, Isaac and Rebecca’s challenges, and the original love triangle of Jacob, Leah and Rachel. What makes all of these relationships work and endure, Braverman says, is that their unions were based on common values, backgrounds and commitment. Those things are more important than starry-eyed bashert, he says, and they are missing in modern dating.
Wachs points to the original Jewish love story: Adam and Eve. “In the Hebrew Bible and liturgy, love always involves knowledge and action,” he says. “When the Torah wants to say that Adam and Eve made love, it says that ‘Adam knew Eve.’ They had intimate knowledge of each other. One who loves is driven to know, understand and empathize with the beloved. This Jewish concept is quite different from the medieval concept of ‘falling in love,’ where one loses all perspective.”
And one more thing: “In the Torah, lev (‘heart’) means mind,” Wachs says. “For the rabbis, it involves cognition and emotion.”
Melissa Jacobs is the senior writer for Inside. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.