September 23, 2019

Saving Marriages, One Less Critique at a Time

Rabbi Shalom Arush’s book “The Garden of Peace: A Marital Guide for Men Only” (Machon Chut Shel Chessed, 2008) opens with a stern warning to women: “I bless every woman who resists the temptation to read this book with all the very best of material and spiritual abundance, marital bliss and gratifications from their children.”

“Garden of Peace” is to observant Jewish men what John Gray’s “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” is to couples: a revolutionary guide that alters the way in which one sex can understand the other.

And since I’m not married, and often do things I’m not supposed to do, I allowed myself some leeway and read “Garden of Peace.” Upon skimming the first few chapters, I understood why the author would want to keep the book out of female reach. Arush provides quite the ammunition for a disgruntled wife.

“Garden of Peace” makes lofty, black-and-white demands on men, repeated and expanded upon through real-life examples, biblical commentary and Chasidic folklore. Its three main instructions might make a husband wince and a wife cheer: a husband should not criticize his wife under any circumstances; he should not comment on her perceived faults; and he should always treat her as his top priority.

Grounded in kabbalistic teachings, it designates a wife as the “mouthpiece” of God and the “mirror” of her husband. For example, a wife’s anger directed toward her husband is really God’s anger channeled through her.

The book’s insights on the differences between men and women have universal appeal, couched in language attuned to religious sensibilities and an observant lifestyle. Staunch secularists, however, might have trouble wading through the religious language and mysticism to gain the common wisdom.

Rabbi Lazer Brody, listed on the cover as the translator, adapted the book from Hebrew to English and married the advice with American sensibilities. A Maryland native who made aliyah (immigration to Israel) in 1970, he serves as the English voice for the Moroccan-born Arush, who lives in Jerusalem.

“When you talk to an Israeli you can hit him right in the face,” Brody said in a phone interview from his home in Ashdod, Israel. “In America, you can’t do that. You have to chocolate coat it.”

In his popular blog on Jewish issues, Lazer Beams, Brody gives the lesson of the burnt toast. “If your wife burns your toast, then do a Google search on the benefits of carbon to the human body,” he said in a video blog.

A husband should not comment on trivial annoyances — like burnt toast or tepid coffee — nor on major infractions, including even the violation of Jewish law, according to the pair’s teachings. Women simply aren’t spiritually and psychologically designed to handle criticism from their husbands, who are naturally inclined to fix what they find wrong, Brody says.

“You never criticize, even if she breaks the Torah,” Brody said. “Even if you observe Shabbat, and she turns on the light. First you have to judge her fairly, then you go to Hashem [God], and ask, “Why didn’t I deserve to have the Shabbat preserved in my home? What can I do?”

“The Garden of Peace” is a companion to Arush’s mega best-seller, “Garden of Emuna” (Feldheim, 2007). With more than 1 million copies sold in various languages, “Garden of Emuna” is a “Power of Positive Thinking” for the Jewish community. A treatise on the importance of emuna, or trust in God, in maintaining happiness, it teaches that hardships in life are divinely dictated and therefore meant to engender a person’s “soul correction.” “Garden of Peace” establishes that the most trying hardship for a man is often his wife — her seemingly irrational emotions, demands and actions are actually triggers for his own spiritual introspection and correction.

Among some of the most sought-after spiritual leaders and marital counselors in Chasidic communities, Arush and Brody followed similar paths as ba’aleh teshuvah (Jews who have “returned” to Judaism). Both served as commandos in special IDF units, with Brody’s exploits earning him the nickname, “Rambo Rabbi.” Upon surviving dangerous, fatal missions, they became convinced of the hand of God in the world and turned to a life of Torah and mitzvot. An author in his own right, Brody has served as dean of the Ashdod branch of Arush’s yeshiva, Yeshivat Chut Shel Chessed.

Last month, Brody completed a book tour on the East Coast, with plans for a West Coast tour in March. While sanctioned for only half of the population, “Garden of Peace” has sold more than 500,000 copies, and study groups for their books are held in major Jewish communities across the globe.

Yehoshua Goldstein conducts a class on Arush’s teachings in the Pico/Robertson area, and he says he has witnessed a phenomenon. People don’t only recommend “Garden of Peace,” he said, but they actually purchase the books to give away, sometimes in bulk. (In Israel, according to Brody, religious courts throughout Israel give the book to couples considering divorce.)

Goldstein, the 32-year-old director of the Breslov Center in Los Angeles, has been married for five years and has two children. He discovered Arush’s teachings while living in Israel as a newlywed.

“Unfortunately, when we first got married I was all mixed up about work, criticizing my wife, making little jokes about her,” said Goldstein, an L.A. native. “We had little shalom bayit [peace in the home]. I don’t know how we survived the first few months.”

Goldstein says he has noticed pronounced improvements in his marriage since reading “The Garden of Peace.”

“Two years ago it started getting better because I’ve been committing to these teachings,” he said. “I do my best not to criticize. When she gets upset with me, I don’t get upset back because I know I deserve it in some way.”

Some men might consider this self-restraint a form of repression, but Goldstein and other devotees who spoke with The Journal have found that when they refrain from criticism, they actually dissipate tension and conflict so that their wife can relax, disarm and actually look within to consider and modify her own behavior.

Advertising executive David Diamand, 41, has been married two years and organized a grass-roots study group for the book in the Valley.

“Employing the concepts will be hard until a man reigns in his ego,” Diamand shared via e-mail. “Men are to honor their wives in all ways. That is what a woman thrives on and is geared to…. A man gets honor and love from his wife by how he treats his wife in the primary and not ever in the reverse.”

Not all men agree with Brody’s teachings though. Some who pick up the book put it down after reading the first few pages, arguing that it places all the responsibility for shalom bayit on the man.

Brody gives a succinct answer to men who resist the teachings: they’re stubborn.

“Guys look at it when they’re about to lose their kids and the house in divorce, and half a million dollars in legal fees,” Brody said.

So if the husband won’t read it, can the wife?

On Brody’s blog, a man commented on how his wife was better able to communicate her needs to him upon reading the book. He, in turn, read it, at first writing “baloney” in the margins, but eventually softened to the teachings for the betterment of their marriage.

“I will concede that it could be good with 5 percent of women, but since 95 percent of women will flub on it, we ask that they don’t read it,” Brody said.

Women should rather focus on their own constructive roles in marriage, he says, referring women to the book’s female counterpart, “Chochmat Nashim” (“Women’s Wisdom — The Garden of Peace for Women”), scheduled for English publication early next year. And having just started reading the book in Hebrew, I can say that men who follow “Garden of Peace” will be glad to hear that women don’t have it any easier.

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