It was August 2020, lockdown was ongoing and my chunky heels were sinking into the grass during a socially-distanced family wedding. The rabbi — the officiant of the day — was giving lovely remarks about the couple and their future together. I was nodding along, feeling happy and excited for them. Until, that is, he declared that the couple had found in each other their “bashert.”
Bashert is a Yiddish word, sometimes used to mean “fate” but most often used to refer to one’s soulmate. In Kabbalah, the bashert is one’s other half — the idea is that men and women are literally all half-souls and marriage makes them complete once again. Even before the word “bashert” existed, Jewish scholars believed in soulmates. Babylonian Talmud contributor Rav Yehudah wrote, “Forty days before an embryo is formed a divine voice issues forth and says: The daughter of so-and-so is destined to marry so-and-so.”
I was vaguely familiar with the term before the wedding but hadn’t given it much thought, partly because I was only just entering into a new stage of Jewish life. In the preceding decade, the central simcha had been the b-mitzvah, a rite of passage in which you enter into adulthood before your congregation. But in 2020, I was in my early twenties, and the wedding invitations were starting to stack up. The b-mitzvah circuit was over, replaced by Jewish life cycle events centered around marriage and children: everyone was supposed to want a wedding, followed by a brit milah (bris) or simchat bat (baby naming ceremony).
When the rabbi celebrated the couple for finding their “bashert,” I couldn’t help but squirm, and not just because the idea of God playing yente feels a bit silly. He was saying that in finding romantic love, the couple had done something that Jewish tradition values deeply. I was discomfited by this underlying supposition of bashert, that a fulfilling Jewish life requires you to find one very particular kind of relationship. Our tradition has evolved in many ways, but it still places an undue premium on finding The One, ignoring the varied forms our relationships with others can take.
My skepticism for soulmates started long before that family wedding and can be accredited, in large part, to my parents. To be clear, I don’t say this because my parents have an unhappy marriage. They have a loving relationship of nearly 30 years. But before my dad was married to my mom, he was married to another woman who died tragically of cancer. Before she passed, she and my dad had my brother, who is technically my half-brother, though we don’t think of each other as “half-siblings.” Later on, my parents met and fell in love, got married, and, as you may have already guessed, they had me.
So if we have one predestined soulmate, a half of our soul with which we must reunite, who is my dad’s bashert? My mom or my brother’s mom? What does bashert mean for those who have experienced a tremendous loss? Moreover, are we truly expected to love and connect, on a spiritual and emotional level, with just one person over the course of decades?
My family’s experiences aren’t the only reason I take issue with the concept of a bashert. Rav Yehudah’s version of a God-matchmaker who’s going through a rolodex of embryos forty days prior to conception seems to contradict Jewish teaching on when life starts. I don’t relish a theology that would put the burden of fate on an unfertilized egg, and what that could mean for reproductive autonomy. I’m also skeptical of edicts about marriage targeted at daughters from male authority figures. The concept of a bashert in this light seems less romantic and more like something designed to promote a certain social structure that those authority figures would be interested in maintaining. Such a structure, it’s important to note, doesn’t allow for the possibility of queer Jews.
Of course, the one thing Jews can agree on is that we can’t agree on, well, anything. Plenty of Jewish scholars have struggled with the concept of bashert. Maimonides is one such critic, due to concerns about free will, stating: “If a person marries a woman, granting her a marriage contract and performing the rites of kiddushin, he is performing a mitzvah, and God does not decree that we will perform any mitzvot.” Essentially, God can’t force anyone to marry another person, nor can God force someone to do any mitzvah.
In recent years, some Jews have eschewed bashert’s heteronormative definition to include anyone, of any gender or sexual orientation, as a potential soulmate. As a queer Jew myself, I understand this desire, but I’m not sure any concept rooted in predetermination is liberatory. Other Jews have looked at the opening of Genesis to create an argument that they are their own bashert, an interpretation which neatly skirts fate and the free will issue, but still doesn’t set me totally at ease. Because yes, I can decide that I am my own bashert, but Judaism still views marriage as a mitzvah and puts a disproportionate emphasis on the nuclear family. I’m not anti-romance, but I am not convinced that romantic love is the greatest aim in this world, or the only organizing structure for it.
You can partially blame the synagogue in which I grew up for this view. The rabbi on the pulpit for the first decade of my life was a woman, one who has never married. I watched her succeed in a deeply fulfilling career, surrounded by a robust community and a life full of relationships that were plenty meaningful. If she hasn’t been fulfilling some higher purpose, who has? Perhaps Jewish tradition is overly focused on marriage and romantic love, but I’ve seen firsthand that it doesn’t have to be this way. Surely Jewish practice can become more expansive, celebrating other forms of meaningful relationships.
Jewish texts do, in fact, place value on platonic love, even if our traditions don’t. According to the URJ, Pirkei Avot lists “cleaving to friends (dibbuk chaverim)” as one of the “48 virtues (middot) that one needs in order to acquire Torah.” And our Sages were quoted as saying: “Either friendship or death.” Very little ambiguity there, yet our life cycle celebrations don’t seem to reflect this edict.
I want to figure out ways that I can use Jewish ritual and tradition to strengthen relationships outside the romantic, to build a Jewish life that emphasizes community. I don’t have any plans to find a bashert, but I firmly believe that a fulfilling Jewish life won’t require a soulmate. It’s exciting, if a bit daunting, to dream about what that might look like: Could we have a ceremony like a wedding to express our love for chosen family members? Sign ketubahs to express our commitment to the friendships we cultivate for life? While I’ll probably start with regular Shabbat dinners with friends, I look forward to this lifelong project of cultivating soul-deep connections — just not with any one soulmate.