2017-07-12
Lois Kellerman is a nationally known Leader within Ethical Culture and a psychologist who works with couples. Her book "Marriage from the Heart," written with Nelly Bly, was published this spring. Beliefnet talked with her recently about the book and about the Ethical Culture movement.

You book is based on work you did as a Leader in Ethical Culture. Explain what Ethical Culture is.
Ethical Culture was founded in 1876 by Dr. Felix Adler. He had studied to be a rabbi in Reform Judaism in America, back when Reform Judaism was quite radical intellectually. Adler had been very affected by Emerson and other Transcendalist thinkers. He read Sanskrit; he was familiar with Buddhism. In his first sermon, called "The Judaism of the Future," Adler said the prophetic tradition, this ethics-drenched tradition, thousands of years old, was too precious to save for one people. It should be available to everyone. He suggested they stop passing it along matrilineally, open it to everyone, and expand it into an ethical quest.

After delivering this sermon, he went off to Cornell to be a professor of religion, but about some of the people at his temple pursued him and said, "We really like this idea." It was clearly beyond Judaism, but it was clearly linked to its prophetic tradition.

How does Ethical Culture approach marriage?
Adler, in his most famous book, "Reconstruction of the Spiritual Ideal," wrote that the main purpose of marriage was to be a nest for the future. It was to be a spiritual place, where you developed your character and values. And since the basic unit of any ethical question is two--two people--Ethical Culture lends itself to the question of marriage, which begins with two people and draws all these other people in.

What are the eight commitments that you delineate in your book and how did they come out of Ethical Culture?
Centering, Choosing, Honoring, Caring, Abiding, Repairing, Listening and Celebrating.

These came out of a 14-year study, a grass-roots level conversation we conducted within Ethical Culture. We asked, what are the most basic values without which you don't have civilization at all? These were the commitments we came up with. We felt they were important for the cultivation of ethical cultures, small "e" and small "c." And after the study was confirmed by our national council, I thought, this is such wonderful stuff, it should belong to more than just us. At that point I had been wanting to write about marriage. I wanted to turn these commitments into terms that were directly related to interpersonal relationships.

Is any one commitment the most important?
I use the image of a spiral. In James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake," the last sentence comes around and becomes the first sentence, and that's how I conceive the eight commitments. But each time you come around you've been deepened.

But for a person who sees life as a spiritual journey in ethical living, there is no ethical living without the first one, choosing. You can be a good person and conform to your culture and hope that it's a good culture-that it's not Germany in 1939. You can work to a certain level. But real, full-bodied mature living doesn't begin until one becomes a conscious chooser.

That's not to say that life doesn't choose a lot for us. But we can always choose how we enter into what reality delivers to us. Even in a death camp, you can step out to take the place of someone else to be executed. That's an extreme case, but there's rarely a place that we don't have any choice.

If you look at it, all the goodwill religions that have come up in the last 3,000 years recognize that God wants you to choose. And the first choice is whether or not to honor ourselves and one another.

In the context of marriage, how does choice operate?
You have to re-choose your partner every day. Or at least, if you find yourself not choosing them for too long you've got to stop and say, what's the problem here? Others of us need to go back to kindergarten and learn basic choosing because we didn't learn it when growing up.

You say many of the couples in your study were from different traditions. Are there any particular pitfalls interfaith couples need to look out for?
I don't look at it as pitfalls. I think they are twice blessed. But they must get to a deeper level of the relationship right away. They can't float along, secure in their sameness. They should encounter their difference in a celebratory way and learn skills so when they run into trouble, they have a resource there.

Most couples in interfaith marriages are really intercultural, for example a Methodist marrying a Catholic. Say a child dies, and the argument comes up about where the child will be buried. The couple that has thought through that intercultural or interfaith union will be able to respond in a deeper way. They won't be struggling with that during a terrible mourning process.

Sometimes an Episcopalian married to a Baptist discovers there's more [cultural] differences within Protestantism than group to group. Interfaith couples are blessed that they must deal with this to create a solid union, but at the same time have to work harder because the culture won't carry them along quite as much.

Much of your book is focused on intentional loving, conscious loving. But this is the exact opposite of what we're told love is. Look at a movie like "Sleepless in Seattle," where Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan just blunder into love.
At one level "Sleepless in Seattle" just a nice diversion from reality. We all have these romantic fantasies. They speak to a younger, magical self--which is a wonderful part of us--and our hope for this perfect, wonderful relationship.

But that truth gets exploited by a culture that has discovered it can market romance. They make it seem as though you write down a list of characteristics and go out and find that person. But often we don't know who we are until we're in relationship to another person. Then we release that narrow willfulness, and the idealized image we have of ourselves.

On the other hand, can't being so intentional, so conscious, take the romance out of marriage?
It can. But it's not about making commitments about who does the laundry. It's a commitment to honor each other, to our self-betterment. It's about being real and allowing yourself to be imperfect.

So is the important thing to keep questioning?
Questions are important, but if constant questioning becomes a way to put off becoming engaged with your partner, then it will become toxic.

On a deeper level, this book isn't just about how couples should be functioning, but about how the world needs to work. The world is struggling, which will it choose? Will it be a world based on domination, or a world based on understanding? And it's the same struggle in marriage.

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