Dating in Context

Much dating takes place out of context. The courting pair visits restaurants, hotel lobbies, theatres, parks and museums in their efforts to decide whether they are suited. This is vital: quality time spent together discussing serious issues and simply ‘hanging out’ in each other’s company are key ways of assessing long-term suitability and compatibility of aims. Yet this is all insufficient unless what we might term ‘context’ is added to the equation. If two people don’t see each other in the context of their existing lives, do they really have any chance of properly assessing the other? This concern seems especially germane in younger, very religious circles, where the prevalent mode of dating allows hardly any time for getting to know one another, let alone seeing each other in context. It also features as a key issue with ‘international dating’, in which one party pays the other a short and very intense visit, making it difficult to gain any real insight into each other’s lives.

The Mishnah in Avos says:

Al tadin es haverkha ad tagi’a limkomo – don’t judge your fellow until you reach his place. (Avos 2:4)

The usual understanding of this is that one shouldn’t judge another until one has experienced the same set of circumstances in which a particular event occurred. One simply cannot understand another person’s behaviour and motivation unless one has been in the same ‘place’.

The Me’iri (ad loc.) offers an alternative, more literal reading in the name of ‘a few of his teachers’. He suggests that the correct understanding of the Mishnah is that one can’t properly judge someone until one has visited their place – i.e. seen them in their home environment, and, as he puts it, ‘seen their behaviour in their place’. Everyone behaves differently at home from when they are elsewhere; the former is a much more accurate indicator of their true character and behaviour than the latter.

This is very important advice for those involved in the shidduch scene. Shouldn’t proper dating afford each discreet opportunities to see the other on his or her home turf? If the two people live in different cities, that will certainly involve visiting each other at home; irrespective, it must always include some exposure to family members, friends, favourite haunts, trusted advisers, and perhaps even Shul and community life. Of course, this exposure needs to happen gradually and organically as part of the development of the relationship, at a stage and in a way that is comfortable for both parties. It is clearly not without its risks, yet it is essential. So essential, in fact, that I am sceptical about the depth of any relationship from which it has been absent.

This is much easier said than done. In many parts of the observant world, dating is conducted away from the public gaze exposure and even from friends, partly for reasons of modesty and partly because people ‘might talk’. While the former is valid and must be taken into consideration, the second is a regrettable feature of a Jewish world that can’t quite take the laws of loshon hora (forbidden gossip) sufficiently seriously. At least among some younger people, this may rule out introducing context to the relationship as simply too risky.

Admittedly, properly contextualised dating is more likely to happen among older singles who date for longer and are less inhibited about exposing their relationship to others. Would it take a huge culture change to allow religious dating for younger, very religious Jews in this way? Perhaps, but with what at least seems to be a substantial increase in the number of failing relationships, one I’m not sure we should dismiss without serious consideration.

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25 Responses

  1. Ori Pomerantz says:

    May I suggest that in the case of long distance dating, the one who plans to move should live for a month in the other one’s community? Not in the house of the future spouse – that would be too much of a modesty challenge, but in the house of a trustworthy relative. That way they can date and get to know each other, and the community where they plan to live.

  2. Jacob says:

    Bravo! Excellent points.

    “It also features as a key issue with ‘international dating’, in which one party pays the other a short and very intense visit, making it difficult to gain any real insight into each other’s lives.”

    Unfortunately, I can relate to this from a personal perspective. A member of my family became engaged after 3 whirlwind dates. Things have not been exactly swell since they got married. B”H lately things have been looking up lately, though.

    Jacob Da Jew

  3. Danny Rubin says:

    Reb Harvey, Shl”ita

    It is wonderful to see your continued contributions to Cross Currents particularly on this important a topic.

    What if the person dating is of a drastically different philosophy than the one found on his/her “home turf”. i.e. How many yeshiva/seminary attendees have different outlooks than the ones they were raised with. How would you reccommend appreciating context under these conditions?

  4. SephardiLady says:

    Fantastic post.

    Another area where context might be introduced is in planning for the life post-wedding. I hope I am not going out on a limb to suggest that couples should not be shielded from making adult decisions about living arrangements, finances, etc, rather than having the parents arrange all of this.

  5. Loberstein says:

    Trying to change dating patterns is like splitting the Red Sea. The girls and their mothers are afraid to do anything that will “reject” the current system they are trapped in. The desperation, the “pachad” that a girl will not get married unless she goes to the right Seminary,etc. is based on the skewed demographics which put the girls at a disadvantage. Many who would like a different system are still more concerned about their specific shidduch needs, correctly so. The system has also succeeded, maybe too well, in forcing girls to say they want a boy they can support, not the other way around. Ebverybody I know hates the system but they are victims of it.
    However, as bad as the situation is for the yeshivish – Bais Yaakov world, it is much worse for the modern orthodox. The scene where a dozen boys eat by a dozen girls on Shabbos and socialize without let up and still the boys “don’t committ” is a great abuse of womenhood by callous males, but it is getting worse, not better. In that world the girls have to hold on to a boy with for a year or more before the idea of marriage, often she does hold on for a year and he goes on to another girl without a drop of concern. This is a middos problem , not a context problem.

  6. Rudy Wagner says:

    Your proposal will likely create more issues than the ones it solves!

    I believe that the higher level of divorces / marriage problems has little to do with the dating process. I believe it has more to do with the “creeping in” of non-jewish values. Less spoiled children will be better suited to face the challenges of married life.

    In any case, there are plenty of ways to “see” (i.e., making proper enquiries) where the person is coming from without visiting it. Also who says that a well mannered son, a diligent bochur and a proper shul memebr will be a good husband?

    Bringing in a “kosher” version of non-jewish dating before marriage (i.e., an even more assimilated way of life!) aint gonna help. The opposiste may be true!

    First in the goysche or assimilated jewish worlds, dating even for years before marriage is not a receipt for success as proven by the massivly higher percentage of divorces there. Simply because dating without committing is NOT the real thing.

    What you are proposing is “non commited” dating. Without any serious commitment a young lady leaves her job in Brooklyn to “feel” his potential husband for a month in Golders Green. And he/she may say no. Then she goes to Yerushalaim for a month. And it may not work. Then to Boston. Then she starts doing weekends in Lakewood… Is it feasable?

  7. Mark says:

    Reb Harvey,

    What you’re proposing is not that out of the question. In fact, it takes place regularly within the Orthodox community with a slight twist. Rather than the boy and girl hang out with one another and each others family, responsible parties spend an extraordinary amount of time finding out all about the family and customs of a prospective date. They speak to friends, relatives, rabbi’s and many others and that way they gain true insight into one another long before they’ve ever met. Until they’re sure that they have a good idea of what they’re dealing they don’t ever set eyes upon one another.
    Sure, this is dismissed as an outmoded form of dating, and many lambast the idea as “nitpicking” but in my experience it produces fairly reliable results.

  8. Bob Miller says:

    I would hope that solutions offered for these problems with the system would at least be affordable. In the real world, the single Orthodox men and women typically have serious job and/or school commitments and limited family budgets.

  9. Garnel Ironheart says:

    As the gemara makes clear, once upon a time there was a year between when the kiddushin and the nisuin took place. I can only wonder how many benefits this must have had in helping the chosson and kallah get to know each other before their final “big” day.

    I’m not suggesting we bring that back, given the responsibilities and legal ties kiddushin causes. But what’s with the whirlwind 3 dates? I mean, talk about speed dating, that’s it right there.

    Why can’t there be an acceptance that this process should be slowed down? Instead of artificial meetings in which each person is nicely dreessed and on their best behaviour, why can’t the prospective couple spend time doing “normal” things where they don’t necessarily look and act their best? Because in the end, marriage is not about looking good and acting stiff and formal. It’s about accepting and loving a person with all the baggage that comes with it.

  10. Mark says:


    Can you honestly compile a list [privately of course] of five people you know who dated three times and then got engaged from the frum [non-Chassidish] community? I can’t, and I’m a card-carrying member of that world for a heckuva lotta years. Not one of my siblings dated less than seven-eight times, nor did any friend or family member that I can recall with one exception. There was one cousin who got engaged after four dates and last I checked they’re a very happy couple.
    This “three-date” bit is a stereotype and not reflective of the facts at all. Usually, they go out to a hotel lobby for a few dates, a restaurant for a date or two and some outdoor less formal location for a few dates. That may not be terribly extensive but it’s not exactly the way you describe it. Combine that with the prior investigating that goes on and you’ve got a decent foundation to build on.

  11. SephardiLady says:

    Maybe three dates is a myth outside of Chabad and the Chassidish world, but there is a some sort of glory that couples seem to have a claim to when they can say that their dating period was only two weeks or only one month etc. And I’ve raised a few eyebrows when other young people have found out how long we dated (and it wasn’t that long). While the dating process should come to its conclusion, whatever that might be, within a reasonable period of time (I agree that the endless long term relationships that your refer to are unhealthy), each relationship develops on its own timetable and it isn’t a competition although it could be mistaken for such at times. I think less focus on the timetable and more focus on the process is healthy and called for.

    I never had to leave my job or go back on other commitments when dating my husband. Extended weekends with federal holidays can be used. So can a bit of leave time. Spending a month away from a job is impractical, but a different arrangement could be sought. OTOH, my friend’s husband drives dating guys from JFK to their destination (say Monsey) and back in one day over and over again and this type of arrangement leaves little in the way of context and is very staged.

  12. HILLEL says:


    Do you realize where your logic is leading? Visting your date at home?
    –You’re playing with dynamite!

    In the non-frum and gentile worlds, more dating equals less marriages. Why bother getting married when you can have any relationship you want without the burdens, commitments, and hazards of marriage.

    Mark and Rudy are on the right track. Get your parents or good friends or a seasoned marriage professional (shadchan) to do your preliminary groundwork to make certain that there is basic compatibility (,

    Then have some personal dating to make sure that the chemistry is o.k. (The Talmudic criteria is “to make certain that you don’t find her disgusting”).

    This procedure works better than dating for 2-3-5 years. It also allows the people involved to move rapidly ahead to the next prospect, if they find the current one inappropriate, instead of wasting valuable months and years.

  13. SephardiLady says:

    Who is talking about dating 2, 3, or 5 years?!?

  14. Charles B. Hall says:

    “their dating period was only two weeks or only one month etc”

    My wife and I are both modern orthodox. We were engaged 23 days after we met in person for the first time. We had met on (we are match #152) and had communicated via email, phone, and an occasional snail mail for five weeks — and had exchanged rabbinic references — before we met in person. We are still happily married 2 1/2 years later.

  15. Garnel Ironheart says:

    There are examples at both extremes. I had a friend (non-Jewish) in undergrad who had been living with his girlfriend for 3 years and dating her for 6 hen suddenly one day he broke it off without explanation. Does dating or even living together help a relationship survive? Intuitively you might think so but it clearly doesn’t.
    What’s more, in my line of work I’ve known many couples who have lived together for years and then finally decide to get married (why, I still don’t know!). Wihtin a year of marriage, at least half the relationships fall apart.
    What’s been missing from this thread is the following: what is the commitment of each partner to the relationship? Is they guy looking for a cute cholent cooker or is he looking for a life partner to form a corporate entity called “family” with? Is the wife looking for a token learner so she can tell her friends how her husband learns or is she trying to create a home where Torah and its values are the most important things?
    If two people enter a relationship with the intent of creating something larger than tehmselves and commit themselves to ensuring they work well as part of this new team, it doesn’t matter how few dates they have. It’ll work out. That’s what has to be stressed to kids today.

  16. L Oberstein says:

    I once earned the bitter rebuke of a single man. He called me when I was in a bad mood about something else and just to end the conversation, I said; marry the next girl, you won’t really know her until you’ve been married for years. They are all nice girls, whichever one you marry will be fine. He wrote me an angry letter that I was insensitive. I was.
    Marriages work for a variety of reasons and don’t work for a variety of reasons. If both come from the same environment and have the same goals, it can take only a meeting to finalize the match. This is what the chassidim do and I think their track record is at least as good as litvish. Most of the time, the checking out doesn’t necessarily yield the truly important informaton and often one is told falsehoods or things are covered up. Thatm may explain why some marriages fail right away, somebody misled somebody.
    My favorite story is of the young man who asked Rav Pam if he should choose a son in law who is a charif or a baki. Rav Pam answered you should find someone who your daughter likes.

  17. Silky says:

    I think the problem is not how long the couple dated, but what they do when they have a disagreement. Perhaps more kallah and chassan classes should discuss marriage councelling. Now, many couples don’t go for help until they literally can’t stand the sight of each other. It’s like a sick person not going to the doctor until he is past critical condition.

  18. Joe Fisher says:

    Orthodox dating works great just like it is. It produces one of the highest percentages of married young adults in the world, at the lowest divorce rates imaginable.

  19. Michael Feldstein says:

    Orthodox dating works great just like it is.
    25 years ago I’d say you were absolutely correct. Today I’m not so sure. Ask the many singles who are trying to get married–and who are forced to play by the crazy rules that we have artificially imposed on ourselves and to experience the madness that exists in the shidduch world today–and you might get a different answer

  20. Steve Brizel says:

    WADR, articles like this address the issue in the manner that the Rambam viewed as an improper treatment for cholei hanefesh in Shmoneh Prakim-by attacking the symptoms as opposed to the cause of the problem. IOW, unless and untill we see that extended singlehood and the psychotic extremes, irrational hopes and ritualization of emotions within the shiduch dating world both can be injurious to one’s level of committment to Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim and one’s mental health, we will see more well meaning articles like this and silence in both the Charedi and MO worlds that tolerate both of these unhealthy situations.

    WADR, when someone can say that “Orthodox dating works great just like it is” ,and when a MO shul can’t advertise for a conference about the “singles crisis” because it demeans singles, that is more than enough evidence for any rational person to see that the system is far from great. IMO, we need more opportunities and venues for committed singles to meet the opposite gender in an unpressured environment where there is potential to meet someone and where a tachlis oriented relationship might very well lead to the chupah. A Shabbaton in a community where singles of both genders eat at their hosts’ for Shabbos meals strikes me as far less pressurized and conducive to investigation as to a potential tachlis oriented date, relationship and chupah than either waiting for a phone call that might not come for months or the well known deleterious effects on one’s religious committments of extended singlehood.

    Another issue that needs to be discussed is that young women in many seminaries are told that either that the best in RIETS/YU are Treife Pasul or that it is better to marry a full time learner than someone who has the capacity and ability to be a learner/earner. This factor cannot be dismissed in any evaluation of the singles crisis within certain aspects of our community.

  21. francine marino says:

    I wonder how many readers are aware of the Gerer-style of “dating”. In that sector both sets of parents conduct intensive investigations of one another’s families and of the children involved. They phone friends and relatives who may have had contact with the other side, often as teachers. Obviously, the child’s performance in his studies and his relationships at school are crucial. At the next stage, a surreptitious “viewing” is arranged whereby the father has a look at his prospective son-in-law and the mother at her prospective daughter-in-law. The children are often unaware that they are being observed as it can take place outdoors. Next, the two sets of parents meet and negotiate. Finally, on the very day of the vort, often after the two families are at the venue and the table is set, the children are allowed to meet and talk alone for anywhere between a quarter of an hour to two hours. Many emerge from the room after the minimum period of time. The vort is held and the gift-boxed watches are passed around for all to examine. The engagement lasts a year and during that time the chatan and kallah neither meet nor speak. They do socialize with their prospective in-laws, though.

    This process is adhered to by all Israeli Gerer Chassidim. Nevertheless, it is apparently a well-kept secret, because it has never failed to shock everyone , I have ever described it to, including other chassidim.

    Considering that many Gerer children are paired off as early as sixteen, this practice probably qualifies as a form of child abuse. How many children are courageous enough to emerge from their one and only “date”, face the excited families, the set table, the watches and announce: “Sorry. This isn’t the shidduch for me. Let’s go home.”

  22. etti rubin says:

    Who says the dating “method” has to be a one-size fits all? R’ Harvey’s suggestion might be right for some people but not others, evinced by the numerous comments above. I think the point is that he is trying to expand the horizons of orthodox dating “methodologies.” Who says we all have to go with the status quo? Everyone is an individual, do what’s right for you, remembering that, like everything else, shidduchim are in Hashem’s hands and hope for siyata dishmaya along the way. Some people are not going to be comfortable in such a non-conformance mode, some are, and some would like to try a different approach with our society’s approbations, so let’s give it to them! If the methodology R’ Harvey is suggesting works for some people, we should be accepting and encouragind alternative approaches. My great consternation is that the Jewish community has become so rigidly conformist. If you don’t have the right color tablecloth these days, you are as good as a pariah, K”V if you dated a little differently!

  23. Rudy Wagner says:

    Mrs Rubin,

    Your post should be addressed to the author. If you read carefully the article you will realize that the author is “attacking” the current shidduch system in its entirety and goes to the extent of saying that he is “scheptical about the depth of any relationship from which [his approach] is absent”!?! Hence the justified reaction of many readers who didnt like this chuzpa and want to show (i) that the current system is not so bad FOR THEM, (ii) that the one proposed by the author has more DRAWBACKS than advantages even if applied in his own community and (iii) that it has very LITTLE TO DO with successful marriages. In other words his article is a flop!

  24. Mark says:


    “My great consternation is that the Jewish community has become so rigidly conformist. If you don’t have the right color tablecloth these days, you are as good as a pariah, K”V if you dated a little differently!”

    Comments like these are heavy on cliches and stereotypes but rather light on facts. There are many approaches to dating within the Jewish community as witnessed by the fact that Chassidim do it one [or many]ways and Yeshivalight tend to do it a bit differently and MO do it in a way that works for them. Why do you insist that it’s “rigidly conformist” and renders on a pariah? Who even knows or cares exactly which method you used to date? Do you know anyone who’s been consigned to the dustbin because of his dating practices?

  25. etti rubin says:

    Rudy, I read the blog again and didn’t see where the author was attacking the current shidduch system. I think he points out some pitfalls and suggests that there be acceptable methods of “affording discreet opportunities to see the other on his/her own turf” to rectify the situation. I am sure the current system is fine for lots of people, and equally sure others can use a bit of a different method. While it is true that I have exxagerated (and was caught by Mark on that, but did you notice the exclamation point? I should have put in a smiley emoticon)in my comment, if there are so many accepted and acceptable dating methodologies, why the resistance to a suggestion of one more if they are ALL so acceptable/accepted in our various communities? Mark does have a really good point-who really cares which method you use to date? And no, I don’t know anyone who’s been consigned to the dustbin b/c of their dating practices, but plenty who discourage alternatives after someone has been experiencing the frustrations, or pitfalls, of one. When I make shidduchim and talk with the person, I always try to find out whether they is amenable to alternatives, such as meeting the other party at my Shabbos table.

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