Parental matchmaking still works

Jewish marriage has always been a familial and communal affair, not just an individual decision. When Avraham decided it was time for Yitzchak to marry, he summoned his trusted servant Eliezer and gave him detailed instructions about where and from what family to seek a bride.

Standing at the well, Eliezer devised a test to ensure that the maiden chosen would possess the character necessary for the foremother of the Jewish people. She must be a ba’alat chesed — Rivka runs to Eliezer to offer him water from her jug; she must also be clever — Rivka does not drink from the same jug as the complete stranger, but immediately pours the remaining contents of the jug into a trough; and she must be sensitive to the feelings of others — Rivka explains to Eliezer that she is pouring the water into the trough in order to water his camels.

The match is not without romance. When Rivka sees Yitzchak for the first time, she lowers herself and covers her face. But only after Yitzchak takes Rivka to the tent of his deceased mother Sarah as his wife, is he described as loving her. Love is the outgrowth of their commitment to one another, not its precondition.

Shmuely Boteach (“How to fix Orthodox dating“) finds traditional Jewish matchmaking lacking compared to secular dating where “the relationship unfolds gradually and organically as [boy and girl] get to know each other better over time.” The involvement of parents in the investigation of potential spouses for their children “disempowers [Orthodox] men and women from meeting directly,” he laments.

Presumably, when comparing two models of dating and assessing their relative merits, one must do so in terms of a certain criteria. Boteach does not tell us what his are – only that he finds the process of investigating potential spouses for his daughter “tiring” and the whole process not “terribly romantic.”

Let me suggest the criteria by which a Torah Jew assesses the shidduchim system in which young men and women meet only when they are ready to marry and only for that purpose. The test would be success in facilitating stable, happy marriages that provide a suitable framework for raising children. By that standard, the shidduchim system wins hands down.

Everywhere in the Western world, marriage and fertility rates are in rapid decline. Young people today, writes philosopher Leon Kass, have “no cultural script whose denouement is marriage,” and as a consequence many will never marry. In the United States, the rate of women between 15 and 44 marrying in a given year dropped from 73.5 per thousand in 1960 to 49.7 in 2000. And the fertility rate declined from 3.654 to 2.058 per woman. Russia, Japan, and many Western European countries have rates half that, which spells their demographic demise.

The norm in the Torah world remains for men and women to marry in their early ’20s. True, the number of older singles is growing in the chareidi world as well, but this has been treated as an urgent communal problem, requiring communal solutions.

Marital happiness is notoriously difficult to measure, but divorce statistics are at least one rough measure. In America, between 40 and 50% of marriages will end in divorce. The percentage of children living in single-parent homes grew from 9% to 28% between 1960 and 1998, and the percentage living apart from their biological father doubled from 17% to 35%. The sense of parental betrayal that children of divorce experience and the absence of a model of successful marriage make those children themselves prime candidates for marital failure.

Divorce rates in the Orthodox world are also rising, but they remain a small fraction of the secular world.

The secular “hook_up” culture, in which almost all participate at some point, has not fostered romance. Just the opposite. Though women have demonstrated that they can participate on a equal footing with men, over time, doing so leaves them increasingly embittered and contemptuous of men, who come, in their eyes, to resemble perpetual teenagers, unable to commit and assume what were once considered adult responsibilities.

The traditional “wedding night” has long ago become the stuff of fairy tales. But along with it has gone the excitement of experiencing of sexual union for the first time together with a similarly inexperienced partner, with whom one expects to spend the rest of one’s life. Secular couples enter marriage always fearing somewhere in the back of their heads that they are being compared to dozens of previous lovers, or, in the case of women, to pornographic fantasies, which many men prefer to the real thing. Young women increasingly report being asked by partners to perform according to the familiar tropes of pornography.

The demystification of sexual union through its early and easy availability has resulted in jaded young, who have been robbed of the sublimation of eros into the search for love, and, as Allan Bloom has written, of all yearning for deeper knowledge of the world and anticipation of future mysteries.

Boteach, of course, is not advocating the “hook_up culture,” or even cohabitation, in which the decision to marry is treated, to quote Kass again, like the decision to keep a suit one has tried on in the store, not as a binding commitment to the future. All he seeks is an increase of opportunities for marriageable age young men and women to meet each other not in the context of dating for marriage.

But it is an open secret that wherever men and women meet freely, female chastity is at risk and the average age of marriage rises sharply. Thus we find in the Israeli national religious world symposia on the use of the mikveh by unmarried women. And the modern Orthodox dating scene of the Upper West Side has come increasingly to resemble its secular counterpart.

Every other week, Boteach lashes out at the American male for his obsession with female pulchritude. Why, then, decry the participation of chareidi parents in the investigation of potential spouses and in the decision of who their children will meet (even as the decision whether to marry is left to the young couple)? Parents, whose hormones are not involved and who have more experience of the ingredients of a successful marriage, serve as a protection against an over focus on externals.

Leon Kass is correct, from a Torah perspective, in describing traditional marriage, with its formal rules of courtship, as best designed to serve the needs of both individuals and society: “There is no substitute for the contribution that the shared work of raising children makes to the singular friendship and love of husband and wife.” Only by taking responsibility for the lives of others, he argues, do we finally become serious human beings. And in that respect, shidduchim still work.

This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post, 13 November 2008

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15 Responses

  1. Steve Brizel says:

    Today’s NY Times reported that Congressman Conyers ( D-Michigan) plans to issue subopoenas to President Bush even after President-elect Obama is formally inaugurated and that the ACLU supports such a proposal despite the lack of any legal authority to subpoena the papers of a former president. That’s a typical way for a victorious politician of any party to ignore the problems of the present-investigate the past.

    In a similar manner, placing blame on secular atitudes towards dating , symposia in certain LW MO publications, or the existence of long term singles on the Upper West Side ignores the fact as recently described in the JO by R Yoel Schonfeld that Charedi young men need a social director and young women need a publicity director and that one session at the upcoming Agudah convention will be devoted to the rising divorce rate in the Charedi world.

    One hears and reads of such questionable criteria as nothing more than a size 2,turning down shidduchim because one would not want to support one’e in laws as they turn older, and other criteria which border on the pyschotic. Moreover, every week’s issue of the Yated has at least one letter or more from the parents of a young single woman or a single woman decrying her state. Unfortunately, we live in an age of extremes and if one deplores the questionnable excesses of extended singlehood, one cannot ignore the same issues that are very evident in the shidduch system as well.

  2. LOberstein says:

    Some comments on shiduchim. It is a mess! The yeshivish girls sit at home waiting for a call and the modern girls hang out at shul Friday night hoping a boy will notice. In both cases, there is too much competition for the male , who may have trouble deciding and/or committing.
    Either the girls are so closeted that they have no “normal” way to meet a boy other than a formal shiduch sitting in a hotel talking over a coke or the girls are so amenable that there is no incentive for the boy to marry.
    The tragedy that I see that pains me the most is the almost total breakdown in morality in the majority culture around us. I see boys and girls ,many of whom once were a “sthikel frum” staying overnight with someone they just met in a bar. It doesn’t indicate any committment and the girls don’t seem to require any promises (even if boys have been lying to girls for centuries). How did our Jewish children decend into this quicksand? I think the lack of moral standards means that Jewish girls and woman are at a severe disadvantage and this has pushed the birthrate down to levels that do not replace those who die. We are dying out numerically (except for the orthodox) because Jews are not getting married. There are no longer any “gedarim” standards and there is no shame. Hashem Yirachem.

  3. Yossi Ginzberg says:

    Stipulating that the shidduch system is the best available for most Orthodox Jews today and that Rabbi Boteach will write and say anything that will get him attention, I’d like to comment on another important aspect of this situation that you elided, but that I feel is critically important to bring out in the open.

    While having parents select potential partners based on their having similar backgrounds and values is the basis of the system, a sad byproduct of that same methodology is the far-too-common tendency to carry this matching much too far. Tablecloth color for Shabbos use is an easy target, but far more important and far more dangerous is the insidious byproduct, the fear of revealing “family secrets”. What happens here is that too many families start to conceal things indiscriminately, leading to disaster down the road. Hiding that you use stam milk when on vacation or that you travel without your black hat
    sometimes leads to hiding that the potential groom needs psychotropic medication or that the bride is unable to bear children, factors that should in fairness be known, and that when hidden inevitably lead to feelings of betrayal and often subsequent misery and/ or divorce. This passion for secrecy is developing into a plague on the community.

    Shedding light upon the need for our coreligionists to be more open on these issues should be a priority, because we can already see the encroachment of what we used to call non-Jewish values in our neighborhoods. Growing divorce rates, a plummeting birth rate, and far too many homes that are unhappy and /or displaying what Judaism deems poor values are wake-up calls to attack these issues. Think of the far-too-frequent scandals we have had in the recent past, and ponder what the willingness to cheat even though eventual exposure is almost certain says about the actual values in the home. The rapidly-growing “chozrim b’she’ela” phenomenon also evidences this, and has become so common an issue that it boggles the mind on initial exposure.

    Also a part of this issue is that far too many don’t have, for whatever reason, the parental support that the standard shidduch system requires. Whether they are baalei teshuva or from broken homes, or whether they just have a different hashkafa from their parents, there are thousands of singles who have no one to do this for them. These, for the most part, are the crowds that you deride as part of the Upper West Side dating scene. Have you a better suggestion? The usual half-hearted shidduch meetings by dilettante housewives aren’t near meeting the demand, nor are the charitably-financed agencies, so these young singles are being left to their own devices. Perhaps overdosing on secular culture is negatively affecting their ability to behave like aidel maidels, but when they leave a mixed party they at least feel like they at least might have met someone, while leaving the shiur for women in Brooklyn they feel nothing.

    And, by the way, it’s not just the West Side any more, it’s in Boro Park, and in Flatbush, and in Queens, and in Passaic, and even in Lakewood. And Boteach’s “obsession with female pulchritude” is perhaps the least offensive of his positions.

  4. YM says:

    The shidduch system is /l’havdil/ similar to democracy as a form of government. It is really crummy and ineffective, but every other system is worse.

  5. YM says:

    Yossi Ginzberg, I may not be aware of what you are aware of, but even those BT’s who don’t meet their prospective marriage partners through shadachans have someone acting in the shaddachan role once they begin dating someone. As an older BT single person in Passaic during 2002/2003 who is married and still lives there, I can only think of two women who were part of the singles scene in 2002/2003 who are not married by now. I can list a lot of women and men who eventually did get married. I would be very confident in saying that the percentage of women (& men) who desire marriage who end up getting married within five years in Passaic is much higher than in the a comparable age and socio-economic group in the secular world.

  6. Esther B. says:

    Actually, I think the “shidduch system” as it is understood by much of the Orthodox world (though perhaps not within the actual Charedi community) is not as you describe. When the PARENTS are involved, they would presumably know their child really well and have their best interest in mind. (Not always the case, if they are looking to move up in financial status, but we can assume that this would at least be the majority.)

    However, there are a lot of “shadchans” running around setting up random males with random females, telling people what they should be looking for instead of finding out what they are actually looking for, and then not being held responsible for any of the results because they have nothing personally invested in any particular single person. When I was not frum, I never knew anyone who had dated over 50 different people. Yet, I know a lot of orthodox singles who have dated this many or more!! (And this includes both Modern Orthodox AND yeshivish.) Yes, they are (usually) not having a sexual relationship with the person, but still…It distorts the idea of dating for marriage, since you are dating anyone and everyone, and then people start to get frustrated and don’t approach the next date with an open mind, since they’ve had so many bad experiences.

  7. toemoe8 says:

    Although Yitchak’s love for Rivka is portrayed in the Torah as a result of his commitment to her, this is the opposite of what happens with Yakkov and Rachel. Yakkov commits to work b/c he loves her! Why is Yitchak the only example ever cited? Doesn’t the Torah seem to describe two different approaches?

  8. Orthonomics says:

    I am not here to criticize the shidduch system. I think it has a lot of advantages. But one point that Rabbi Boteach seems to be making hopefully will not lost in the debate. I have seen many single males, and females to a lesser degree, taking a very hands off approach to their own search for a spouse as parents take over in a very large way. For example, I have spoken to some successful men in the mid-30’s and above who will not lift a finger to date a highly recommended single until a parent is consulted. Of course, I believe in seeking advice. But where is the initiative? I would also add that lack of initiative isn’t a particularly attractive quality.

    I’m sure I’m not the only wife to discover that when you take over a task for a spouse or a child, they exert very little effort. While efforts of parents and community members should be encouraged, I don’t think taking over for the single is a particularly great idea either. . .. and I don’t believe that is an endorsement of a “hook-up” culture either.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Parental matchmaking works pretty well when done properly, but these days, too many parents are NOT doing it properly. Yes, parents can provide a viewpoint unsullied by hormones, and this gives them an advantage in that they can spot red flags and help prevent disaster, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that they are not beholden to emotions. True, they are not emotionally involved with the prospective match, but they ARE emotionally involved with their child. This often leads to digging way too deeply into the prospective match’s background (tablecloths are only the beginning of this narishkeit)in an effort to find a spouse perfect enough to deserve their perfect darling child.
    Of course, all this digging has likely exacerbated the shidduch crisis. And even if the child somehow makes it to the chuppah, these parents go on to make the spouse miserable, which is not good for the marriage. The parents should be involved, but only to a point; they are not without subjectivity. They need to work with the shadchan, and trust their children a little more in coming to a decision. Yes, love and romance are supposed to come after marriage, but there has to be something there before, something that can eventually blossom into love. It seems to be that this is the situation that Boteach laments, and if this is the case, then he is being quite reasonable.
    If there is a shidduch crisis today, it’s not because the shidduch system of our ancestors is outmoded, because the Torah way is never outmoded; rather it is because we are clearly not doing it the way they did it.

  10. Bob Miller says:

    In any matchmaking system, the people involved still have to have their priorities in order as the Torah directs.

  11. tzippi says:

    Reading Rabbi Boteach’s article, I guess he’s fortunate in that his girls can work for Lubavitch concerns and increase their chances of finding a good guy. And I do have to feel for him in that he’s so unconventional that if he’s trying to fit within the system he’s going to experience some hiccups others won’t.

    But I have to agree that the system can and does work. Parents have to have their kids’ best interests at heart (I can’t tell you how many “references” I’ve spoken to for my kids who find me a breath of fresh air 😉 which means knowing what will make their kids happy while not compromising on the basics that build a bayis ne’eman b’Yisrael – good middos, a strong sense of responsibility, and a solid relationship with Hashem and a mentor of some sort (in no particular order).

  12. saramaimon says:

    it’s too bad that so many people, still feel the need to condemn one way of doing things in order to support another

    by the way, “OPEN SECRETS” are nothing more than stereotypes. Please give something more concrete, Mr. Rosenblum

  13. saramaimon says:

    I’d like to elaborate on my previous comment:

    Unfortunately in the frum community, constructive criticism is often perceived as an attack, carried out by Them against Us, necessitating a counter attack by Us against Them. Even when Them is Us.

    Nowhere in Reb Shmuley’s articles did he say anything against traditional matchmaking. Quite the opposite, 3 out of 4 of his suggestions involved increasing and enhancing the matchmaking process. (or did I read the wrong article?)Yet, since # 4 involved having men and women meet on their own, Mr. Rosenblum interpreted it as an attack.

    He also tried to make his point by extremizing and stereotyping the two supposed opposing “camps”. One is a resounding success, with lasting successful marriages. The other are engaging in rampant casual sex and can’t find anyone to marry. Never mind that Reb Shmuley himself is a strong advocate of reserving sexuality for marriage- towards the frum as well as the secular world. Never mind that there is no causal link other than Mr. Rosenblum’s “open secret”, as an entire generation of jews who met at shuls, camps and schools a generation ago and who build lasting marriages disprove (oh wait, they were modern orthodox so maybe they don’t count).
    Me suspects that the need to disparage and exxaggerate indicates that perhaps arguments that actually focus on the matter at hand probably lack substance.

  14. tzippi says:

    Saramaimon, you mention that Rabbi Boteach does seem to support traditional matchmaking, in fact suggesting ways to make it more effective. Yet he starts his article bemoaning the lack of romance in the system itself, due to parental involvement. I can’t help but wonder if he thinks of the traditional system as a bedieved, and if his lechatchila would be along the lines of the song “I Saw Her Standing There” (minus the handholding and dancing) – eye contact across a room, hearts going zoom, etc. Surely he would admit that people can and do have wonderful marriages even if deprived that opportunity.

    I definitely support creating opportunities for singles to meet, but from the younger (early to mid 20 singles) I know, they wouldn’t be interested. If my daughter wants to have fun, she’d much rather go out bowling, etc. with confirmed friends, rather than an artificial, random group of boys and girls. As the singles age, they probably are handling their social lives themselves (hopefully still valuing their parents’ opinion enough to keep them in the loop) and are that much more mature to evaluate the men they meet.

    More important, IMO, is our valuing our kids and not selling them short, particularly the young women. We need to go back to basics.

  15. saramaimon says:

    “If my daughter wants to have fun, she’d much rather go out bowling, etc. with confirmed friends, rather than an artificial, random group of boys and girls.”

    I agree! I also wouldn’t find it enjoyable to hang around an artificial random group of people, male or female. That’s why I agree with those who support mixed goal-oriented activities such as chessed projects, political activism, educational activities and the like. And mothers and rebbetzins can also get involved, (as informal chaperones if you will, but also because they might find this time much more fulfilling than hours spend on the phone making gossipy phonecalls).

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