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