November 9, 2012


Rabbi Haber

This Shabbat, Jewish communities around the world will read Parshat Chayye Sarah, which contains the first Biblical discussion [1] of what is today called "dating" - the process of seeking a marriage partner. The story is well known: our forefather Avraham sent his trusted servant to a distant land to find a suitable mate for his 40-year-old son Yitzchak. The servant ultimately returned with a girl – Rivka Imenu – whom he chose based on her exemplary character and appropriate family background (her physical beauty is also noted). The groom Yitzchak played little or no role in the process, but as the servant gratefully noted (Bereishit 24:26-27 and 48), God Himself was actively involved.

Many educators in some parts of today's Orthodox community like to present this story as a model for the ideal – and perhaps the only – Jewish approach to dating and courtship. The procedures that form what is known as "The Shidduch System" in these communities place older, married adults  in charge of arranging suitable Shidduchim, or matches (in some cases these are professional matchmakers; in others they may be rabbis, teachers or simply well-meaning members of the community).  When someone proposes an idea, the next step is for each side to conduct some research to screen the potential match. A first date will take place only if the idea passes this vetting process. The matchmaker generally remains involved as an intermediary for at least the first few dates (so for example, at the end of the first date, the couple does not discuss whether they enjoyed it and would like to go out again. Instead they each go home and report back to the matchmaker, who then shares each one's reactions with the other party).

Proponents of this system are aware that it can be unnatural, inefficient and awkward – and at times downright demoralizing. But they argue for it anyway, mainly because the alternative is to legitimize unstructured socializing between single men and women, and they would view that as a severe breach of halacha and Torah values. These educators often have to expend considerable energy on polemics, arguing passionately for the supposed wisdom of their approach. To give one example, this advice column advises a young woman how to defend "The Shidduch System" to her parents and family. Since those relatives were "more modern" (whatever that term means), they believed she should bypass the system and "just meet" someone.

Defenders of "The Shidduch System" like to point out that the Torah states very clearly (24:67) that Yitzchak loved Rivka after they got married, but not before (which makes sense given that he didn't really know her yet at the wedding). They generally contrast this with the supposed attitude in "the secular world", where people think love comes before marriage.

But there are many problems with "The System"; everyone seems to know that it isn't working very well.  A recent book sounded alarm bells about a "Shidduch crisis" in the Orthodox community.  And last year, a well-meaning woman got a lot of negative attention for a piece she wrote in The Jewish Press suggesting that the way for girls to succeed in "The Shidduch System" is to have plastic surgery to "correct flaws" in their appearance. (Those who are depressed by this situation, however, should know that there is room for optimism. The Jewish Week reported this week that a rather unconventional " Matchmaker Named Sandy" has been very active lately in the Yeshiva University community, and in recent weeks the entire internet seems to have been taken over by an ad campaign that promises us that the "Singles Crisis" is about to "completely, positively and officially" end in another two days.)

I have little to add to this conversation, other than to simply point out that there is another way. In spite of the rhetoric, the Torah actually does not mandate that matches be made by others, and does not forbid appropriate social interactions between marriage-minded singles [2] . In fact, I always tell my (female) students that when they are ready to begin looking for a husband, it is actually a mitzvah to talk to boys!

Indeed, our forefather Yitzchak's marriage was arranged for him, and he loved his wife only after they were married. But his son Yaakov – also our forefather – found his wife Rachel in a different way. He also met her at a well (probably the same one), and the themes of family and character (and also beauty) are all very relevant here as well. But he met and chose her himself, without intermediaries. The Torah also says explicitly that he loved her long before they actually got married (29:18). And elsewhere in the Bible (Shmuel I 18:20) we are told of an unmarried woman – Michal, the daughter of King Shaul – who was in love with a man (the future King David) and asked to marry him.

My students know that I am certainly not against someone with a good idea trying to "set people up", and I would not instruct young people to avoid availing themselves of the assistance offered by matchmakers of one type or another. I know many happily-married people who are eternally grateful to the people who suggested they meet each other and pursue a relationship, as Avraham did for Yitzchak. But I also know many (myself included) who met their spouses in more natural ways, as Yaakov did.

I'm not saying one is right and one is wrong. But I think we must remove the stigmas [3] that prevent many Orthodox singles from meeting each other in a natural way. We need to tone down the rhetoric promoting a "System" that may be useful at times but certainly isn't commanded by halacha. We must admit that the book of Bereishit – quite significantly – presents us with two different models for dating, and they are both legitimate. And we must remember that the one common denominator between the two models is that Divine assistance is always necessary, and thankfully is always present. After all, the rabbis note in several places (See Sotah 2b, Bereishit Rabba 61:3) that God Himself is the true matchmaker.  And of course, He has many messengers.

[1] Except, of course, for the description of Adam's search for a suitable partner which resulted in the creation of Woman (Bereishit 2:18-24). Not much there that can be emulated by other, though!

[2] This is not the place for a full halachic discussion, but those who believe it's prohibited should seek a source to justify their position, and contemplate how they would reconcile that source with Shulchan Aruch Even HaEzer 21:3, for example.

[3] A student of mine currently at YU's Stern College recently told me that although she does attend some co-ed events on the uptown (men's) campus, she doesn't go all that often, so she feels her only real way to meet potential dates is through a matchmaker. She described the conventional wisdom that says people who attend those events are "less religious" – and that's not the way she wants to be viewed. She confessed that "if there wasn't such a stigma, I'd probably be uptown more often".

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