The article last week in The New York Times concerning the explosion of anorexia and eating disorders in the Orthodox community highlights a tragedy that has long been buried.
In November 2006 I wrote a column about an eighteen-year-old girl my daughter knew at a seminary in Jerusalem who died of anorexia (www.jewishpress.com/pageroute.do/19839). The seminary shrugged off any blame in the matter and cited some other illness, even though the girls at the seminary watched her wasting away with the administration seemingly oblivious.
The tragedy is not only the danger posed to religious girls with eating disorders but also the growth of corrupt values in the Orthodox community. The Times article highlighted how matchmakers are calling about girls and asking what dress size they and their mothers are. What does this have to do with Jewish values? Sure, a man has to be attracted to a woman. But the narrow definition of the body as the only ingredient of attraction is a betrayal of the traditional Jewish definition of feminine beauty.
Time was when a Jewish woman’s comeliness was determined holistically and based on five key components: her body, her mind, her heart, her piety, and her personality. Now, it’s been reduced to her dress size. Stick-thin scarecrow-like features are the foremost determinant of attractiveness.
Being overweight is not healthy. But women who focus only on their bodies to the exclusion of their souls are equally unhealthy. And men who have practiced Judaism their entire lives but are blind to a woman’s righteousness and virtue, focusing exclusively on her form to the exclusion of her substance, are even more unhealthy.
The crisis in Orthodoxy today is the practice of Jewish ritual to the exclusion of Jewish values. And in no area is this more evident than in the increasingly shallow dating preferences that are coming to define our community. King Solomon’s ode to the eishes chayil – the wife of excellence – we chant every Friday night risks becoming an empty refrain, with men paying lip service to its central proclamation that “physical beauty is misleading, but a woman who fears God is truly to be praised.”
I never would have thought Orthodox Jews would arrive at a stage where our young men of marriageable have become so one-dimensional that their superficiality would begin to literally kill our young women. That their mothers – women themselves – are colluding in this corruption by calling the shadchan to ask a girl’s dress size in the same breath as asking about her level of Torah observance is doubly tragic.
The Times article also cited the immense pressure Orthodox women feel to marry at a very young age and how they feel themselves to be failures if they are in their mid-twenties and not yet married with a few children.
I have long advocated marrying young – for Orthodox and secular alike – because it allows a couple to grow up together and solidify their union with life’s formative experiences. But this has to be balanced against the benefits of young women being educated and using their minds, not just their wombs. It’s a beautiful thing to see Orthodox seminaries for women bursting at the seams. Jewish women today are being exposed to the great texts of Judaism, from Talmud and Midrash to halacha and chassidus. Stern and Touro are graduating Orthodox girls with degrees in international relations and public relations, girls proficient in the sciences and mathematics.
Secular Jews have long dismissed the Orthodox attitude toward women as demeaning and misogynistic. They argue that we treat our girls as baby-making machines who belong in the kitchen. But the highly educated Orthodox Jewish woman gives the lie to these malicious accusations. Should we be so stupid as to prove our critics right by making women feel so much pressure to be married by the age of twenty? Is it not our responsibility to demonstrate that a woman can maximize her fullest intellectual potential alongside having a family and that she need not choose between them?
I am, thank God, the proud father of nine children. I want my daughters to marry young and to marry virtuous men. I shudder at the idea that after my wife and I raised them to embody the virtue of the Jewish matriarchs, my daughters will meet Orthodox suitors obsessed with their external beauty to the exclusion of their inner spiritual commitment.
I have spent my life critiquing the secular culture’s attitudes toward the feminine, especially in my book Hating Women, where I decry the reduction of women to a libidinous man’s plaything. But we in the Orthodox community dare not make our own mistake in reducing our women to pretty baby-making mannequins.
Yes, family is the most important thing in Jewish life. And dating recreationally for ten years – as is common in secular society – is scant preparation for the lifelong commitment of marriage. I am a counselor to secular singles who suffer the effects of the recreational dating culture. They often experience the pain and heartache of endlessly going in and out of relationships.
Orthodox Jewish life is meant to offer a radical alternative. But viewing women as frum Barbies, whose foremost responsibility is not learning Torah and practicing mitzvos but going on the treadmill and pumping iron, or seeing a woman’s education as inconsequential and making her feel old and discarded if she is not married by her early twenties, is hardly an attractive alternative.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the bestselling author of 25 books, most recently “Honoring the Child Spirit” and “Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.