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Losing Rational Orthodoxy


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There is a growing crisis in the international Jewish community that I believe must be acknowledged if we are to survive intact and preserve our children’s future. The crisis is related to, but goes well beyond, the fact that we are in general too indulgent and tolerant as parents; it goes beyond the fact that we have acquired a level of wealth and comfort that we take too much for granted – even if we are not all wealthy nor all that comfortable; and it goes beyond any individual’s intensity ascribed to religious custom and tradition.

It is more about our willingness to abandon the balance of faith and reality that has helped us endure for centuries. This is not a crisis of abiding religious faith or observant practice per se, but rather a calamity of application and interpretation. And it has the potential to be a disaster of significant proportion.

In a lecture addressing the ability of science to progress, the late Carl Sagan pointed out that there needs to be “an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs…if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones.”

This point applies to all human belief systems. If you do not question yourself or ask of others, you cannot grow. In contradistinction to the exquisite balance we have attempted to achieve between the insularity of inflexible orthodoxy and necessary engagement with the world at large, our children are increasingly encouraged to disengage. There is a growing rejection of the Talmudic dictum “yesh chochmah bagoyim.”

Perhaps the most obvious aspect of Orthodox Jewish life where disengagement occurs, and the best portal by which to enter this discussion, is the matter of shidduchim.

The process of finding a spouse has undergone such a major overhaul in the past two decades that it is virtually indistinguishable from anything that occurred before that. True, there have always been shadchanim (matchmakers) whose job was to find proper matches between families of reasonably equal social or intellectual status. But the current focus on irrelevant externals that are supposed to act as a surrogate for truly knowing someone – size of hat brim, style of dress, type of shoe, color of tablecloth – tells us nothing about personality, compatibility or mutual interests.

Some would argue that these questions are not part of the normal matchmaking process. Both clinical and personal experience prove otherwise. And to question why these superficial externals have become a major component of the dating process is to be immediately labeled a member of the B-List – someone not worthy of a better marriage mate.

This increasingly ubiquitous approach to finding a spouse is meaningless unless one seeks only to disengage from the world and find a mate who will comply with that desire. It is little more than lashon hora (speaking evil of others), and it sends the message to individuals of marriageable age that they are unable to form opinions of their own. Are they old enough to get married but not to select whom to marry or even to end a dating arrangement with someone they may not be compatible with? Someone else seems to always be making the decision for the dating partners.

This is not to say parents should have no interest in their children’s dating, only that their interest should take the form of being a teacher, coach and supporter – not, except in the most extreme cases – the ultimate decision maker. And the shadchan, an outsider, surely should not be the final intercessor.

There is significant fallout from the shidduch scene that trickles down to other aspects of Jewish life and causes some of us to question where rationality has gone.

Most young women are seeking “learners” or perhaps “learner earners.” They are instructed to seek men who will spend their lives either fully or primarily involved in learning. Similarly, young men are instructed to believe that if they seek a professional career instead of learning they will be seen as second class, lower status and less likely to attract the “finer” A-list women as spouses. This mindset is mentally, socially and financially incapacitating to the entire Jewish community.

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My Feb. 22 Jewish Press op-ed article “Losing Rational Orthodoxy” seems to have struck a nerve. Much of the feedback was positive, some was negative, and even more was intensely ambivalent.

There is a growing crisis in the international Jewish community that I believe must be acknowledged if we are to survive intact and preserve our children’s future. The crisis is related to, but goes well beyond, the fact that we are in general too indulgent and tolerant as parents; it goes beyond the fact that we have acquired a level of wealth and comfort that we take too much for granted – even if we are not all wealthy nor all that comfortable; and it goes beyond any individual’s intensity ascribed to religious custom and tradition.
It is more about our willingness to abandon the balance of faith and reality that has helped us endure for centuries. This is not a crisis of abiding religious faith or observant practice per se, but rather a calamity of application and interpretation. And it has the potential to be a disaster of significant proportion.

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