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Losing Rational Orthodoxy


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.

Without question we need learned leaders, but not all of our children can, or should, be rabbis. I often receive phone calls from rabbis seeking advice on how to deal with a “certain young man” who will spend twenty-four hours a day, every day, in the bet midrash. While the rabbi may see it as a sign of some underlying problem, the young man’s peers are often envious of him for sitting up all night and learning. Dedication, commitment and hard work are necessary for success in any endeavor, but there is a line of commitment that, when crossed, may result in pathology.

The social and financial implications of this lifestyle are obvious. If all our young men are in the bet midrash, then by virtue of this logic those who are not in the bet midrash are not “our” young men. If all our young men are in the bet midrash, where will our doctors, lawyers, accountants and businessmen come from? Who will be able to pay for yeshiva tuition, or, more to the point, where will living funds come from?

A more insidious corollary to the vicissitudes of the current dating scene is the problem of domestic violence. It is a commonly held belief in our community that the rates of domestic violence are exceptionally low. If this violence does exist, the reasoning goes, it can be eliminated by seeing to it that our children do not marry someone raised in a family where there has been domestic violence.

Both these beliefs are fallacious. Research has shown that the rate of domestic violence in the Jewish community, including the Orthodox community, are virtually the same as in the secular world. Further, children raised in a home where violence occurred are not necessarily more likely to be violent; in fact, they may even be less prone to violence. We are teaching our young adults to ignore the research data and follow a belief system that may end up being destructive.

Domestic violence is an ill that must be addressed, not ignored. But here, too, insularity causes further difficulties. There is good reason to believe that in many situations where men are violent there is an underlying depression that may need aggressive psychological treatment. But if it’s found out that an individual had a depression or was being treated for it, that could easily impact on his or his siblings or his children’s ability to get a shidduch.

Similar inconsistencies exist in dealing with the problems of substance abuse, sexual abuse, and even learning disabilities. We have disengaged from the reality of research that shows rates for these ills are virtually the same among the Orthodox as they are in the secular world. But when an attempt is made to address these problems, it is often done in ways that ignore or even deny the best intervention methods currently known. (And, going back to the shidduch scene, if God forbid someone in a family has suffered from one of these ills, that is enough to taint all the children, marking them as poor marital risks.)

What makes for a good match today most often relates to how many chumras or stringencies one chooses to follow. There is no questioning or rational discussion of where the chumras come from, how realistic they may be, and whether or not they apply. The only reaction is an automatic one. The literal is always chosen above the allegorical. If someone said it, it therefore must be real. And if you follow it, you will find a better shidduch for yourself or your child.

But this is superficial behavior. Just as changing the clothes worn by a substance abuser or a thief will not change his or her behavior, adding chumras gives us no insight into the inner workings of an individual’s personality.

Because we have become more insular, we have begun to lose our rationality. Questions of halacha resolved years ago return to the fore despite a lack of change or new information, and a more stringent, even strident, approach is applied. This approach strongly presumes that the more we disengage from society the healthier we become. I believe, as do most other frum mental health professionals, that the opposite is true.

We must seek that balance that allows us to use the chochma bagoyim, the rational scientific information available to us, and not dismiss it simply because of its source. To do otherwise would be to place ourselves in an even worse situation. We should find a way to increase chesed, not chumras, to engage without a fear of becoming enmeshed.

About the Author: Dr. Michael J. Salamon is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the author of numerous articles and books, most recently “Abuse in the Jewish Community” (Urim Publications).


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