There are few topics in Jewish society which can simultaneously evoke rage, empathy, and unsolicited opinions and advice as Jewish dating. There are numerous books on the world of Jewish dating including “Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures,” which ironically can be added to your wedding registry.
To be sure, I’ve done my share of personal reflections as a single – after all it’s great blog fodder. I’ve written my own share of articles on the subject, including a “Guide to Jewish Dating.” But fast forward several years, countless women, forgettable dates, even more encouragement, criticism, and unsolicited advice, I am still single.
However in the past few years serving as a Rabbi I’ve also gained a much better perspective. While my community attracts young Jews, it is by no means a “scene” which means there is significantly less communal pressure for single’s to get married. Furthermore, I have personally adopted a “no dating congregants” policy, meaning my religious communal experience of synagogue attendance is uncharacteristically devoid of any pretense of trying to impress women.
Thus I write from the relatively unique perspective of being a single rabbi – aware of the struggles of others while experiencing the same challenges first hand. Consider it unintentional participant observation if you will. And with this dual perspective I have come to the following conclusion: the so-called “shidduch crisis” is a collection of myths which only exacerbate the social pressures and anxieties at the core of the Jewish single’s community, specifically the denial of individuation.
Let’s start with just one example of the alarmist rhetoric regarding Jewish singles. Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld writes on the Orthodox Union’s website:
Shidduchim – Singles 12. Treat the topic of singles like the crisis it is. This is a plague affecting all segments of Orthodoxy and threatens our very continuity. Synagogues and organizations must put this on the front burner. Singles themselves must change attitudes. Women must put marriage before career. Men must consider the woman as a valued helpmate not just as a means of advancing their own life goals, be it career or learning. There is more to a human beings worth other than their money or looks.
There are several assumptions embedded in this paragraph which I hope to dispell one at a time.
Myth: Marriage is a Communal Issue
One would think that getting married is merely a union between two individuals who make a lifelong commitment to each other – i.e. it is a personal decision. But for R. Schonfeld, the “plague” of the shidduch crisis “threatens our very continuity.” From a demographic perspective R. Schonfeld has a point; the later in life Jewish couples get married the fewer Jewish children will be born.
Procreation is certainly important in Judaism as evidenced by the rabbinic dictum, “the world was not created except for procreation” (M. Gittin 4:5. Though notably this statement is not particular to Jew). But there is no indication that the intent is simply to produce more biological Jews, and I would suspect R. Schonfeld and others would not promote premarital sex with the intent of producing babies.
Yes, there are demographic concerns when the average marriage age rises, but the implication is that people should get married “for the sake of the children” or alternatively, singles should “take one for the team” regardless of the implications for their own well-being.
The reality is that no one should get married to meet the approval of others and certainly not out of a sense of communal responsibility (see T. Sotah 5:1).
Myth: Getting Married is a Goal
Related to the previous point is the sentiment that getting married is an goal in and of itself. One example from an Aish column states, “Admitting that you’d like to get married does not signal an affliction; it’s merely a defensible life goal.”
Getting married may be a strong desire for many people, but by no means should marriage be treated as a goal. The dictionary definition of “goal” is, “the result or achievement toward which effort is directed; aim; end.” Following this definition, the “goal” of getting married can be accomplished simply by getting married disregarding any concern as to the quality of said marriage. If marriage is a goal then people should just marry the first consenting person who comes their way and as soon as the ring is taken mission accomplished.
The reality, therefore, is that Marriage is not an end but a beginning of a lifelong commitment to another person. The goal should not be to get married but rather to have a healthy marriage, which due to its innate subjectivity must be defined based on each person’s individual needs. (See, for example, the classic Midrash in Bereishit Rabba 68:4 regarding the woman who attempted to randomly match up 1,000 servants).
After all, increasing the number of Jewish children in single-parent homes cannot be good for our continuity either.
Myth: There are Plenty of Singles
One of the most vexing problems of the shidduch crisis is how could there be so many singles especially concentrated in one community? In New York alone, one friend of mine estimates 400 singles in Washington Heights and the Upper West Side likely houses hundreds if not thousands more. Surely the number of singles ought to increase the probability of finding a suitable mate, which after all is a main attraction of these neighborhood scenes. Thus if someone is still single, it must obviously be their own fault, either for lack of trying or for being too picky.
The reality, at the risk of depressing singles, is that the true dating pool is actually a lot smaller than you think. It’s not number of singles in your neighborhood, but the number of people who are interested in dating you.
When I lived in Washington Heights there were hundreds of single women around, but few could be considered dating options for the simple reason that most weren’t interested. I had no trouble asking out women, but I found only about 15% said yes (and I avoided asking out women whom I could tell were disinterested). My experience in person is similar to what I found on Saw You at Sinai where only 18.42% of the women I accepted reciprocated. And this is only for going on a first date. There have been plenty of times I’d have liked to continue seeing someone only to be turned down.
This is not a call for pity – I’ve declined my fair share as well and knowing it goes both ways actually helps deal with rejection. I can accept someone turning me down because I don’t match what their looking for when I acknowledge I make the exact same decisions. We can quibble if our decisions are valid, rational, or appropriate but it does not change the fundamental facts of dating. Even if I fall madly in love with someone, if it’s unrequited, we’re not getting married.
Myth: Being Single is the Crisis
Which brings us to final and most dangerous myth of all – that being single is itself a crisis. The reality is that being single isn’t a crisis, it’s a default. Certain cultures aside, we’re all born single. Are there difficulties associated with being Orthodox, Jewish, and single? Sure, but in most cases getting married won’t solve the problem and in many cases may make things worse.
Loneliness is a real issue which comes with being single, but it’s hardly unique to Orthodox Jewish singles. There are countless books, websites, or other resources which address loneliness. However, I have no doubt that the fear of being alone is a motivating factor for some people getting married or not leaving unhealthy (and sometimes abusive) relationships. Whatever the “cure” to loneliness is, rushing into marriage is hardly the answer.
People also operate on different timelines so “rushing” is perhaps too relative of a term. Instead, let’s consider getting married before one is “ready” either financially, emotionally, or whatever. Getting married is a huge responsibility and from personal experience I feel comfortable saying that not only are there very good reasons for some people being single, but they’re probably better off for the time being until their work out their own issues. And yes, I do put myself in this group, for in retrospect, I probably wasn’t ready to get married in my early twenties. We can debate if I’m even ready now, but I can assure you I’m in a much better state now relative to where I was.
Biological drives also make single-life hard. Assuming Orthodox Jews are strict in the laws of abstinence, the sex drive would be fairly high and women have the additional concern of a biological clock. But getting married for sex is an indescribably bad idea, especially when it’s not always so easy.
Financially, raising any family is expensive and even more so for Orthodox Jews who have to pay yeshiva tuition. Rambam in Hilkhot De’ot 5:11 writes that the appropriate order is to first establish a trade which can support him, then aquire a place to live, and only then should one get married whereas the “fools” get married first without any visible means of support. The harsh economic reality is that not everyone can afford a family and fewer still have the luxury of wealthy parents or inlaws. Pressuring singles into making financially irresponsible decisions – such as giving up a career when two incomes are almost a necessity – can only add to the stresses of marriage.
REGARDLESS OF how well-intentioned people are, asserting that there is a shidduch crises only serves to remind singles of their perceived innate inadequaces. They ought to be married, otherwise there is something wrong with them. In truth there could be hundreds of reasons why people are single ranging from personality issues to simply not finding anyone who is interested in them; often getting married comes down to a matter of pure luck.
If there is a crisis, it is with the Orthodox community’s obsession with getting married and defining people’s self worth based on marital status. We do not tell someone in an abusive relationship that they ought to stay there for the sake of being married, but we encourage them to find their own strength of self but we ironically have no problem negating that person’s sense of self when it comes to getting into that relationship in the first place.
Speaking as a rabbi and as a single the best solution I have to the shidduch crisis is to ignore any sweeping generalizations and focus on each individual. Every person at every stage in their life has their own needs and struggles. If anyone is interested in “helping” singles, first ask each person what those needs are, listen to their responses, and respond accordingly without the arrogant assumption that you somehow know what’s best for people.
Many singles are not facing a crisis of shidduchim but a crisis of identity, wrestling with existential questions most families simply do not have the time to consider. If we encourage singles to figure themselves out first as individuals and learn to trust their own intuitions, then perhaps we we not only have a stronger single population, but perhaps in the long run we will ultimately create stronger Jewish families.
A version of this article originally appeared on Rabbi Yuter’s blog, Yutopia in June 2011.
About the Author: Rabbi Joshua Yuter was ordained in 2003 from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He also holds a B.A. in Computer Science from Yeshiva University, an M.A. in Talmudic Studies from Yeshiva University, and a Master’s Degree in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago. Rabbi Yuter is also an alum of Yeshivat Har Etzion. He is currently the rabbi of The Stanton St. Shul on New York’s historic Lower East Side.
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