Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is host of TLC’s “Shalom in the Home” and author of many books on dating and relationships, most recently “Shalom in the Home.” (Meredith). His dating site is www.loveprophet.com.
We are not made to live alone. Companionship is not just the desired but the required human state and that which is commanded by the Torah. But what used to be so natural and necessary has today become an anomaly, with The New York Times reporting in January that for the first time in American history, the majority of women today are living alone.
But the editors at the Times aren’t the only ones who’ve noticed. I lecture to singles around the world and have yet to find a city where the locals tell me that the dating scene is fantastic. Invariably, I hear that it is degrading, demoralizing and, my favorite, “there’s nobody here.” Individuals from cities whose Jewish single populations number in the hundreds of thousands will tell me that there simply is no one to date.
Of late, I have taken to asking the singles who come to hear me speak to raise their hands if they have dated more than 100 members of the opposite sex. About half the hands go up. Unbelievable! I then follow up with a question: “One hundred people and not one person was good enough?” To which they invariably respond: “Well, I didn’t reject all of them. About half rejected me.” Singles today just don’t click. Why?
Perhaps the problem lies not with our dates, but with us. After all, if a person is anorexic, do we blame the food? If someone is an insomniac, do we blame the pillow or the bed? And if someone continues to lose his job, do we blame the employer?
The Orthodox Jewish dating scene is not a whole lot better. When looking for a wife, religious Jewish men today often abandon Jewish values. They have become so obsessed with a woman’s looks that heart, mind, and character count for far less. In the yeshiva world today, a young woman’s thinness is one of the first qualities looked for in a potential wife.
I am often approached by religious Jewish men in their thirties and forties who tell me how desperate they are to get married. I now know that they often are lying through their teeth because what they really mean is that they want a woman who looks like a model. At my weekly Shabbos table, where I host many singles, I watch as the men immediately dismiss even the most interesting women with the warmest hearts if they lack a super-lean figure. If she’s short, she’s out, and if she’s overweight, well, that’s the kiss of death.
I’ll set up men with women whom I know to be attractive and charming, only to have the guy call me back the next day and complain of a lack of chemistry, by which he always means, She wasn’t pretty enough. The poor woman never had a chance. Before she opened her mouth, her body did her in.
But why would we expect anything different? Superficial people seek superficial qualities, and men today, when it comes to women, are about as deep as a crack in the sidewalk.
But weren’t Jewish men, especially the religious ones, supposed to be different? The nation that gave the world’s Solomon’s Ode to a Woman of Valor, where a woman’s God-fearing qualities are what make her beautiful, are betraying that ideal utterly. If you are a woman in the Jewish singles scene who isn’t stunningly attractive, you’re going to wait a long time to get married. And once you’re married, you better keep your looks up, because the women who are going to be praying with you in the lady’s section spend five hours in the gym for every hour they spend in the synagogue. They’re not fools. They know their husbands are trained to appreciate muscle tone rather than piety.
I never believed I would witness a time when even marriage-minded, Orthodox Jewish men would become womanizers, giving themselves the latitude to date as many women as possible so that they can find “the best.” In yeshiva I was taught that one did not date a woman the way one shopped for a car. Rather, you focused on one woman completely and tried to develop a soulful connection with her without worrying about what else might be out there.
Recently, I had a young rabbinical student of marriageable age at my home. He told me he had already dated 40 girls and had not found what he was looking for. I was stunned. “Forty nice, religious girls, and not one of them was good enough for you?”
But anyone familiar with the increasingly toxic shidduch system among the very religious knows that what many young men are looking for is anathema to Jewish values – namely, looks, money, and pedigree. Find all three and you’ve hit the jackpot. Find only one, or even two, and you have “to settle.”
Now, no doubt, in the secular world marrying money and marrying into an important family are also important. But when religious Jews marry for materialistic and ego-driven values, they degrade a glorious spiritual tradition.
Time to tell the truth. Singles today are immunized to real love. They date and date but rarely fall in love. And the problem lies not with a dearth of suitable mates but within. Their hearts are made of Teflon rather than Velcro. The last thing today’s singles need is another change of partner or a new date.
So how do we change things? First, we need to stop reducing people to all cover and no book. Whether it’s our potential mate’s body, hair color, paycheck or social status, focusing on someone’s packaging is dehumanizing and embarrassing – especially for a people whose principal contribution to the world (a belief in God and the spiritual realm) is the notion that what matters most is often hidden from the eye. Ultimately, we have to dig deeper to find the substance in our mates – and in ourselves.
A person seeking to cultivate spiritual depth will spend her Sunday afternoons hiking in the woods rather than shopping in the mall, going to synagogue rather than sleeping in, and reading a book rather than watching TV. As a habit, the deep person will spend more time exercising his mind than his body and choose to explore someone verbally and emotionally well before exploring him or her sexually. Genuinely deep individuals put consideration into their behavior because they want something greater from life.
Love-immune singles must also give potential mates more of a chance. Stop dismissing people so cavalierly. The more a single person appreciates people in general, the more he will appreciate one person in particular. For example, when you meet someone at a party, speak to him without rotating your head like a radar tower – i.e., your focus shouldn’t be on all the people you’re missing out on.
Some of the best preparation for dating and marriage comes from doing volunteer work with the elderly. Let’s be honest: none of us particularly likes going to a nursing home. We find it draining and uncomfortable. After all, it reminds us of our own mortality. But the elderly are treasure troves of wisdom and experience, whose beauty lies in something other than the physical. If we can suspend our fixation on youth, we just might be able to see those qualities in other human beings that may not be staring us in the face.
Giving people a chance also means not dismissing them after a single date. Unless the man or woman who sat across from you at dinner did something truly offensive, there is precious little reason not to give him or her one more date.
Love-immune people also must practice being more loving. Go out of your way to be a more sensitive and caring person. Learn to give love freely rather than having it yanked out of you like a dentist pulling a tooth. When the waiter delivers your soup, take a moment not merely to thank him, but to ask his name. Don’t just tip cab drivers, talk to them. Speak to homeless people and give them a dollar, not because you’re going to radically change their lives by doing so, but because you bestow dignity on them by giving of your time and resources.
Learn humility. Frequently singles remain single because, without even being aware of it, they are arrogant. They want to marry only the best because they perceive themselves to be the best. In truth, however, all are special and none are ordinary. So be prepared to acknowledge and appreciate every person’s uniqueness. Practicing humility involves listening to other people’s stories without always having to inject details of your own. Being humble means refraining from judging people and instead seeking out their virtue. It also means ceasing to be the kind of person who always chooses his or her friends. Be friendly to all.
Here is another radical proposition: singles should practice commitment. From items as unimportant as choosing a car or a cell phone to something as central as settling on a job or an occupation, practice making decisions. Stop vacillating and start deciding. It will come in handy when you meet someone who is suitable but whom you might lose because you just can’t make up your mind.
But more than anything else, single men and women today must learn loneliness. Singles today are afraid of being lonely. They live alone, but the TV is always blasting. They are forever going out with platonic friends. They do anything to escape loneliness’s cold clutches, not realizing that it is by embracing loneliness that ultimately we find true love.
Looking for the mate who will fill the silence is a futile endeavor until you can be comfortable with yourself in that silence. When your loneliness is pleasant and peaceful, not clamoring with the cacophony of desperation, then you will be able to seek out a mate – not only because you need one, but because you want one. And yet, never forget that love is not a luxury, like a pocketbook. It’s a necessity, like food, clothing and shelter. Make sure that there’s room in your life for the real companionship of another individual.
Ultimately, when you get down to it, finding love is not a science. There is no “quick fix” for singlehood. But perhaps if we strip away the prejudices and stereotypes, and open ourselves to vulnerability, we may actually find someone to share our lives with. No, that person will not be perfect, but he or she will appreciate us, love us and challenge us to be better. And together you can walk romantically through the rest of your life.
In the pursuit of some of these qualities, I have decided to launch my own dating website, www.loveprophet.com. My hope is that we can foster a computer-dating site that is not focused on the questions of “What does she look like?” and “What does he do?” but rather, “What is her heart like?” and “How selfless a person is he?” This dating website will only be one small contribution to an entirely new Jewish dating scene that must be created if we are to restore Jewish values to an increasingly valueless endeavor.