Dating Self-Help

(This was originally published as an op-ed in the Jewish Press, on July 8, 2011.)

A recent piece posted on Matzav.com signed by “A Crying Bas Yisroel” chillingly lamented the plight of a young single woman, with fine personal qualities but without any family money or yichus, who sits forlornly waiting for her phone to ring with calls from shadchanim. Alas, the phone never rings, and for her, the shidduchsystem is an ongoing nightmare.

     Not coincidentally, but perhaps surprising to some, almost all the weddings I attended this past month were those of couples who had “long-term” relationships. They either met in high school or when high school age, or in Israel or their early college years, and almost all of them met on their own. They did not use shadchanim, but met the old-fashioned way: in healthy social settings where young men and women mingle naturally, without the pressure of “potential spouse” hovering over every encounter. That is not the norm in Jewish life these days, but perhaps it should be.
     That is not to say that the shidduch-system is failed, or failing, or broken. Too many people work too hard on setting up unmarrieds that it would be incorrect and insulting to say that it is broken. So it is not broken – but perhaps it should be a b’diavad (post facto) and not a l’chatchila (ab initio) system. L’chatchila, it would seem, Chazal emphasized that we should find our own mates. The Gemara (Kiddushin 2b) cites the pasuk “When a man takes a woman [in marriage]” and explains “darko shel ish l’chazer al ha-isha,” it is the way of men to pursue women [in marriage]. It is not the way of men, or shouldn’t be, to enlist a band of agents, intermediaries, and attorneys to do the work for them. By infantilizing and emasculating our males, we have complicated a process that should be simpler and made a joyous time into one of relentless anguish and hardship for many women.
    This is reminiscent of the life story of a pathetic man we recently encountered in the weekly Torah reading – Ohn ben Pelet. The Gemara  (Sanhedrin 109b) states that “ishto hitzilato”his wife saved him from the clutches of Korach. Ohn was an original co-conspirator who is not mentioned again after the first verse, because his wife explained to him the foolishness of his conduct (Ohn loses if Moshe wins and gains nothing if Korach prevails), prevented him from joining his fellow conspirators, and, as the Midrash adds, held onto his bed to prevent the ground from swallowing Ohn and then dragged him to Moshe to beg forgiveness. Ohn was a sad excuse of a man.
     Mrs. Ohn, in effect, saved her husband not only from Korach but also from himself. The problem with Ohn is that he perceived himself as an object, and not a subject or an actor. Ohn wasn’t a leader – he was a born follower, just an object for others to use, He just allowed himself to be yanked along by anyone – for evil and for good. He was just part of the crowd, the personification of the personality of weakness, dependence and self-abnegation. He took no responsibility for his own destiny.  An object is a tool of others; a subject is the master of his destiny. In the realm of dating and marriage, we are breeding Ohn’s by the thousands by freeing men from their obligation to pursue their potential spouses, and thereby relegating women to the dependent role of passively waiting to be the chosen one. Why do we do that, and is there a better option ?
    Some will argue that the shidduch system spares our children the pain of rejection – but part of life, and a huge part of parenting, is preparing our children for a world in which they will experience rejection at some point. That is called maturity.
     Others will argue, with greater cogency, that we prevent young men and women from sinning. Relationships that begin when couples are younger, or friendships that start outside the framework of parental supervision, can induce or lead to inappropriate behavior. That possibility is undoubtedly true, but can be rectified by applying a novel concept called “self-control,” which in any event is the hallmark of the Torah Jew. We do not tell people to avoid The Home Depot even if one wants to buy a hammer lest he shoplift some nails, nor do we admonish others not to shop in Pathmark because one might be led to sin by the aroma of non-kosher foods. Self-control and discipline are routine components of the life of a Jew. And, even granting that “there is no guardian for promiscuity,” it should still be feasible for a young man to talk to or display his personal charms to a woman without assaulting her.
     Sad to say, there is a promiscuity problem, even among some of our high school youth and certainly in college, that cannot be swept away. It can be resolved if parents take responsibility and sit down with their sons and teach them how to respect women – and sit down with their daughters and teach them how to respect themselves.
    Something is not normal, and against human nature as Chazal perceived it, for men to be so diffident, so timid, so Ohn-like, and sit back comfortably relying on others to procure them dates. Young men who would not allow others to choose for them a lulav and etrog do not hesitate to delegate others to find them a spouse. This also unduly delays their fulfillment of the commandment of Pru u’rvu (procreation). And something is not normal, and frankly, unfair, that young women have to sit by the phone for weeks and months waiting to be contacted by agents. As well-meaning as the system intends, it must be demeaning and deflating – worse than even the rejection that happens after casual encounters.
    What is the solution, or the other option? For those people currently of age and in the system, or for communities that would accept only the shidduch­-system, there is no other solution but to redouble our efforts. They will reap the reward, and also, sadly, the misery of those who choose to be passive in life. Obviously, unmarried men and women should be seated together at weddings to facilitate more natural, pressure-free encounters; it is so obvious, it is surprising that it is even debated.
    But for younger people today – say, older teens – there has to be a better way. The paradigm of “don’t smile/talk/socialize/date” until one is ready for marriage constricts the capacity of our young people to assume responsibility for their own lives. Many will disagree with me, even among my colleagues, but if we wish to minimize the heartbreak of so many of our young people, we must find healthy ways of encouraging interaction between teenagers – in shuls, in schools, in youth groups. We have to de-stigmatize self-help and personal initiative. For example, at a shul Kiddush, it should not be construed as abnormal or off-putting if a young man approaches a young woman who has caught his eye, and asks her name, and “would you like a piece of kugel?” That should be normal; at one point, that was darko shel ish. Indeed, that should be even more normal among people of marriageable age, and would consign the shidduch­-system to its appropriate b’diavad status, for people who have not been able to meet on their own. Perhaps the young woman whose lament was featured above should take similar initiatives as well.
     Dating at too young an age is certainly problematic, but teenagers who learn to socialize in groups demystify the opposite sex and learn appropriate boundaries, communication skills and modes of interaction. Such contact makes males more sensitive, and helps them learn at an early age that a young woman is not a shtender, in the Steipler’s elegant phrase, or a vehicle for their own gratification, in the modern lexicon. It certainly helps prepare a couple for marriage if they know each other longer than three weeks or three months, and the recent spate of broken engagements and early divorces in the Jewish world would tend to confirm that. And conversely, the plethora of recent weddings of couples in our community who know each other for years would corroborate that as well.
      I am mindful of the opinions of the gedolim who proscribe any male-female interaction before one is ready to marry, and those gedolim who permit such contact in controlled settings. As a community we have other options than the false choice of isolationism or promiscuity, and we need to strengthen our young men with the inner confidence to guide their own lives. There are too many people walking around with Y chromosomes who are not men. They have an Ohn-like existence, sitting back comfortably and letting others plot their destiny in life. They will never be masters, only objects who cannot lead or build or create. That does not bode well for Klal Yisrael.
      May Hashem bless with success the work of all shadchanim. But we need to shift the culture away from the passive indifference of the well-connected to the active pursuit of spouses by all, and thereby mold more assertive men and more confident women. That is because more is expected of us – as a nation that is called by G-d for greatness not mediocrity, to be active not passive, to be followers of G-d and leaders of mankind.
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27 responses to “Dating Self-Help

  1. Speaking from the perspective of someone who is currently “in the parsha,” and part of the generation that you are describing, I have frequently heard the sentiment expressed in the post. However, there are a few assumptions with which I must take issue.
    First, when describing the “shidduch system,” the implication is that there is some form of centralized system that “sets the rules.” It would follow that by persuading the “people in charge” to alter the “rules” one can reform the system. I don’t think that this is the case. The attitudes that my generation has towards dating is not really governed by shadchanim, but rather a more complex and loosely defined range of sociological causes.
    Second, I often hear a similar narrative from a generation older than me: there was a point in time when more “natural” settings for interaction between genders was considered religiously acceptable, but the general “shift to the right” in Orthodoxy has led to a more rigid Charedi outlook on dating, which precludes these opportunities. Therefore, there is a need to “rehabilitate” the system to try to re-introduce opportunities for “natural meeting.” I think that this attitude comes from a heavy generational bias. What makes one form of courtship more “natural” than another? Does this come from objective sociological/psychological evidence or is it merely what was more conventional in a previous generation? If the argument that is being made is based on the paradigms presented from the cited ma’marei Chaz”al, I believe that one can put together an equally compelling string of ma’amarei Chaz”al that imply the more “right wing” approach to shidduchim (for example: Michtav M’Eliyahu’s explication of the parsha of Eliezer’s search for a wife for Yitzchak.)
    [For the sake of perspective, I am a semicha student in RIETS and would consider myself among the more “mainstream” student body.]

    • Notwithstanding Rav Dessler, it is hard to suggest Eliezer’s search for a wife for Yitzchak is a mainstream approach. After all, Yitzchak was an olah temima who could not leave Eretz Yisrael, and achieved an elevated status after the Akeida. His case is unique. We don’t have such olot temimot today. In contrast, Avraham and Yaakov, and Moshe, found their wives on their own – the first two cases, in their own families.-
      RSP

      • If this position is really founded on interpretation of ma’marei Chaz’al, isn’t it very unexact? All of the Avos had “exceptional” unique qualities, what makes one more of a model for everyone else? If anything, one can argue that, the fact that the narrative of Eliezer is so prolonged would reflect that this is the “ideal” approach (as opposed to Avraham, whose courtship is not discussed).
        Also, the paradigm that is being used with Ohn is not necessarily one involving courtship, but rather assertiveness in a general sense. One can scour Tanach and Chazal and find loads of precedent for promoting restraint just as much as one can find for promoting assertiveness.
        What I’m trying to say is that trying to properly apply this is something that can be very easily unexact. Just like, presumably, one would not rely on the face interpretation of Cha’zal for medical advice, why should this not be done for something more psychological in nature?

  2. SYLVIA SCHNEIDER

    gREAT ARTICLE AND LOTS OF HUMOR

  3. Steve Reiss

    I applaud you for raising this important issue. As you recognize, many of your colleagues disapprove of almost any form of social interaction among older teenagers of the opposite gender. In my view, you’re absolutely correct on this point. Does your Shul currently host events where older teenagers of the opposite gender can socialize and, if not, is that something you will consider implementing? With so many upper teenagers in your Shul you have a real opportunity to change the current mindset, at least within your community, that “really frum” 18 year old boys don’t socialize with “really frum” 17 year old girls. You mention Kiddushim, but a crowded social hall over potato kugel doesn’t always offer the optimum setting for social interactions among tenenagers. How about a monthly book club meeting at the Shul exclusively for single young adults, followed by a buffet dinner? Or I’m sure you or some of the teenagers in your Shul could come up with better ideas for events that would allow for healthy social interactions of the kind that you describe.

    • The answer is that we do host such events, but a culture has been created wherein young men do not attend, and would not consider dating young women who would even think of attending such events. And the beat goes on…
      -RSP

  4. I dont think you have it right. There is no shidduch crisis in the chasidic world. This is not the reason for it.

    • I am gratified to hear that there is no shidduch crisis in the Chasidic world. Perhaps I should venture more into that world to find the secret of their success, which appears to span all sects and backgrounds. Or, perhaps you might take a second look at that world.
      -RSP

  5. Dear Rabbi,
    With full respect to your office and position, I cannot agree with this essay as your premise disagrees with the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh in Vayikra 18:2.
    Not too many people were referred to as Hakadosh. It would behoove one to study his works.

    • You surely recognize that the culture in the Sefaradi world has always been different than the one in the Ashkenazi world. And even the Ohr Hachaim recognizes the special quality of Klal Yisrael that we have the capacity to dominate our inclinations. I submit that one who cannot in casual interaction with the opposite sex (forget socializing; how about riding a bus or subway?) without triggering lewd thoughts has not even joined the battle of Kevishat hayetzer and might have already lost it. Rav Amram’s challenge (Kidushin 81a)referred to by the Ohr Hachaim points to the necesary vigilance in this area, but the examples of Rav Yochanan and Rav Gidal (Brachot 20a), unusual as they are, point to the possibility of achieving some dominance in this area.
      But anyone is free to embrace the traditional system where “men” (if you can call them that) sit back and have others take responsibility for their own futures. After all, it does have a history of success for some. My point was that it also has a history of failure for others.
      -RSP

      • Dear Rabbi,
        Is Ashkenazi blood not red? And who pray tell in this depraved generation can compare themselves to Rav Yochanan?
        Is there no middle ground? Either we encourage pretzus-lite or be labeled demi “men”?
        Come now Rabbi, surely there is a Torah way. Maybe meeting in public places such as hotel lobbies for some private yet public-setting conversation. The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh, does not note differences in culture. He does note that human can rise above his Yetzar, withthe exception of Aroyot, which requires the extra geder.
        We might have done away with many ancient chumrot, but regarding tzniut we must continually be vigilant.

  6. Thought provoking, fantastic article. I think shidduchim is only one area where we are protecting children far too much from rejection.

  7. What you write is very interesting.

    I think, however, that in the “old” system, there were also a lot of girls waiting endlessly by the phone, or marrying the guy who may be attentive and offer to get them kugel, but turns out to be a creep.

    There is no one solution, as you say.

  8. I don’t think that the shidduch system has taken away our natural ability to woo women. I think it’s a side effect of modern society. Part of the shidduch crisis is that men and women who do socialise and could marry each other (cf. Katamon and Upper West Side) don’t have the ability to convert that socialising into marriage.

    How is it that western society has caused this breakdown? Let all the amateur sociologists fill in the blank, but don’t forget that many of us watched and enjoyed Seinfield, Friends, etc. They were great shows but reflected a society where you remain friends and don’t get married.

    You rightly say that we should take responsibility for our lives. I think that the young ladies should too. In my experience of dating, all too often the young lady doesn’t seem to take any initiative or attempt to deepen the relationship.

  9. To Noam: I am not suggesting we not be vigilant. What I am suggesting is that people learn self-control, and one should not read the Ohr Hachaim as meaning that man is incapable of self-control in this area. If so, that we would have complaints against our Creator. The fact that you label casual interaction and group socializing as “pretzus-lite” might be part of the problem. It is only pretzus at all in a person incapable of self-control. That person should probably never marry, as he will be incapable of controlling himself in marriage, nor should he be let out in decent society. Maybe a monastery would suit him better.
    -RSP

  10. What you are advocating would lead to “Tefillin dates.” It is very nice to say that young men should practice self-control, but the Yetzer Hara is very strong in this area, especially in today’s time where we are surrounded by pritzes and casual relationships are considered the norm. It is not a sign of weakness to establish gedarim and it is foolhardy to challenge the yetzer hara and rely on one’s “self-control.”

    • Ridiculous, like saying being in business leads to theft, so one should not be in business. Self-control, self-control ! It’s the foundation of the whole Torah.
      -RSP

  11. I agree that meeting casually the way our parents’ generation did would solve the problem, but your commenters are right- it couldn’t work in our instant-gratification society. Having teenagers, who are not even considering marriage for another few years, develop relationships with the opposite gender is an invitation for disaster. True, self-control is the foundation of being a good Jew, but why invite temptation? We do need a solution to the “Shidduch crisis,” but do we really want to solve it with another crisis entirely?

  12. Thank you Rabbi P.
    The best advice my father gave me when I was dating was asking me “Are you a man or a mouse.” That serves me well as a husband and father as well. There should be nothing wrong with a Ben Torah going over to young women and introducing himself if he is interested in getting to know her. This is should not be considered Poretz Geder or pritzus or any other negative charaterization. Unfortunately, that is not the world we seem to be living in.
    Strange how girls are looking for shiduch opportunities, yet at weddings I hear they want to sit separate becuase they are uncomfortable if they get shvitzy while dancing. Something seems very odd with that sentiment.

  13. The only anecdote I provided was my personal experience in attending weddings this year of couples who mostly met on their own at a younger age.
    -RSP

  14. Thank you for a dose of common sense!

    To all the posters attacking this as “impractical” or doubting the ability of today’s youth to control themselves – can we please set aside the tone of breathless alarmism and get back to normal social interaction? We now have a strict “Berlin wall” that divides boys and girls from grade school on – to the absurd extreme of Rabbis forcing pizza shops to remove their tables lest teenagers socialize.

    My high-school youth group allowed boys and girls to socialize in groups (bowling, trips, chesed activities) without splitting off into “couples”. It helped us learn how to talk to girls, learn what type of person appealed to us – and learn how to be mentschen.

    Similar group activities continued in Hillel houses and shuls near my college campus. People who were committed to Torah morality remained committed even as they sought spouses – surprise, surprise!

    It’s astounding to me that the extreme separation between the sexes is justified by fears that young people will stumble – which only emphasizes the Rabbi’s point: we are coddling people who should be preparing themselves for adult life, with all its challenges.

  15. There is something i dont understand. Scientifically there are 105 men born for every 100 girls. If one looks at school roster’s in local elementary , high schools and i am sure even YU/Stern, there is not a discernible difference between the amount of men and women, yet there always seems to be this notion that girls are waiting by the phone and guys have tons of dates. how could that possibley be?

  16. Coming in a bit late , but the gemara in kidushin (30b) says that it is a mitzvah for a father to marry of his son and daughter. The meiri, I believe writes in regard to a daughter that the father gives her clothing and makes her look pretty so men will want to marry her, and then HE chooses a husband for her. I do not have the meiri on hand so I can’t say for sure that he holds this. How would this gemara factor in? Does the Shulchan Aruch quote this gemara and what do the mefarshim say on the chiyuv of the father to marry of his daughter?

    • This is not the 14th century. And even then, a girl could not be married against her will. We can’t compare today to the unique situation then when marriages occurred at a very young age because of the ever-present threat of persecution, death of the father and potential loss of the dowry.
      -RSP

  17. Rabbi do the rishonim actually say what u say or UR assuming this is the case.

    Also I’m not sure why you think hooking up with a girl before marriage is not respecting the girl. Physical contact is not only an instinctual pleasure, but also because of the psychological intimacy that follows(actually there are two different chemicals in the brain for these two feelings). If anything sometimes this physical contact is a result of a great identification and mutual respect and it’s manifest in physical contact.