Friday, November 14, 2008

Shiddach Dating or Casual Dating?

Jonathan Rosenblum has a fascinating column at Cross-Currents (originally in the Jerusalem Post). The column is in part a response to a column by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Rabbi Boteach laments the Shiddach system whereby a potential ‘date’ is checked out by the parents as to suitability. He maintains that it ‘disempowers [Orthodox] men and women from meeting directly’ and that he finds it “tiring” and the whole process not “terribly romantic.”

Jonathan retorts that the way in which the Orthodox Community deals with the dating game is nonetheless far superior to the one in the general culture - which Rabbi Boteach sees as having some strong positives.

Is it an either-or approach? I don’t see it that way at all. There are pluses and minuses in both approaches. In my view utilizing a little of both approaches would go a long way towards improving what is fast becoming a major crisis in the Orthodox world.

The Shiddach system, whereby everything is checked out left to right about a potential ‘date’ – either by a parent or a matchmaker (Shadchan) - has become fraught with so much unnecessary baggage that it has become almost dysfunctional to all but a few.

When one starts asking questions about what color the family tablecloth is on a Shabbos, there is something definitely wrong. When there is a price tag on certain Bachurim in the Charedi Yeshivos – there is something definitely wrong. Especially in the current economic climate. (Someone jokingly commented to me yesterday that in light of the current economic crisis Lakewood is advising their Bachurim to marry for love.)

But the casual dating scene is not an answer either. True - meeting casually and learning about one another directly - rather than through the vetting process of Shadchanus - can develop into a wonderful - and romantic – relationship. That can and sometimes does lead to a successful marriage. But that is not the only thing that can happen when two people meet casually and then start dating. Here is how Jonathan describes it:

The secular “hook_up” culture, in which almost all participate at some point, has not fostered romance. Just the opposite. Though women have demonstrated that they can participate on a equal footing with men, over time, doing so leaves them increasingly embittered and contemptuous of men, who come, in their eyes, to resemble perpetual teenagers, unable to commit and assume what were once considered adult responsibilities.

Secular couples enter marriage always fearing somewhere in the back of their heads that they are being compared to dozens of previous lovers, or, in the case of women, to pornographic fantasies, which many men prefer to the real thing. Young women increasingly report being asked by partners to perform according to the familiar tropes of pornography.

But Jonathan goes too far. It is not as absolutist as he indicates. He does not mention the vast numbers of Modern Orthodox Jewish men and women who have successfully taken the casual dating route.

So… again - which is it? The Charedi Shadchan system where the more Charedi you are the more research is done by others and the less time is needed to actually date? Or is the secular casual dating system whereby virually no research is done and relationships develop naturally. By doing this one can therefore hope to achieve a more romantic ideal - choosing a spouse via experiencing and learning about each other rather than relying on what others have said.

The answer in my view is somewhere in between the two. Casual dating without any advance knowledge at all about one’s ‘date’ is not a good idea. While it can and sometimes does lead to a good marriage - the chance that it won’t is too great. “Falling in love’ this way often blinds one to factors that might otherwise be seen and would end the relationship. When a couple like this gets married divorce is often the result.

But overly investigating a potential Shidach the way many do today is proving to be counterproductive as well. Far too may potential Shiduchim are written off for the stupidest of reasons. The wrong questions are often asked and a potential ‘date’ often called off between two very compatible people.

In my view the best of all possible worlds would be to do some basic research to see if a couple is in the same ball park. And then… let them date and get to know each other. There is then nothing wrong if two people date for an extended period so that they can learn more about each other. Isn't this better than relying mostly on ‘parental matchmaking’ and then dating only a few times before marriage? An unprepared and naive young couple entering into a pre-mature marriage can easily lead to divorce. We are witnessing that in our day as well. Divorce rates are going up in Charedi circles too albeit at a lower rate than in other circles.

I think both Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Jonathan Rosenblum would do well to recognize each others points. And I would be willing to bet they in essence do not really disagree with each other all that much. And that their daughters do not really date in dissimilar ways.