Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Teffilin Dates Or Shiddach Dates?

The Teffilin date.

This is a term used by some to denote what they believe is the behavior of many a Yeshiva University student. What it refers the soused phenomenon where young modern Orthodox men seek to date young modern Orthodox women for the ultimate purpose of getting them into bed. Being religious Jews, however they always take their Teffilin along on every date just in case they ‘make it’ with the girl. I doubt that this ever happened but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did. Not any more than it would surprise me that a young Charedi man might succumb to that temptation. I know people where this has happened and pregnancies resulted.

But the fact is that many Jews believe this to be a widespread phenomenon among young college age modern Orthodox men. I doubt that it is. It is an urban legend. And yet certain people believe it as gospel. Why is that the case?

An article in the Yeshiva University student newspaper, The Commentator, cites some interesting statistics about how young modern Orthodox Jews date – even after their year in Israel:

In a recent poll of the undergraduate student body (see "Student Pulse" on dating), 42.6% of respondents felt that his or her year(s) in Israel affected how he or she views dating and interaction with the opposite gender. 23.7% of respondents - including 14% of female respondents and 30.9% of male respondents - started being "shomer negiah" after their Israel experience. (The current online Observer poll, which is open to all voters on the site, reports that only about 4% of respondents became "shomer" after Israel.)

Being Shomer Negiah means that there is no touching between the sexes. Frankly I’m not sure what these numbers represent. Just to pick one statistic: about 43% said their year in Israel affected how he or she views dating and interaction with the opposite gender. This does not tell me what the over all percentage of those who were Shomer Negiah before or after. It only tells me that 43% students attitudes were in some way affected.

What a survey like this does tell me is that the very concept of Negiah is subject to choice - as if touching a member of the opposite sex was a permitted option on a date. That is of course not permitted. And yet it is treated as though it were a legitimate option – a Kula as it were. This explains why that urban legend about Teffilin dates exists.

The question is why this is the case? Why is touching the opposite sex treated so casually in modern Orthodox circles?

The answer can be found in a comment made by Rabbi Yosef Blau in the YU article:

The fact that American society is much more open to sexual, physical contact and sexual expression has made it more difficult for someone who is Orthodox to simultaneously identify with that society…

It is the culture wherein modern Orthodox Jews are raised. Living in a culture that glorifies sexual conquest makes it very difficult for a young man to resist temptation. He perceives any such activity as normal and does not think about the seriousness of such actions. Or he might trivialize their significance and even resent efforts to change his attitude about it.

I happen to believe that the vast majority of serious modern Orthodox young men and women observe these Halachos when they date.

But in a world gone mad with Chumros there has been a stark reaction by the right against the cutural permissiveness by forbiding any intermingling with the sexes - almost to the point of recoiling from it! This attitude is promoted in the Charedi world so as to avoid any possible stumbling blocks that would lead to violating Isurei Erva – forbidden sexual activity.

But as is the case in any matter - going from one extreme to the other is never a good idea. That’s because of the law of unintended consequences.

And this article points to many such consequences that hinder the potential for marriage. We have a Shiddach crisis for a reason. The result of all this separateness is that the idea of a normal date is disappearing even in modern Orthodox circles as the entire world moves to the right including modern Orthodoxy. This is made plainly evident in the opening paragraph of this article:

When one YU junior showed up to a first date, he was looking forward to a satisfying meal, an animating conversation and a relaxing night out. Instead, the young woman came armed with a 70-question "test," grilling him on his ideology and family history. Unfortunately, he failed the test. Not surprisingly, neither of the two expressed interest in a second date.

This is not good. But it is an inevitable result of over-focusing on Tachlis and over-reacting to the fear of violating Halacha on a date.

That young people are focused on the Tachlis of getting married is a good thing. That should be the primary purpose of dating. But when one turns dating into a mathematical and sterile exercise reducing it to a test consisting of 70 questions, you know that things have gone too far. Not that these kinds of questions aren’t already being asked by some Charedi Shadchanim and foolish parents. (Some of these questions are really stupid - ala the famous question about the color of the family’s tablecloth on the Shabbos table)

Not that many of these questions aren’t important. Many of them are. But dating cannot be turned into sterile acts of taking tests. Dating is about much more than that. It is as much about compatible personalities as it is about matching Hashkafos.

So what is the right way to go about it in my view? Glad you asked.

Just like everything else in life there is a happy medium. First of all one must follow Halacha. That obviously means being Shomer Negiah. But one must also develop a rapport on a date that allows for compatibility and comfort. Hashkafa questions need not be the very first thing discussed. That can wait until a third or fourth date. The idea on a first date is to have fun in a permissible way.

Furthermore the method of meeting should not be limited to Shadchanim. Shadchanim should only be one of many ways to meet. Social interaction is important too. And so too is learning how to interact with the opposite sex. That’s why I support group social settings where young people can meet and interact. I’ve said this before. Volunteer organizations like NCSY or HASC can be a marvelous example where young people can meet and learn how to interact with each other - all while fulfilling a great Mitzvah.

The one thing we don’t need is the further Talibanization of Judaism where the sexes are so separated that a first date becomes a terrifying experience. It is not an either or situation: No exposure at all - or Teffilin dates. There is a happy medium where meeting members of the opposite sex should be encouraged and where normal dating follows.

There are no guarantees in life. The unexpected can easily happen. Even under the most ideal of dating circumstances a divorce or worse can result. But in my view the best chances of a successful relationship between a man and a woman happens when extremes of behavior are avoided.