Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Impact of Tznius on the “Shidduch Crisis”

Image credit - Shema Yisrael Torah Network
The so called Shidduch crisis has become one of the most discussed topics of our day. Just in the last two weeks two Charedi  magazines had feature stories on it, one of them a cover story. I say so called because I’m not sure that the phenomenon of increasing numbers of singles (mostly women) unable to get married isn’t a self inflicted wound by a community obsessed with Tznius. At least in the world of the right wing.

This phenomenon is the result of a culture gone wrong in many ways.  Both in the world of the right wing and in the world of Modern Orthodoxy (MO)  - albeit for entirely different reasons.

Interestingly this phenomenon does not really exist in the Chasidic community.  Chasidim get married very young. Men and women both start dating at around the same age. It is not uncommon for a Chasidic couple to get married when both are about 19 years old. The ratio of men to women in the world is about 50/50. So it kind of equals out. But for reasons that are beyond the scope of this post the Chasidic model of marriage cannot realistically be applied to communities outside of their own.

In the Modern Orthodox world there is an entirely different problem. The world of Modern Orthodox singles on the Upper West Side of New York is legendary.  A lot of dating takes place in that world. But dating that results in marriage is not as common as one would hope for. The singles culture has taken on a life of its own. Being single in the Upper West Side of New York seems to be almost the norm. I don’t know what the actual statistics are but it seems to be common knowledge that many singles in that community will stay permanently single – even while they continue to date.

There are many explanations given for this. It might be that many of these people simply choose to be single. But I believe the most commonly heard reason is ‘commitment phobia’ among MO men. I don’t know if that’s the only – or even primary – reason. But I know of at least 2 cases of men who dated women for months and even years with the assumption by the women that it would eventually lead to marriage – where it never did. In one case there was even an engagement where marriage never came to fruition. The fellow simply could not commit to a date for the wedding. After a very long engagement the couple broke it off. I have a feeling that this happens a lot there.

Why is that the case? Perhaps there is a bias influenced by the general culture that promotes the single lifestyle. I don’t know. I would not be surprised if in some cases the intimacy that results after long courtships end up in a sexual relationship. (In fact I have heard that some single women have begun using a Mikva to avoid the severe Halachic violation of having a sexual relationship with a Niddah.)

Let me be quick to add that the world of the Upper West Side singles is mostly of the MO-Lite or left wing variety. I am not being judgmental here. Just stating what I believe to be a fact. Most RWMO Jews do not subscribe to this lifestyle. In fact they are closer to the Yeshiva model.  But not entirely. Which is of benefit to them in terms of getting married. In fact I think that their model of dating is the correct one – if my assumptions are right. I say this knowing that I will be accused of promoting my own Hashkafos. I will take that risk because I really do believe it is the better model. More about this later.

In the non Chasidic Yeshiva world women start dating at about age 19; men at about age 23. The choices for men therefore include the entire range of women ages 19 to 23. In theory there are now 5 young women for every eligible young male in the Yeshiva world. And for the 23 year old Yeshiva man – the younger the woman the better. So at age 24, a young woman will feel like an old maid when age is counted in “Shiddach years.” So it is easy to see why this is considered a crisis. There are other reasons for this crisis. More about that later too.

What to do…

I have no clue how to deal with the world of MO dating.  The right wing Yeshiva world, however, seems to be the more fixable. The obsession with Tznius has created a world where options are severely limited. The only way that a couple can get together for dating purposes is through a Shadchan. That Shadchan can take the form of a Rosh Yeshiva, a Mashgiach, or a Rebbe. It can be a professional or a neighbor who knows a lot of young people; a family member, or even a mutual friend that might recommend a potential couple to each other. 

While these are all legitimate ways of meeting people, they give an inordinate amount of power to the Shadchan while giving little or no power to the young couple. They are at the mercy of others. There is no chance for any of them to meet outside of these contexts. Their researched lives become an open book to Shadchanim whose personal biases will influence how they evaluate them for an “appropriate” date.

Chance meetings are very discouraged and the right wing world goes to great lengths to prevent it. Increasingly so as the Tznius chase continues to climb up the pole of absurdity!

Separating the sexes in the Yeshiva world has become an obsession which has gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. In some communities families that have been friends for years stop inviting each other over for a Shabbos meal once their male and female children reach adolescence. The Shul Kiddush which used to be mixed and a wonderful way for two people to meet is now often separated by a Mechitza – if not an entirely separate room. Weddings which used to be mixed seating (and where one could find legitimate Gedolei HaDor sitting together with their wives) are now virtually nonexistent. Images of women are barely tolerated and if the trend continues will eventually disappear entirely from that world.

Needless to say mixed social events of even the most Kosher kind - are almost completely forbidden in this world (The possible exception being for Kiruv purposes, like NCSY events.… and even then frowned upon by some right wing rabbinic leaders).

It really seems like common sense has been thrown out the window! The obsession with Tznius has added unnecessary fuel to the fire of the Shidduch crisis. Which brings me back to the way RWMO Jews date.  Like their Chaeredi counterparts (and unlike their Left wing and MO-Lite counterparts) RWMO Jews date for Tachlis. Tachlis is the Hebrew word for purpose. In the Yeshiva world the term is used in context of dating for marriage but not for social purposes.

But the options for RWMO Jews are not limited to Shadchanim – although they are used as one source for dating.  That opens up a whole world of possibilities that does not exist in the world of the right.

All of the above examples (e.g. meeting via a family Shabbos meal or at a Kiddush in Shul, etc.) are available options for them. 2 people can meet in an open and innocent environment and decide for themselves if they want to see each other beyond the initial meeting.  Meeting in this way eliminates being over-researched by a Shadchan which can kill a courtship before it ever starts. Even something like knowing the age of a potential date can do that. 

When 2 people meet on their own age is not a factor.  A young woman may be older than the young man who seems interested in her. After they have dated for a while and their respective ages become known, it won't hurt the relationship- even if the young woman is older than the young man. My oldest daughter met her husband that way. She is almost 5 years older than him! And yet, I wonder how many young men will automatically reject a date who is even the same age let alone older? 

The Yeshiva world needs to recognize just how flawed its Tznius model is - and how harmful it is to the Shidduch crisis. In my view whatever benefits are gained by separating the sexes to such an extreme – they pale in comparison to what is lost.