Love. That’s the American way to get married. A couple meets, falls in love and gets married. Very Hollywood. But not always very practical. There are plenty of people that fall in love and end up being completely incompatible. Often finding out after they are married or even after they have children. If I recall correctly, the current divorce rate in America is at about 50%. Not a very encouraging statistic.
Contrast that with Orthodox Jews. While the divorce rate is increasing, it is well below 50%. Why is that the case? I think it has to do with how each community approaches dating. Orthodox Jews tend to date other Orthodox Jews. Which means they already have a lot in common and that increases compatibility.
Obviously that is not enough. There has to be compatibility in other areas too. Like temperament, personal tastes, similar background or the type of Orthodoxy one adheres to. And then there is the all important physical attraction. If two people are not physically attracted to each other they should not get married in most cases.
The differences between a Satmar type Chasidic Jew and a Modern Orthodox Jew of New York’s Upper West Side is probably greater than the differences between a secular Jew and a Modern Orthodox Jew. Even though religiously they obviously have more in common which is of paramount importance, the cultural differences are so radically different - it makes compatibility rare if not impossible.
Orthodox Jews have a variety of ways to date – depending on which segment you are from. Chasidim like Satmar let the parents do the dating. By this I mean that parents on both sides seek a match that they feel is compatible with their child. This is usually done through a Shadchan – a professional matchmaker that knows the community well and has lists of eligible matches, their attributes, and information about their parents. Once the research is done the matchmaker will suggest to the parents their choice of a mate for their child. The young couple meet in one of the homes for a brief time (as little as 20 minutes) and decide if they want to get married. If they do, they do not see each other again until the Chupah.
While this sound pretty sterile,it seems to work pretty well. Although divorce rates are up in Chasidic circles too, they probably have the fewest divorces among all Jews. I could never have gotten married this way. But I suppose in the insular world of Chasidim where sameness abounds, the chances of compatibility are pretty high. What about love? What’s love got to do with it? They clearly do not love each other under the Chupah because they don’t even know each other! That they may or may not learn to love each other later in the marriage is not that important in the Chasidic world.
Non Chasidic Charedim of the Lithuanian mold do not meet this way. They actually go out on dates. But they do use Shadchanim almost exclusively. Which means that before they meet, there was a lot of research done by the parents that look into a suggested Shidduch. Once it is determined that the couple seems compatible, they date. Half the ‘battle’ was won by their parents. The young couple pick it up from there - dating about 8 times. By then each one has a chance to see first hand what the other is like. Not that they really find out everything. That happens after they get married. But at least they know something. Bonds develop if things go well. But… love? I’m not sure that has happened yet, although it may have.
Then there is the Modern Orthodox way of dating. Generally they date the same way the secular world does,with one exception. They date other Orthodox Jews. Mostly modern ones like themselves. In these circles it tends to be about falling in love, much like it does in the secular world. They meet on their own usually in a social environment. Often they have had contact with each other on a casual basis since there is a mingling of the sexes throughout their lives. This does not eliminate the Shadchan in Modern Orthodoxy. But in these cases it is more likely to be a relative or friend that knows the couple separately and recommends them to each other. Not a professional Shadchan – although it is not unheard of even in these circles.
In all cases the divorce rate is relatively low compared to the population at large.
Which of these is the best way to date? In my view they all are since they all seem to work.
Leaving out MO – whose Shiduch problems are of another sort (having to do with the tendency of having commitment issues) the evolution of the Shadchan system turned it into an intolerable one. Ariela Sternbach explains why in a recent article in Ynet.
And it is not hard to understand how this happened. Once you start doing research on potential mates there is no end to the information you can get about them. As a result, the Shadchan system has morphed into something quite evil if things are as Ms. Stermbach describes them,
If a potential Shidduch has even the slightest ‘flaw’ they are relegated to bottom of the pile. The Shiduchim suggested to them are completely unfair to the point of being ridiculous! What kind of flaws are we talking about? Well if you are a child of divorced parents, you might have a match suggested with a psychotic individual. This is what happened to a girl named Hani mentioned by Ms. Sternbach.
When the ‘perfection bar’is raised so high, everyone panics about every possible detail of their lives that might be seen a a flaw and therefore fear never being suggested to anyone normal. A well founded fear it seems.
Which is why sex abuse is so hidden in these communities. If a child is a victim of sex abuse, not only does that child become ‘damaged goods’ all of their siblings do as well. No one wants to come forward with that kind of information so they keep it hidden – if they can. Which of course has no good end for anyone.
I’m not sure that the way the Shiduch system described by Mr. Sternbuch is as universally bad as she describes it. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it is somewhere close to that based on my own observations.
Common sense has been lost. That this is now happening in our world is a travesty.
What ought to be done is to overhaul the way the entire system works. As the title of that article implies, not every single detail of a person’s life and family situation needs to be known. True the more you know the more you find out about how compatible you are. But if every detail is factored in, it is a miracle that any compatibility is ever found between two people. Shiduchim are still being made. But how many people are unfairly left out?!
Like most things in life, there is a happy medium between too much information and too little. I would not dismiss any of the dating habits in Orthodoxy. Not the Satmar style dating and not the Modern Orthodox style. But what I would do is require Shadchanim to ignore the kinds of things that are really not important. Like Yichus or if the parents are Baalei Teshuva or converts.
And even for those things which may be important - like if there was abuse in the family; or the parents are divorced; or there is an illness (mental or physical) in the family tree; or if one side is Asheknazi and the other Sephardi; – none of those things ought to prevent a young couple from meeting and dating. I know a lot of marriages like that which are exemplary.