Thursday, January 15, 2009

Of Lists and Awkward Dates

One of the most frequently addressed topics in Orthodoxy is the what has come to be called the Shiddach crisis. Whether there is an actual crisis or not is a matter of some debate. But for those who are in the ‘parsha’ – those who are actively seeking their mate and having difficulty, it may very well be a crisis for them.

Be that as it may getting married these days is not easy for a variety of reasons. The issues are different among the various sectors of Orthodoxy although there is some overlap among all of them. Modern Orthodoxy has its own specific problems – mostly having to do with commitment issues of men over thirty. I am not as familiar with the Chasidic community although I believe they have their own problems having to do with intimacy issues early in a marriage.

The non Chasidic Charedi community has its own set of problems. I would add that these problems are quickly becoming a problem for Modern Orthodox Jews - many of whom have adopted Charedi values about learning. This is one of the results of ‘the move to the right’. I’m not being judgmental here - just identifying a fact.

If one grows up in an environment that places a high value on learning Torah, that becomes the standard by which both men and women are judged.

In the world of Charedim a man must commit to learning full time if he is to be considered top grade material for marriage. Rare is the young woman raised in such an environment that sees a Frum - non learning full time - working man in that light. This is true in both Charedi world and to a lesser extent in the right wing Modern Orthodox world.

Perhaps that might explain the phenomenon of ‘lists’. Young men who begin dating compile lists of girls who are suggested to them by friends, family and matchmakers. Lists generally do not exist for young women.

The reason for this is the very nature of Charedi Judaism (and to a lesser extent Modern Orthodoxy) Boys only want to date ‘good’ girls and girls only want to date ‘good boys’. The problem is that there are a lot more good girls than there are good boys. A Charedi good boy and a Charedi good girl are two entirely different animals.

Obviously everyone wants to see good Midos – character development - in their potential spouses. That is a given and is equal in both genders. And good looks are an important factor for both men and women of every stripe – although it is far more important to men than it is to woman.

The one thing that is not the same is learning Torah. In the Charedi world a young man is worthy only if he is serious about his learning. He has to be bright, serious, and diligent about his Torah study. He has to put in the time, Tons of it! Charedi women do not have to do that. They need not put any time at all into learning Torah. All that is required of her (aside from the things I mentioned above) is that she values a young man who will fill that bill. That is a lot easier to accomplish. Hence there are a lot more girls than boys. The result is lists for boys - and not girls.

It may not be fair. It may even be sexist. But it is the reality of the Charedi world and - increasingly - the right wing Modern Orthodox world.

The ratio of good boys to good girls is a huge part of the problem. How one deals with the problem is – as I said – subject of debate in Orthodoxy. I do not have any quick fixes. Nor do I know the ultimate solutions although I think I know what direction to take. But I do think there are some immediate steps that can be taken – one of which is generated in a column by Jonathan Rosenblum. He has written a very insightful one on this subject. One line caught my attention:

What is forgotten is that a young woman who may have had little experience talking to a male other than her father and brothers is not likely to sparkle in early conversation, especially if this is one of her first shidduchim.

Is this a not so subtle reprimand at the lack of social interaction in the Charedi world? Is Jonathan a closet Centrist? I doubt it. But this comment is laden with implications.

I have made this observation before and it bears repeating. The separation of the sexes in Charedi Judaism is too great. The over-emphasis on separating the sexes is creating an unnecessary impediment to the Shiddach process. Especially as it affects young women. A young man can afford to be a bit awkward on the first date. If it doesn’t work out, he just checks that girl off the list and chalks it up as a learning experience. Next...

Not so a young woman. To a young woman who has no list - an awkward date can be a devastating experience. This is totally unnecessary from my point of view. Awkwardness between the sexes can be considerably reduced with just a little bit of appropriate socially interactive experiences.

As I have always said there has to be a happy medium where there is both separation - and interaction. There is an appropriate time and place for both. I think I know which situations are appropriate and which are not. I’ve discussed that in the past - and there is room to disagree about where to draw lines.

But one thing I am pretty sure of is the more right wing one is the more severe the separation. And that is unnecessary to the goals of modesty and protection from Arayos - illicit sex – for which separating the sexes is intended. And certainly they are counter-productive to the Shiddach problems we face. I truly think that rabbinic leaders ought to re-think their approach. Reassessing this ‘absolutely no interaction’ policy may not solve the Shiddach problem. But it would definitely be a step in the right direction.