Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Frumkeit or Krumkeit?

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky has hit a home run. In a Jewish Press article dealing with the current malaise known by some as the Shiddach crisis he blames it four square on the modus operandi of the Charedi world – the Shadchan.

To be clear, he does not say that Shadchanim are evil or that they have a bad intent. Quite the contrary. He paints most Shadchanim as sincere people trying to help people find their mates. I agree. What Rabbi Pruzansky rightly objects to is the almost exclusive reliance for Shidduchim on Shadchanim. I would add that an increasingly widening circle of Orthodox singles are taking that route.

How far we have come from the days of Chazal where every year on Tu B’Av young women would dance before the young men for Shiddach purposes. Imagine the rabbis advocating this today. Today that would be seen as completely Assur by nearly every segment of Orthodoxy. As is just about any other interaction between singles of the opposite sex as one moves rightward on the religious continuum. The only legitimate way for a ‘boy to meet girl’ in right wing circles is through a Shadchan.

Why this reliance on Shadcahnim? There are several answers. One is that the Shadchan does all the preliminary legwork for you. They know the personalities and histories of their clients and seek the most compatible matches they can for dating. They also eliminate a lot of rejection in the sense that the two parties already agree to go out even before they ever see or speak to each other. However I believe that the biggest reason for Shadchanim is the underlying issue of Taruvos – the ban against members of the opposite sex socializing. In Charedi circles that is a major taboo.

There is no greater proof of how seriously this is taken than the great lengths they go to avoid any intermingling of the sexes at all. Some Charedi families fear it so much that they will not invite a family over for Shabbos if they have children of the opposite sex from their own. The sexes are completely separated in schools from the earliest ages. Social groups like Bnei Akiva are completely forbidden. In some Shuls even the Kiddush on Shabbos after Davening is separate - God forbid a boy and girls should meet and have a casual conversation.

The fear is that such casual meetings will result in Pritzus - sexual promiscuity; or even Znus – illicit sexual contact. Chazal tell us Ain Apitropus L’Arayos. There is no real way to guard against illicit sexual activity. It can happen to even the most religious among us. So any meeting between a young man and young woman that isn’t completely done for Shiddach purposes is seen as fraught with danger and to be completely avoided.

The fear of succumbing to one’s Taavos - illicit desires - has won the day. It now supersedes all other considerations. The opportunities to meet others are therefore limited to the Shadchanim. The problem is that this fear ends up contributing to the ever increasing and aging pool of unmarried young people.

That would be bad enough if not for the Hashkafos being taught in the Yeshiva world. They may see this as a Hashkafa of Frumkeit. I see it as a Hashkafa of Krumkeit.

Young men in Yeshivos are expected to spend many years learning in Kollel after they get married. They are therefore urged not to so much seek a mate based on character or compatibility but urged instead to seek wealthy future fathers in law.

Women are indoctrinated to seek only young men who will continue learning indefinitely. Working men of great character are nonetheless seen as second class citizens. Many young women so indoctrinated will never consider dating them. And as noted in Rabbi Pruzansky’s article, women like this of modest means do not get called by Shadchanim very often. And as a rule they do not have any other way of meeting eligible men. Certainly not of the type they seek.

Unfortunately the current dating paradigm will not change despite Rabbi Pruzansky’s sensible argument in favor of it. Certainly not in a climate where women are urged to make themselves so invisible that even a photograph of a fully Tznius woman is now considered taboo. The separation of the sexes has crossed the line of normal preventative measures against promiscuity to one of such extremes that virtually all of Rabbi Pruzansky’s excellent suggestions are seen as outside the pale of Orthodoxy.

How sad it is that once normative behavior between the sexes even in Charedi circles is now seen as near Pritzus!

I have in the past advocated many of the same things Rabbi Pruzanski has. Although I generally oppose coed high-school, or co-ed overnight summer camps for teens I am completely supportive of extracurricular socializing. Instead of avoiding a Shabbos table where two families have children of the opposite sex, it ought to be encouraged. Supervised social groups like Bnei Akiva should be a legitimate option – not banned. Young men and women socializing at a Shabbos Kiddush is a good thing, not a bad one. Young people ought to sit mixed at a wedding. Ironically even some who say they might accept a mixed seating wedding are nonetheless strongly opposed to singles sitting mixed. Why? I think mixed seating for singles at weddings is an excellent and kosher way for young people to meet.

The fear that every single meeting between a boy and girl that is not set up by a Shadchan will lead to Pritzus or Znus in an unguarded moment is no more warranted than believing that someone who has a Taavah for cheeseburgers will walk into a McDonalds to eat one when no one is looking. Rabbi Pruzansky is right:

We do not tell people to avoid The Home Depot even if one wants to buy a hammer lest he shoplift some nails, nor do we admonish others not to shop in Pathmark because one might be led to sin by the aroma of non-kosher foods. Self-control and discipline are routine components of the life of a Jew. And, even granting that "there is no guardian for promiscuity," it should still be feasible for a young man to talk to or display his personal charms to a woman without assaulting her.

That said, I agree – as does Rabbi Pruzansky that sexual promiscuity is a real problem today. But even so there is such a thing as going overboard in protectionism to the point of overall detriment. That is the situation we are in today. With the world constantly moving to the right, more segments of Orthodoxy than ever are buying into the new ultra-Orthodox order.

It does not have to be this way. There need not be any young woman like the one described at the beginning of Rabbi Pruzansky’s article. She should not have to sit be a phone waiting endlessly for a Shadchan to call.

But two things have to happen. One is that the indoctrination that working men are second class has to end. The second thing is that the Yeshiva world has to loosen upon the tight reins they have on interaction between the sexes.

The bottom line for me is to say yes to Shadchanim – but no to their exclusivity. We need to expand marriage opportunities – not increasingly eliminate them. And to make the working man a respectable marriage partner.

But none of this will happen until the pendulum that is still swinging rightward starts swing back towards the center.