Friday, August 12, 2022

Chasidic Marriages - A View from Afar

Image for illustration purposes only (Ynet)
I have no idea who Yehudis Fletcher is - let alone her religious orientation. Best I could tell from an article she published back in February of 2021 is that she was raised in a Chasidic community but has since left. I don’t know whether she is still observant or not. I mention this only to consider that her article might reflect the bias inherent in that life experience. 

I do think, however, that she asks a valid question about the way the Chasidic world goes about courtship and marriage. Not sure I agree with her conclusions though. The following are my thoughts about it.  

The custom among the more traditional Chasidic communities is for the parents of the prospective bride and groom to do the ‘dating’. They do this via a Shadchan (matchmaker) who will try and find suitable mates for their children. A lot of ‘research’ is done by the parents and the Shadchan to determine that.

The young couple - usually in their late teens - then meets once or twice in the living room of one set of parents to see if they feel they are comfortable enough with each other to proceed with the marriage. If all goes well, they get engaged and then don’t see or speak to each other again until their wedding day a month or two down the road. So technically they are not forced to get married. The final decision is still up to them.

Is it really accurate to say they aren’t forced? After all how much of a choice do they really have? How much can a couple really know about each other if they only meet for an hour or so during one or two meetings? 

The answer should be obvious. They know absolutely nothing about the real personality behind the façade presented during the meeting(s). And yet more often than not these meetings end up with the couple getting married and have a successful life together.

But it isn’t much of a choice when the parents have all but decided that this is the person you should marry because they know their children very well and look for compatibility armed with that knowledge. 

The truth is that no research in the world will tell you about bad character traits that have been kept hidden for purposes of marriage. That can only be discovered if there is an actual dating process where a couple can spend the time needed to expose them. 

Not that dating will find all the troubling issues kept hidden. Dating for an extended period of time (say a couple of months – or at least the typical 8 times that the Yeshiva community does it) is not a magic bullet. Sometimes a serious character flaw does not emerge out until well after the marriage when there are children in the picture. But still the more you date the better chance you can find out. 

But Chasidic dating is kind of a ‘one and done’. It is the cultural norm, but it is also a version of forced marriage in the sense that there is too much reliance on others. Parents may know their children. But there is no substitute for finding out for one’s self. 

This is not to necessarily say that parental research is a bad thing – if that is the accepted custom in the community for purposes of marriage. But is it really enough?

The fact is that most Chasidim get married and lead relatively normal and happy Chasidic lives.  If their method of courtship is so bad, why are their marriages so successful? 

That might be explained by the rest of their cultural norms. There really is not a lot of latitude in the lifestyles they lead. Everyone pretty much does the same thing and participates in the same culturual events. 

There is also the fact that they do not recognize the modern cultural value of  romantic love. There is a song in the play ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ where after many year of marriage Tevya asks his wife Golda, ‘Do you love me?’ That is an excellent illustration of how the Chasidic world sees romantic love. 

Chasidim do not fall in love. Marriage is seen as a social contract for purposes of having children. To the extent that a loving relationship  may develop at some point is almost irrelevant. It is not a romantic love that is ephemeral and wanes after a while when life gets in the way. It is a deeper love based on shared life experiences and shared values that might be experienced best at a lifecycle event when the see their joint parenting of children pay off. 

Their anticipation about what marriage will be like is practically non existent. It’s really  just about the business of getting on with the next stage in life. They then simply continue living their lives. As long as there is no physical or mental abuse, a marriage like that will at the very least be tolerable and succeed at its own level. 

The parameters determining a successful Chasidic marriage are therefore not the same as they are for the rest of society. Chasidim live by a different code and less affected by externals.  

This also doesn’t mean that there aren’t bad Chasidic marriages. There are. The question is how do Chasidim do in that department compared with he rest of us? I don’t know the answer to that question. But my guess is that that they suffer in silence and just learn to live like that. Worst case scenario they get divorced. I don’t know how prevalent that is compared to the rest of society. But I also understand that there has been an increase in divorces among Chasidim in recent years.

At the end of the day a ‘forced marriage’ done the Chasidic way is a cultural norm that works for them. And I believe in the ancient adage of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Some of my thoughts.