First off, my apologies for the long hiatus. I hope to continue posting regularly, at least until Mrs. rejewvenator has our first child, God willing, this autumn. After that, all bets are off!
I think I’ve made my position on the “shidduch crisis” clear in the past: I’m not so sure it even exists. As a good friend of mine pointed out, nobody has actually quantified the problem. If I wanted to know some basic statistics, like what percentage of Jews are married within a given age cohort, or what percentage of unmarried Jews are trying to get married, or how long it takes, on average, from the time a person starts looking for a spouse until they actually find one, or how Jewish marriage stats compare with marriage stats in other cultures, religions, or ethnic group, there is nowhere to turn. When asking these questions, you’re lucky to be met with a blank stare – more likely, you will face outright hostility for your callousness towards the poor, miserable, unmarried yidden.
While we may not have any firm idea of what the problem is, how big it is, or whom it affects, we do have a wealth of answers. From the hi-tech Jewish dating web sites to the decidedly low-tech matchmaker clubs, there is a dizzying panoply of companies, organizations, foundations, shuls, and individuals offering solutions to the crisis (and maybe trying to make a little bit of money too, why not?) Recently, while browsing Shadchan Magazine, I was struck by the fact that there were no pictures or physical descriptions of any kind, save for one – height!
Harry Maryles, with whom I’ve disagreed in the past on various hashkafic (philosophical/theological) issues, recently wrote about physical characteristics in shidduchim:
The desire to marry the prototypically western ideal size woman who wears a dress size of 2 or less… is all too alive and well in the Charedi world. That’s right. Young men seeking marriage partners seem to require one common thing of their potential mates: They must be “super-model” thin. That’s what they point out to their Shadchanim. Talk about shallow! Can there be anything shallower than specifying a dress size?!
I’ve heard this particular argument before, and I find it, like beauty, to be only skin-deep. First off, while everyone love to quote the Eshet Chayil (Woman of Valor) and its conclusion that “Sheker Ha-chen Ve-hevel Hayofi, Isha Yirat Hashem Hi Titahallal” (The lie of grace and vanity of beauty – a woman who fears God, she will be praised!), it’s telling that Sarah, Rivka and Rachel are described by the Torah as being exceedingly beautiful. In general, the Tanach views physical beauty in a woman to be a positive and desirable characteristic. While beauty can certainly be deceiving, it is also desirable, and a relevant consideration in choosing a spouse.
Whether the attitude described by Rabbi Maryles is in fact endemic to the broader Jewish religious world is uncertain, but it would not be surprising if it was. Most of us would argue that it is rather predictable. A young man looking for a wife within the shidduch process is an extremely dependent man, even as he is on the threshold of starting a family and leaving his parents’ house. He is dependent on the shadchan for appropriate matches, on his family’s money and good name in attracting the right kind of girls, and is extremely restricted even in the actual dating. It really goes down to the details – I’ve learned that it is not appropriate to order two alcoholic drinks on a date! (My personal practice was to down two shot before I went on any first date!)
The problem is not that the single Chareidi man doesn’t have the correct priorities, and their desire for the current cultural mode of beauty is not wrong or anti-Jewish. These men have nothing else! Chareidi dress is both not revealing (a good thing) and not flattering to a woman’s figure (a bad thing). It’s not realistic to expect men to stop caring about how women look, and it’s perverse to assume that being very frum means that you no longer need to be attracted your wife, or that you no longer fantasize about attractive women. From an economics perspective, if ‘good boys’ are a scarce resource relative to the women, it is natural that the boys will raise their price, so to speak.
I could go into a whole harrangue about whether it’s more menschlich to worry about a women’s waist or her father’s wallet, but it’s not worth it. Every adult understands that factors which may strike us as unromantic, or even vulgar, may nevertheless have a considerable impact on the ultimate success of a relationship. No, my concern is for something else.
The religious world has done a pretty good job of selling its women on the value of inequality. Orthodox Judaism to the right of the MO has convinced its women that their less-than-enviable position within Judaism is a part of the Divine plan, and that dignity, meaningfulness, and fulfillment can be found in an embrace of the traditional maternal role (as well as the not-so-traditional role of primary breadwinner and supporter of a torah scholar of even marginal quality – but that’s kollel, and a different post). My guess is that we may have fooled the women, but we haven’t fooled the men. The disrespect shown to women by insisting on a certain dress size is no small matter. I know many people who are happily married to women of somewhat greater proportions than what is in vogue in the Chareidi world, or in Vogue, because they met a person whom they knew how to relate to from a position of respect and appreciation rather than demands and expectations. It is simply not healthy to raise men like that.
But let me ask this question before we go: Let’s say we crunched all the number and discovered that being an overweight woman was highly correlated with being a single woman? How would we respond to that? Would we encourage our boys to marry fat girls, or would we encourage our girls to slim down? And let’s say that the expectations of the boys are actually unrealistic and unattainable? How would we lower their physical expectations? Put another way, if weight gain is connected to being single, do we shut down the shadchan and open a gym? Or do we force the boys to marry fat?
(NB – please do not pillory me for my insensitivity, which is itself the result of a mental disorder. I hope that you will be sensitive to my condition.)