What is one supposed to do when a respected rabbi makes a pronouncement that is disconnected from logic and reality? Is he supposed to convince himself that he doesn't know better, can't possibly know better? Is he supposed to keep quiet, lest the thought police bludgeon his dissent? Should he risk bringing serious social retribution upon his family for challenging the cozy illusions many have about their leaders and their society?
What if it is not one rabbi making this wayward pronouncement but 60?
That is what happened earlier this month with a letter signed by 60 prominent rabbis.
"It has recently been revealed [by whom, Elijah the prophet?] that the primary cause of the [shidduch crisis] is that boys frequently prefer girls who are a few years younger... Since every year our population grows, the result is that there are always more girls in need of a shidduch than there are available boys."
The letter strongly urges shadhanim [matchmakers] to push shidduchim[matches] in which there is a minimal age gap between the boy and girl, or for the girl to be older.
For years we were told that there is no crisis in the "frum world," only in the "modern world." Then a crisis was grudgingly acknowledged but blamed on scapegoats like television, movies and the Internet, implying that good Jews who avoided these contaminants faced no crisis. Then we were told the problem was simply that singles are too picky, or that some girls are not "cut out" for the holy kollel lifestyle, or that we should learn from the arranged marriages of the hassidic world, where everything is always swell.
But no. It has finally been revealed that the heart of the problem is a shortage of eligible men and too wide an age gap in shidduchim. All those other issues I've been writing about for seven years? Mere spilled ink it seems. I'm a little embarrassed.
THE PROPOSED solution of these signatories is even more bizarre than their determination of the problem. For one thing, it is self-contradictory. The problem assumes that more girls are being born than boys, thus exacerbating the gender disparity over time. But the proposed solution - manipulate men to marry older women - is predicated on the assumption that if we can only buy some time things will even out. In other words, the incoming crop of singles will have more men than women. Wrap your head around that.
It gets worse. This fancy cocktail of demography, sociology, mathematics and mythology is really nothing more than a Ponzi scheme. Let's assume that there really are far more eligible women than men. And let's assume we can manipulate the men to marry the oldest women in the pool. What will happen to all the younger women who remain? They will simply age and become older singles. What problem exactly have we solved here?
There are a finite number of men and a finite number of women, and each shidduch takes one of each out of the group. You can play with the numbers all you want, but you can't escape that simple fact. More men will not magically appear if we manipulate who marries whom and try to buy some time. Did Bernie Madoff come up with this idea?
Just as the thought police will rant that I should have more faith in these rabbis, I will counter that these rabbis should have more faith in the sages and God. After all, the Gemara at the beginning of Sotah famously teaches that 40 days before birth a heavenly voice declares the daughter of so-and-so will marry the son of so-and-so. In other words, God created a soul mate for everyone.
Do they deny the veracity of this teaching? Are these rabbis "modern" and believe it is no longer relevant? Has God decided to take a sabbatical for a generation or two and stop keeping track of things? They tread on dangerous ground with this proclamation, far more dangerous than mine in calling them on it.
According to these rabbis, or whoever wrote this letter for them, if I see a successful, beautiful, happily married couple with more than a few years between them, I should shake my head and wish we could do it over again. After all, their shidduch exacerbates a demographic problem. If I have the opportunity to introduce a man and woman who seem absolutely perfect for one another, I should first see if I can find an older woman for that man. There should even be a financial incentive for me to do so.
In essence, their recommendation is not that we arrange dates based entirely and exclusively on considerations of marital compatibility. We should give strong preference to an artificial consideration based on a presumed demographic problem. Don't suggest the most suitable shidduch for that man; suggest a somewhat reasonable shidduch within a narrow age range. That's the most important thing. We're not trying to build the happiest and most stable Jewish families, but to play a numbers game. Right?
NO MATTER how you look at it, this pronouncement is nothing more than science fiction, and whether 60 rabbis or 6,000 rabbis sign it doesn't make it any more intelligent. Balaam's donkey said some wise words, and the fact that they came from a donkey didn't change that. These rabbis have attached their names to some foolish words, and their rabbinic title doesn't change that either. We need to acknowledge that and soundly reject their recommendation, which would solve no problems and only create new ones, all while distracting our community from the real issues.
This is not a matter of Torah scholarship or interpretation of a traditional text, but one of plain facts and basic reason. Rabbinic titles do not trump facts and reason. A rabbi can tell us if the chicken is kosher or treif. A rabbi cannot tell us that the chicken is really an ostrich.
A true Torah scholar is well aware of a communal crisis early on, even anticipates the crisis. A true Torah scholar is intelligent and informed about the real issues, is proactive in developing truly meaningful and effective responses that address the heart of the problem, and is not afraid of what some members of the community will think of them.
A true Torah scholar does not follow, but leads, and leads well - not off the cliff.
Those who signed this letter have essentially advertised their ignorance of these critical issues and have recklessly urged a harmful course of action. Shame on them and shame on those responsible for this letter.
The writer is the founder of End the Madness (www.endthemadness.org), a volunteer effort to rehabilitate the culture of the shidduch world.