Great expectations: The high-pressure world of Orthodox dating

The words “I am single and I need your help,” bolded and italicized just so, jumped out at me from the bottom of the email. As the editor of The Beacon, an online newspaper for Orthodox college students, I had received several submissions like this before, and I braced myself for yet another lament on dating. But as I continued to read through the article, I saw that it actually discussed a very relevant issue that has confronted many in my community. The article detailed a young woman’s experience dating in the Modern Orthodox world and her struggle juggling both the pressure to get married and her desire to succeed in school. She wrote, “Whether or not you agree with system, the system remains the same.” The “system” to which this woman referred is the Orthodox world of dating and all of the pressure it exerts on those attempting to navigate through it.
Last summer, I experienced this pressure first-hand. A prominent Rabbi argued to me that too few students were getting married in college. When I explained that many of us believe in first completing school or starting a career before making the supreme commitment, his response was a cool, “Why?” This encounter deepened my concern that there was a growing disconnect between our spiritual leaders and my reality as a young adult. The position the Rabbi advocated was completely out of touch with my reality, and as far as I could see, he seemed unwilling to even consider the needs of a diverse and changing community.
As repeatedly shown in the media, Orthodox Judaism is notorious for its emphasis on marriage, and true to this reputation, our leaders tend to advocate marriage at a young age. Perhaps in the bygone world of the shtetl, it was considered common for men and woman to marry young, and perhaps the system served everyone fine. And while—admittedly—many of us can sing Tzeitel’s song for “Yente the Matchmaker” word for word, few of us can truly relate to the sentiment. It is time for the Orthodox leadership to realize that.
One of the major problems with my Rabbi’s brand of marriage promotion is that his advice is often impractical and can lead to serious feelings of guilt and social insecurity. The young woman who wrote the aforementioned email explained how she has felt an unhealthy pressure to wed ever since her time at a religious seminary in Jerusalem. More recently, within my own life, I watched a close friend’s relationship disintegrate after his girlfriend’s Rabbi harassed them to marry, launching him into a lengthy period of depression and conflict. Instead of encouraging healthy relationships, this pressure often proves more destructive than productive. From what I have seen, our spiritual leadership needs to acquaint themselves with the real effects of this pressure on my peers and me.
The writer of the dating-article helps highlight a significant problem within our community. I believe that the first step toward remedying the problem should be increasing the awareness of the issue through open dialogue. At this point, many of our leaders are oblivious to the current social realities, and without the ability to hear (much less respond to) frustrations, the dating system will remain nearly impermeable to change. For the well-being of all those suffering, I hope that in the future we can open better avenues of communication than anonymous email submissions and finally shed some light on a situation that has remained unnoticed for years.
When I finished reading the young woman’s article, I took a moment to reflect on the many stories that I had read with the same message. I typed a short response telling the writer that she was among friends who sympathized with her. I thought about the loneliness she described, and about her feelings of pressure and dissatisfaction. A moment later, I looked down at my screen and found a simple reply of “thank you.”