No Holds Barred: Corrupt values in Jewish dating

The crisis in Orthodoxy today is the practice of Jewish ritual without Jewish meaning.

Religions woman hiding her face 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Religions woman hiding her face 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The New York Times article last week about the sudden spread of anorexia and other eating disorders in the Orthodox community highlights a long-buried tragedy. About four years ago I published a column about an 18-year-old girl my daughter knew at seminary in Jerusalem who died of anorexia. The seminary cited some other illness, even though the girls at the seminary watched her wasting away while the administration was seemingly oblivious.
The tragedy is not only the danger posed to religious girls, but rather the growth of corrupt values in the Orthodox community. The New York Times highlighted how matchmakers are asking what dress size girls and their mothers wear. What does this have to do with Jewish values? Sure, a man has to be attracted to a woman. But defining the body as the only ingredient in attraction is a betrayal of the Jewish definition of beauty.
Time was when a Jewish woman’s comeliness was determined holistically, based on five components: her body, her mind, her heart, her piety, and her personality. Now, it’s been reduced to her dress size. Stick-thin figures, scarecrow-like features are the foremost determinant of attractiveness.
To be sure, being overweight is not healthy. But women who focus on their bodies, to the exclusion of their souls, are equally unhealthy. And religious men who focus exclusively on form to the exclusion of substance are even more unhealthy.
THE CRISIS in Orthodoxy today is the practice of Jewish ritual without Jewish values. And in no area is this more evident than in our increasingly shallow dating values. King Solomon’s ode to the Eishes Chayil (Wife of Excellence) we chant every Friday night risks becoming an empty refrain, with men paying only lip service to its central proclamation that ‘physical beauty is misleading, but a woman who fears God is truly to be praised.’
I would never have thought we Orthodox Jews would arrive at a stage where our young men have become so one-dimensional that their superficial pickiness would begin to literally kill our young women. That their mothers are colluding in this corruption by calling up to ask a girl’s dress size in the same breath as asking about her level of Torah observance is doubly tragic.
The New York Times article also cited the immense pressure that Orthodox women feel to marry very young, and how they feel themselves to be failures if they are in their mid-twenties and not yet married with children.
I have long advocated marrying young – for Orthodox and secular alike – because it allows a couple to grow up together, and solidify their union with life’s formative experiences. But this has to be balanced against the desire of the Orthodox community to see our young women educated and using their minds. It’s a beautiful thing to see Orthodox Jewish seminaries for women bursting at the seams. Jewish women today are being exposed to the great texts of Judaism, from Talmud and Midrash to halacha and chassidus. Stern and Touro are graduating Orthodox girls with degrees in international relations and public relations, proficient in science and math.
Secular Jews have long dismissed the Orthodox attitude toward women as misogynistic. They argue that we treat our girls as baby-making machines. But the highly educated Orthodox Jewish woman gives the lie to these accusations. Is it not our responsibility to demonstrate that a woman can maximize her fullest intellectual potential while having a family, and that she need not choose between them?
I AM, thank God, the proud father of nine children. People often ask me how I have time to do my professional work with such a large family. I answer them that only in the modern world have we created this false notion that family is an impediment to achievement. Queen Victoria had nine children, but ruled the largest empire in history. Rose Kennedy, an accomplished woman in her own right, had nine children, and is the matriarch of the greatest political dynasty in American history. The list goes on.
I want my daughters to marry young, and to marry virtuous men. I shudder at the idea that after raising them to embody the virtue of the Jewish matriarchs they should meet Orthodox Jewish suitors obsessed only with their external beauty. Could I not have found that in the secular world?
I have spent my life critiquing secular attitudes toward the feminine, especially in my book Hating Women, where I decry a culture that has reduced women to the libidinous man’s playthings. But we in the Orthodox community dare not reduce our own women to pretty baby-making mannequins. Our women must possess, and be appreciated for, intellectual and spiritual substance.
Sure, family in Jewish life is the most important thing. And dating recreationally for 10 years – as is common in secular society – is scant preparation for the life-long commitment of marriage. I am a counselor to secular singles who suffer the effects of recreational dating. They often experience the pain and heartache of going in and out of relationships, and the numbing effects of sexuality practiced as “a hookup.”
Orthodox Jewish life is meant to offer a radical alternative – one where romance is valued and sexuality (reserved for the sanctity of marriage) is the highest expression of human intimacy. But viewing women as either the Orthodox males’ frum Barbies, whose foremost responsibility is going on the treadmill, or seeing a woman’s education as inconsequential, and making her feel old and discarded if she is not married by 23 is hardly an attractive alternative.
The writer is one of the world’s leading relationship experts, and the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. Among his 25 books are such classics as Kosher Sex, Judaism for Everyone, and, most recently, Renewal: A Guide to the Values- Filled Life.Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.