Crown Heights' receding hemlines

Are secular mores regarding women seeping into hasidic rabbinic students?

crown heights 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
crown heights 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Returning to Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, for a Shabbat is an exhilarating experience. Lubavitchers are arguably the most alive people in the world and there is a pulse and electricity in the air that can scarcely be found anywhere else. What I did not expect, however, was to be approached by a large number of young rabbinical students of marriageable age who wanted counseling as to how to overcome their obsession with a woman's looks on dates. Some of the young men who approached me had dated upwards of 40 women and had been instantly dismissive if she wasn't a beauty. Mind you, these were not bums. Most were outstanding young scholars, deeply religious, serious about their rabbinical degrees, and desirous of going, right after marriage, to the far corners of the world to spread Judaism. But in the area of dating they had absorbed the shallow mores of the mainstream culture. They judged a woman primarily by her appearance. They had a problem and they knew it. They felt like they were betraying not just the essential values of the Jewish faith but also the exceptional spirituality for which Chabad is justly famous. Then there was another group of young men who engaged me in endless debate, justifying their preoccupation with their potential mates' looks. One told me that there was nothing wrong with a man wanting to be attracted to his wife - and how else could he guarantee that he would not look at other women after he married? "Of course a man has to be attracted to his wife," I conceded. "But your mistake is to so narrowly define attraction as consisting merely of physical beauty. What makes a woman striking is the totality of her being - her body, her mind, her heart, her virtue." I asked them, "Do you believe for one moment that marrying the prettiest woman in the world will serve as an immunity to a roving eye? You can grow just as weary of waking up the same beautiful face as you do to a more ordinary one. Just look at Hollywood. These actors all marry women who look like supermodels, but they cheat on each other and end up divorced after just a few months. Rather, it's finding newness in a relationship that obviates boredom. And that can only come from a woman with real personality." BUT WHAT about the Torah, he countered, which refers to the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel as being exceedingly beautiful? I responded that whenever the Torah speaks of the matriarchs' beauty, the remark is accompanied by a description of their virtue which was served as the great multiplier of that beauty, such as Sarah's readiness to feed all passersby and Rebecca's kindness in watering Eliezer's camels. The very fact that I had to engage in a debate with learned rabbinical students about how a woman should not be reduced to mere body parts was extremely troubling. Of late, I have devoted several columns to the increasingly distressed orthodox Jewish dating scene, where the core Jewish values of character and spiritual virtue are losing out to the dehumanizing qualities of money and looks. Jews who wouldn't be caught dead driving on Shabbat or eating a cheeseburger are prepared to base the most important decision of their lives on values that are antithetical to the Jewish insistence on character and depth. King Solomon may have exclaimed that "beauty is false, while a woman who fears God is to be praised," but many of the yeshiva students today prefer a shapely body to a sculpted spirit. Nearly 20 years ago when I married as a young Chabad student, it was almost unheard of to date an endless stream of women before finding a suitable wife. On the contrary, we were so enamored by the thrill of just being out with a woman that the dating did its magic and most of us found life partners without playing the unwinnable game of endless comparison. Those days are gone and, perhaps for the first time, Chabad and other religious groups are developing their first ever singles scene, with literally thousands of single men and women remaining unattached for a good portion of their twenties. Sadder still is the way in which the young women of Crown Heights of marriageable age accommodate this growing male shallowness. Last year there was the tragedy of a young woman in her late teens who died of anorexia. Her case was not an anomaly, as more and more Hassidic girls do everything to keep the pounds off, in the knowledge that few rabbinical students will marry them if they are overweight. Then there are the receding hemlines one sees all around Crown Heights. Chabad girls are showing a lot of leg, which might seem innocuous - but it's not. The one thing religious Jews always understood is that modest is sexy. Magnetism exists specifically in those things which are hidden and obscured. WHEN OXFORD'S Bodleian Library last week decided to display all four of its copies of the Magna Carta for the first time in 800 years, it did so for only a single day. Likewise, in stark contrast to withered celebrities like Pamela Anderson who overexposed themselves to the point of a public yawn, great stars like Barbra Streisand remain interesting for decades because they know when not to appear in public. Overexposure is the very heart of boredom, and one of the qualities that always made religious women so profoundly desirable and attractive was their ladylike demeanor and feminine grace. I remember how, at Oxford, whenever Orthodox Jewish girls would come to spend Shabbat with us, the secular Jewish male students were taken aback by how eye-catching they were, their comeliness lying in their off-limits mystique. Indeed, the very soul of erotic attraction is what relationship experts call "the erotic barrier," the hurdles that a man must surmount in order to obtain a woman who is always just slightly outside his reach. Jewish values must be restored to religious dating. The Orthodox community can no longer turn a blind eye to the growing artifice of the religious dating scene. Lectures on the Torah definition of feminine virtue should be made part of the yeshiva curriculum for marriage-age men to counter the growing effects of a TV and magazine culture that is increasingly marketing women as all cover and no book. Rabbis should give sermons in synagogues that focus on religious men never punishing a woman who puts more time into developing her mind than choosing her clothes. And the women should make it clear to the men who date them that marriage is for adults and not for boys. The writer's latest book, The Broken American Male, And How to Fix Him will be published next month. He has just launched a Jewish values-based initiative called "This World."