Inquiries or Inquisitions: A Rabbi’s Perspective on the Shidduch System
“Do you know if anyone in his family is taking medications and
what those medications are for?”
“Can you give me the name of a friend of her father and a different friend of her mother I can speak to about her?”
“What are the circumstances that led to his parents’ divorce?”
“Is anyone in her family currently receiving counseling or therapy and for what?”
“Does the father come to Shul during the week or only on Shabbos?”
By far, one of the most uncomfortable aspects of being a Shul Rav is fielding shidduch inquiries regarding members of our community of all ages by prospective mates or their parents. Above are just a few of the actual questions I have received in the last few months alone. Comprehensive investigations are not only taking place in the more “right wing” orthodox communities, but are becoming increasingly customary in modern orthodox circles as well.
As a parent who wants to protect and guard my children as much as anyone, I can only imagine the desire that will swell up in me when my children are dating, please God, to do forensic detective work and uncover absolutely everything about whomever might win the heart of my child and contribute to the spiritual and physical genetics of my future grandchildren.
And yet it seems to me that the increasing level of investigation, and some of the latest practices surrounding shidduch dating, are not only failing to yield greater effectiveness or the desired results, but they are compounding some of the existing challenges in the system and are contributing to an inappropriate tone to dating.
There is little disagreement that the modern shidduch system is flawed and in some ways broken. There is an inherent imbalance in the numbers and in the current system, that imbalance favors men and gives them the upper hand and the opportunity to be highly selective. While the process of shidduch dating is often filled with disappointment, loneliness, and frustration for both genders, the demographics make it especially difficult and sometimes acutely painful for young women in particular.
There is no clear way around the demographics and therefore no quick fix for the system. But at the same time, we need not compound the problems in the system by asking our eligible men and women to degrade themselves in order to be noticed. While admittedly I am neither single nor do I have children currently in the shidduch scene, I do have the perspective of a community rabbi who fields weekly phone calls inquiries and who hears from parents of young people, usually young women, who are struggling with a system that is frequently demeaning and inequitable and often challenges their self-worth.
I freely admit that I don’t have radical suggestions or transformative solutions. I do, however, feel compelled to share a few observations with the hope that we can collectively tweak the terminology we use and the standards we practice as we aspire to raise the bar, not lower it, and as we try to make the most of a difficult situation.
First things first: It is completely reasonable and understandable to feel entitled to know basic facts about the individual one is being set up with before agreeing to go out. The question, then, is what is reasonable? I was recently having a Yom Tov meal at someone’s home when they shared with me the album they curated out of memorabilia from their dating and courtship. It began with the scrap of paper upon which the now-husband jotted down a few facts he heard from the shadchan about the girl he was being set up with, his now-wife. Suffice it to say that while it included her education, hobbies and interests, it did not make reference to her medical records or her siblings-in-law.
In contrast, young people from a similar background as this couple are now told that if they want to enter the shidduch scene, they need to prepare a proper “shidduch resume.” Tips are offered as to how to make the resume look professional and impressive and what must be included, including not only a name, date of birth, height, education, camps, and extra-curricular activities of the prospective mate, but also their parents’ names, birthplace, occupations, and shul affiliation, as well as the siblings’ ages, educational institutions, and spouses’ names, if applicable.
To be clear, I have nothing against utilizing technology to produce a summary page that can be shared easily and efficiently. My issue is not with streamlining the information collection process; it is with the level of detail we are demanding and expecting on “resumes.” Why is the sibling’s occupation relevant to whether or not someone is a viable candidate to meet? Should those who have unemployed siblings, or older single siblings, or siblings who are “off the derech” automatically be rejected? If individuals list such information they are at a disadvantage, and if they omit the information, in the current resume climate it raises suspicions about why it wasn’t included.
One can’t help but wonder regarding this week’s parsha: Had Eliezer seen Rivka’s “shidduch resume” and investigated her father and brother, would he have gotten far enough or been open to see her extraordinary chessed, or would he have nixed the shidduch from the outset?
Scrutinizing shidduch suggestions excessively and performing inquisitions on every recommendation not only precludes and prevents meeting what might have been one’s soulmate, but it does little to ultimately protect oneself or one’s children from someone who on the surface “has everything” going but in reality makes a poor spouse and parent. In my experience interacting with hundreds of families, I have come across many individuals who would have had “undesirable” resumes, including families that have dysfunction, illness, or disability, who emerge to become the most amazing, kind, sensitive, thoughtful, loyal and special spouse and parent. In counseling many couples, I have also discovered many individuals with “perfect” resumes—from the perfect family and with the perfect pedigree, appearance, education, and interests—who turn out to be cruel, selfish, and simply horrible spouses and parents.
It seems to me that our children don’t need detectives working on their behalf. They need us to model the balance between reasonable research and being nonjudgmental, open-minded, and encouraging. The demographic problem poses a great enough challenge without making each young woman feel inadequate if her “resume” cannot pass a forensic investigation.
Additionally, while I recognize that this is not the biggest issue in shidduch dating, nor will it provide a sweeping solution, I believe that language matters, and calling the intake form a “resume” is not only a semantic mistake but it frames dating negatively from the outset. A resume is what one produces when he or she is the applicant seeking entrance to a school or job. When one submits a resume, the understanding is that they are the candidate making a case for their worthiness to be accepted by the institution or employer.
Do we really want our children approaching dating and courtship as if they are applying and being interviewed for a job? Don’t we want the tone of their relationships to be defined by two equals engaged in the process of learning about one another through conversation, shared experience, and by observing how they each behave and react in diverse situations? Would they not be better served if we all called them “Shidduch Biographies” rather than “resumes?”
Dr. John Gottman, a world-renowned authority on healthy marriages and whose insights we have been sharing in our Shalom Bayis series, describes the importance of couples forming what he calls “love maps.” In his extensive research, he found that emotionally intelligent couples are intimately familiar with each other’s worlds, including their life goals, dreams, worries, hopes, fears, and aspirations. Love maps never appear on a resume. They are written and formed when a couple have enough in common to be willing to see if there is chemistry between them that transcends what it says about them on paper.
Sometimes, when being interrogated about a member of our shul, if I feel it is appropriate, I will stop the conversation and say, “I think he is an incredible young man, and if one of my daughters were old enough, I would be thrilled if she would go out with him.” It never fails to shock me, and frankly offend me, when the inquirer continues to proceed with their list of questions, revealing that “the rabbi’s” glowing endorsement that he would happily welcome someone into his family is not as important as getting through their often inappropriate questions.
The latest phenomenon is that many—mostly boys—won’t entertain a resume unless it includes a picture. Of course, physical attraction is a critical component of a successful marriage. In fact, the Talmud (Kiddushin 41a) forbids a man from marrying a woman without seeing her first, lest he insult her and hurt her by a lack of attraction.
Yet Chazal would never have endorsed the immodest practice of gazing at a still picture to determine attraction as a prerequisite to meeting someone in person. When asked about this practice, Rav Chaim Kanievsky responded, “that is nonsense! He will not see anything from the picture. One must meet her in person.” Rav Dovid Feinstein responded similarly, “Why are we making things more difficult? There is a certain chein that young ladies have that often does not come across in a photograph, and can only be seen in person. We are making the shidduch crisis worse with these new requirements.”
Don’t we owe our daughters, many of whom have a hard enough time with dating already, to not have to suffer the indignity of sweating over producing a comprehensive resume and attaching a striking picture? Why is it considered acceptable in some circles for the boy or his mother to ask about the girl’s dress size (yes, this happens), but one would be judged negatively for asking about the boy’s pants size or the receding pattern of his hairline, or even about how many masechtos he has completed or exactly how much income he earn?
Is it a surprise that in the current system, with the current expectations, one prominent author went so far as to suggest, “Mothers this is my plea to you: There is no reason in today’s day and age with the panoply of cosmetic and surgical procedures available, why any girl can’t be transformed into a swan. Borrow the money if you have to; it’s an investment in your daughter’s future, her life.”
Have these boys that are demanding pictures and dress sizes looked in the physical and metaphorical mirror lately? The Talmud (Sota 2a) tells us, “ein mezavgin l’adom elah l’fi ma’asav,” we are matched commensurate and in parallel with who we are and what we have to offer.
I recognize that like many others, I have highlighted some of the challenges without offering transformational solutions. I don’t offer them, as others have not, because they are not obvious or easily attainable. We many not be able to move the needle in large ways, but our sympathy and empathy for those stuck in a challenging system should minimally move us to refuse to participate in some of the latest trends. The least we can do within the system we are stuck with is preserve the dignity and self-esteem of our children and friends with small gestures such as not labeling their lives resumes, not forcing them to feel they need cosmetic surgery just to provide a picture to make their “resume” more compelling, and by not demanding more information than the FBI and CIA together could uncover.
Nobody is going to be the one person bucking the system, as repulsive as full participation may sometimes be, because they fear the consequences of being ostracized or ignored. If all of those in the “parsha” of dating, including those single and their parents, collectively refuse to play by the artificial rules, the system can improve. Shadchanim should prioritize the people they are representing by not asking for or providing pictures, and by collecting shidduch biographies, not resumes. If rabbis, shadchanim, and friends not only refuse to answer inappropriate questions, but call out and shut down those asking them, we can scale back the inquisitions and return to reasonable research. Perhaps more importantly, if every member of the Jewish community makes it his or her personal mission to advocate for their single friends, people can be set up by those who know them and therefore be more trusting and less scrutinizing.
The period of dating perhaps provides parents with their final opportunity to model and teach critical life lessons and values to their children while still living under one roof. If we use the opportunity to encourage them to be open-minded in dating and to bravely be part of a community not willing to stoop or cave to unreasonable pressures, we can not only help our children find appropriate spouses, but we can also help them become better people.