The Myths and Realities of "The Shidduch Crisis"

There are few topics in Jewish society which can simultaneously evoke rage, empathy, and unsolicited opinions and advice as Jewish dating. To take just one example, my statistical analysis of dating prospects drew approval from other frustrated singles, criticism for contradicting the positive experiences of others, and suggestions as to other sites to try and even a few specific set-up offers. Aside from the blog posts here and elsewhere, there are numerous books on the world of Jewish dating including "Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures," which ironically can be added to your wedding registry.

To be sure, I've done my share of personal reflections as a single - after all it's great blog fodder. Longtime loyal readers may recall such classics as The Harm in Being Nice, Waiting on a Friend, The Mind of a Matchmaker , and Top 10 Dating Questions - all of which for the most part still holds up today. And I've been guilty of offering my own Guide to Jewish Dating and another one specifically for online dating sites. But fast forward several years, countless women, forgettable dates, even more encouragement, criticism, and unsolicited advice, I am still single. However in the past few years serving as a Rabbi I've also gained a much better perspective. While my community attracts young Jews, it is by no means a "scene" which means there is significantly less communal pressure for single's to get married. Furthermore, I have personally adopted a "no dating congregants" policy, meaning my religious communal experience of synagogue attendance is uncharacteristically devoid of any pretense of trying to impress women.

Thus I write from the relatively unique perspective of being a single rabbi - aware of the struggles of others while experiencing the same challenges first hand. Consider it unintentional participant observation if you will. And with this dual perspective I have come to the following conclusion: the so-called "shidduch crisis" is a collection of myths which only exacerbate the social pressures and anxieties at the core of the Jewish single's community, specifically the denial of individuation.

Let's start with just one example of the alarmist rhetoric regarding Jewish singles. Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld writes on the Orthodox Union's website:

Shidduchim - Singles
12. Treat the topic of singles like the crisis it is. This is a plague affecting all segments of Orthodoxy and threatens our very continuity. Synagogues and organizations must put this on the front burner. Singles themselves must change attitudes. Women must put marriage before career. Men must consider the woman as a valued helpmate not just as a means of advancing their own life goals, be it career or learning. There is more to a human beings worth other than their money or looks.

There are several assumptions embedded in this paragraph which I hope to dispell one at a time.

Myth: Marriage is a Communal Issue

One would think that getting married is merely a union between two individuals who make a lifelong commitment to each other - i.e. it is a personal decision. But for R. Schonfeld, the "plague" of the shidduch crisis "threatens our very continuity." From a demographic perspective R. Schonfeld has a point; the later in life Jewish couples get married the fewer Jewish children will be born.1

Procreation is certainly important in Judaism as evidenced by the rabbinic dictum, "the world was not created except for procreation." 2. But there is no indication that the intent is simply to produce more biological Jews, and I would suspect R. Schonfeld and others would not promote premarital sex with the intent of producing babies.

Yes there are demographic concerns when the average marriage age rises, but the implication is that people should get married "for the sake of the children" or alternatively, singles should "take one for the team" regardless of the implications for their own well-being.

Reality: No one should get married to meet the approval of others and certainly not out of a sense of communal responsibility.3

Myth: Getting Married is a Goal

Related to the previous point is the sentiment that getting married is an goal in and of itself. One example from an Aish column states, "Admitting that you'd like to get married does not signal an affliction; it's merely a defensible life goal."

Getting married may be a strong desire for many people, but by no means should marriage be treated as a goal. The dictionary definition of "goal" is, "the result or achievement toward which effort is directed; aim; end." Following this definition, the "goal" of getting married can be accomplished simply by getting married disregarding any concern as to the quality of said marriage. If marriage is a goal then people should just marry the first consenting person who comes their way and as soon as the ring is taken mission accomplished.

Reality: Marriage is not an end but a beginning of a lifelong commitment to another person. The goal should not be to get married but rather to have a healthy marriage, which due to its innate subjectivity must be defined based on each person's individual needs.4

After all, increasing the number of Jewish children in single-parent homes cannot be good for our continuity either.5

Myth: There are Plenty of Singles

One of the most vexing problems of the shidduch crisis is how could there be so many singles especially concentrated in one community? In New York alone, one friend of mine estimates 400 singles in Washington Heights and the Upper West Side likely houses hundreds if not thousands more. Surely the number of singles ought to increase the probability of finding a suitable mate, which after all is a main attraction of these neighborhood scenes. Thus if someone is still single, it must obviously be their own fault, either for lack of trying or for being too picky.

Reality: At the risk of depressing singles, the true dating pool is actually a lot smaller than you think. It's not number of singles in your neighborhood, but the number of people who are interested in dating you.

When I lived in Washington Heights there were hundreds of single women around, but few could be considered dating options for the simple reason that most weren't interested. I had no trouble asking out women, but I found only about 15% said yes.Saw You at Sinai where only 18.42% of the women I accepted reciprocated. And this is only for going on a first date. There have been plenty of times I'd have liked to continue seeing someone only to be turned down.

This is not a call for pity - I've declined my fair share as well and knowing it goes both ways actually helps deal with rejection. I can accept someone turning me down because I don't match what their looking for when I acknowledge I make the exact same decisions. We can quibble if our decisions are valid, rational, or appropriate but it does not change the fundamental facts of dating. Even if I fall madly in love with someone, if it's unrequited, we're not getting married.

Myth: Being Single is the Crisis

Which brings us to final and most dangerous myth of all - that being single is itself a crisis.

Reality: Being single isn't a crisis, it's a default. Certain cultures aside, we're all born single. Are there difficulties associated with being Orthodox, Jewish, and single? Sure, but in most cases getting married won't solve the problem and in many cases may make things worse.

  • Loneliness: Loneliness is a real issue, but it's hardly unique to Orthodox Jewish singles. There are countless books, websites, or other resources which address loneliness. However, I have no doubt that the fear of being alone is a motivating factor for some people getting married or not leaving unhealthy (and sometimes abusive) relationships. Whatever the "cure" to loneliness is, rushing into marriage is hardly the answer.
  • Maturity: People operate on different timelines so "rushing" is perhaps too relative of a term. Instead, let's consider getting married before one is "ready" either financially, emotionally, or whatever. Getting married is a huge responsibility and from personal experience I feel comfortable saying that not only are there very good reasons for some people being single, but they're probably better off for the time being until their work out their own issues. And yes, I do put myself in this group for in retrospect I probably wasn't ready to get married in my early twenties. We can debate if I'm even ready now, but I can assure you I'm in a much better state now relative to where I was.
  • Biological Drives: Assuming Orthodox Jews are strict in the laws of abstinence, the sex drive would be fairly high and women have the additional concern of a biological clock. But getting married for sex is an indescribably bad idea, especially when it's not always so easy.
  • Finances: Raising any family is expensive and even moreso for Orthodox Jews who have to pay yeshiva tuition. Rambam in Hilkhot De'ot 5:11 writes that the appropriate order is to first establish a trade which can support him, then aquire a place to live, and only then should one get married whereas the "fools" get married first without any visible means of support. The harsh economic reality is that not everyone can afford a family and fewer still have the luxury of wealthy parents or inlaws. Pressuring singles into making financially irresponsible decisions - such as giving up a career when two incomes are almost a necessity - can only add to the stresses of marriage.

Regardless of how well-intentioned people are, asserting that there is a shidduch crises only serves to remind singles of their perceived innate inadequaces. They ought to be married, otherwise there is something wrong with them. In truth there could be hundreds of reasons why people are single ranging from personality issues to simply not finding anyone who is interested in them; often getting married comes down to a matter of pure luck.

If there is a crisis, it is with the Orthodox community's obsession with getting married and defining people's self worth based on marital status.7 We do not tell someone in an abusive relationship that they ought to stay there for the sake of being married, but we encourage them to find their own strength of self but we ironically have no problem negating that person's sense of self when it comes to getting into that relationship in the first place.

Speaking as a rabbi and as a single the best solution I have to the shidduch crisis is to ignore any sweeping generalizations and focus on each individual. Every person at every stage in their life has their own needs and struggles. If anyone is interested in "helping" singles, first ask each person what those needs are, listen to their responses, and respond accordingly without the arrogant assumption that you somehow know what's best for people.

Many singles are not facing a crisis of shidduchim but a crisis of identity, wrestling with existential questions most families simply do not have the time to consider. If we encourage singles to figure themselves out first as individuals and learn to trust their own intuitions, then perhaps we we not only have a stronger single population, but perhaps in the long run we will ultimately create stronger Jewish families.

  1. Since the shidduch crisis is typically cited in Orthodox Jewish circles I will assume lower rates of premarital sex - or at the very least out of wedlock pregnancies.
  2. M. Gittin 4:5. Though notably this statement is not particular to Jews
  3. See T. Sotah 5:1
  4. See the classic Midrash in Bereishit Rabba 68:4 regarding the woman who attempted to randomly match up 1,000 servants.
  5. This is not a criticism of anyone who has gone through a divorce, with or without children. My argument is that viewing marriage as a finite goal and not an open process decreases the probability of having a healthy marriage.
  6. I gave myself at least 50/50 odds - I avoided asking out women who I could tell were disinterested.
  7. Even accounting for the question if marriage is a mitzvah consider B. Kiddushin 70a-b's discussion regarging marrying someone who is inappropriate.
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  • http:/habitza.com Deena

    That is so funny that I just wrote almost the exact same article! I'm so happy others (or other) are challenging the accepted idea that there is a shidduch crisis! I hope you'll check my article out: http://habitza.com/2011/06/10/what-shidduch-crisis/

    • Josh

      Baruch shekivanti!

  • Rina

    I for one would like to know who coined the term "Shidduch Crisis." To me, the word crisis connotes something like when an entire country is devastated by an earthquake or political upheaval. Usage of the word "plague" too certainly seems a bit extreme. I don't mean to minimize the fact that there are people who are unhappy about not being married, but couldn't we call it something else? Maybe it is a "situation" or something along those lines.

  • Gavi

    I view the "shidduch crisis" as a red herring, as Deena puts it. There are other issues that may contribute to this phenomenon, but I don't think that a simplistic world-view of "let's put all the singles together" will help anything. I agree that focusing on the person "ba'asher huh sham" would help, but I think being aware of societal trends does inform and provide context...

    To throw out a sweeping generalization as an example: Western society has encouraged individuation as a virtue. This tendency influences how we view all relationships, including dating and marriage.

  • Aviva

    I was expecting to read that "Women must put marriage before career" as one of the myths you were going to dispell. Lovely.