It is all too common nowadays for people to defend the widespread method of shidduchim by pointing to the biblical story of Eliezer finding a wife for Yitzchak. Apparently the Torah mandates this method as proper, and therefore there is little else to discuss beyond perhaps fine-tuning the way singles are set up by shadchanim and further shielding them from outside influences and one another. This reaction to criticism of the shidduch system is predictable and uniform, and typically disregards or deflects the deep problems with dating and marriage that afflict the entire Jewish community.
A question no one seems to be asking is whether the story of Eliezer is really much of a justification or precedent for today’s shidduch system. It is simply taken for granted that because Eliezer was directed to find a wife for Yitzchak he was a shadchan just like today’s shadchanim, and this is the most preferred way for Jews to find a spouse.
This rationale is not only simplistic but rife with inherent fallacies. Right off the bat, Eliezer bears little similarity to today’s shadchanim, since the first time Yitzchak and Rivka met they were already betrothed to one another. This was an arranged marriage, and arranged marriages are no longer mainstream in our society (for good reason). Hence, those who claim this story is a practical guide to shidduchim should be faithful to this most important detail and promote arranged marriages instead of going halfway. It is not a precedent for singles to merely go out on dates that have been arranged by a shadchan.
In today’s shidduch world it is considered unacceptable for singles to meet and arrange their own dates. Presumably the fact that Yitzchak did not find his own spouse is proof that this is “The Torah Way”. However, this approach requires a highly selective reading of the Torah. Tanach is filled with narratives of our heroes finding those they married, and it is highly questionable to select one of the very few in which a quasi-shadchan is used to determine “The Torah Way”. The vast majority of our forefathers met in ways that would be considered completely unacceptable nowadays — but if one is to say their methods are unacceptable because society has changed, then why is Eliezer’s method perfectly appropriate for modern times?
Indeed, the Gemara discourages Eliezer’s approach. Eliezer’s prayer that the first maiden who offers to give his animals to drink when he asks only for water for himself is counted among inappropriate prayers that were nevertheless answered favorably (Ta’anis 4A). There is considerable discussion among the commentaries as to how much stock Eliezer actually put into this test; many suggest that if she was wholly inappropriate for Yitzchak in spite of passing the test he would have searched for someone else. Nevertheless, the message of the Gemara is clear: don’t try this at home.
It is hard to fathom how anyone can take this tale as a practical halachic guide to shidduchim. This story clearly bears no greater practical halachic significance than any of the other shidduch stories in the Torah. For example, no one suggests that because Yaakov kissed Rachel upon meeting her that physical contact between singles has a clear Torah precedent. Nor does anyone recommend searching for a spouse the way King David found some of the women he married. Mind you, my intention is not to criticize our forefathers, but to demonstrate that stories in Tanach are not necessarily halachic precedents for all people in all times — and neither is the story with Eliezer.
If anything, the fact that most of our biblical heroes met their wives on their own, without any third-party intervention, should give great pause to those who want to derive practical dating guidance from Torah narratives. The story with Eliezer is quite exceptional. In fact, the other times third parties were involved would hardly be considered precedents: Hagar found a wife for Yishmael (not a role model), Pharaoh gave a wife to Yosef (ditto), Yehuda took a wife for his eldest son (with tragic consequences), and Yitchak returned the favor and helped Avraham remarry after Sarah’s death (highly unusual).
Furthermore, the last example only illustrates that Yitzchak hardly refrained from searching for his own wife because he was too busy learning or otherwise incapable of such a task. Most likely he simply was not allowed to leave Eretz Yisrael after being offered as a sacrifice, and thus Eliezer had to perform this agency for him. It clearly had nothing to do with a shadchan being the most preferred method of people meeting or parents running the show for their grown children.
What emerges from the Eliezer narrative is that this method of finding a spouse is not recommended for the rest of us. The narrative exists primarily to demonstrate the close divine relationship that our forefathers enjoyed and to teach other ethical lessons. It is anything but a how-to guide to shidduchim.
When we put all the narratives and our collective history together, we find that there is no one “Torah way” for singles to meet. The Torah way, as is so often the case, is to do what works on an individual basis within halachic boundaries. If going to a shadchan works for some people, so be it. But to claim that this is the best way, or the only way, or even a highly effective way is disingenuous and terribly misleading.
Torah narratives provide direction for us when studied in depth, in the proper context, and with the underlying realization that narratives are not halachic mandates. To focus on a handpicked story that suits one’s agenda — worse still, to zero in on selected details from one story — is ignorant and, if willful, intellectually dishonest.
It is high time more of our community opened itself up to honestly discussing and seriously addressing the deep problems in the shidduch world. Stop hiding behind Eliezer.