This year Shabbos Nachamu coincides with Tu B’av, which is interesting when one considers how the two events have evolved.
Shabbos Nachamu is historically significant as a time of consolation for the mourning period just concluded. Nowadays this date is more famous for being “Singles Event Weekend”, when all that the community has to offer its ever-swelling singles population is on glorious display. More on this later.
Tu B’av is historically significant for a variety of reasons, the most famous of which have to do with singles. It is the date on which the tribes were allowed to marry into one another, and the eradication of this shidduch restriction was the cause of great celebration (and marriages). Most famously, on this date Jewish maidens would dance in the fields, and the bachelors would go there to find a wife. Nowadays this date is celebrated primarily because tachanun is not said.
The historical significance of Tu B’av presents a great challenge to those who favor strict segregation between single men and women. After all, we have a clear precedent for single men and women to mingle on their own, and in ways that many in our community would consider severely immodest, if not promiscuous. Furthermore, the Talmud refers to this event as the greatest of days, and, as noted, it is partial cause for the institution of a national holiday. Those who believe that pizza stores should not have tables and chairs lest singles socialize have some reconciling to do.
One approach is to simply ignore the question: we follow what our leaders tell us, and no further thought or comment is necessary or desired. This approach shields one from having to provide a substantive response.
Another approach, similar to the first, is to dismiss the Tu B’av celebrations as anachronistic: perhaps it was appropriate for ancient generations, but times have changed and it has no practical relevance to us. This argument is eerily similar to those made by non-Orthodox groups when challenging certain traditional Jewish practices. Why this argument is suddenly acceptable is not explained; typically the responder will retreat to approach #1 if pressed. They may first claim that we are no longer modest enough for any sort of mingling to be permitted, but this is a vague argument that also relies on the impenetrable shield of “Da’as Torah” in lieu of scholarship and reason.
Mind you, I am not advocating for these celebrations to be brought back in their original form, nor am I suggesting that the application of Jewish law does not change with time and place (the law itself remains the same). What I am noting is that a clear and celebrated precedent for single men and women to meet and marry on their own has been thoughtlessly dismissed by nearly the entire Orthodox world for reasons that are vague at best — and this has happened at a time when we are experiencing a “shidduch crisis” like never before in our history. I do not believe this is a coincidence.
Shadchanim were not present at these celebrations. Singles were not asked to bring a recent photo and a shidduch résumé. These events did not carry rabbinic endorsements; on the contrary, the entire nation celebrated their occurrence. The events were free of charge, and did not require sponsorships or scholarships for those who could not afford to attend. The singles did not require “facilitators” to help them meet and converse, nor “mentors” to guide them through the process. There were no lectures designed to help them figure out why they weren’t married yet, nor were there separate entrances, separate seating, or separate anything.
Those uncomfortable with such a scene will insist that it would lead to inappropriate behavior. I don’t disagree; some people will, unfortunately, behave inappropriately no matter what. In fact, I know this to be true, because some people behaved inappropriately back then as well!
You see, these dances occurred as well on Yom Kippur itself, the most awesome and solemn day of the year. Back then the services concluded early in the afternoon, and the Jews celebrated their atonement by arranging a hugely successful singles event. The Gemara relates that Eliyahu HaNavi informed Rabbi Yehuda that he should not question why Moshiach had not yet come. After all, “today is Yom Kippur, and many maidens in Neharda’ah have been violated” (Yoma 19B).
The Torah Temima (Bereishis 4:7) finds it beyond belief that so many disgusting acts could be committed on Yom Kippur, yet notes that an even more immoral act is noted in the Gemara as having occurred on Yom Kippur. He speculates that these sins were related to the dances that occurred, and that some coarse individuals were drawn to sin even on the holiest of days.
But here’s the kicker: despite this speculation of significant abuse of these mingling opportunities by those with impure intentions or spiritual frailty, the events continued without rabbinic censure. We know that the great rabbis of the Talmudic period were not afraid to issue edicts and bans to protect us from sin, yet they did no such thing here. They saw people sin, they knew it was inevitable that some people would sin, yet they continued to celebrate these events without question because it was an overwhelmingly positive institution. They did not punish the entire class because of two students who misbehaved.
Contrast that with the mercilessly forbidding approach of much of today’s rabbinic establishment. Think of all the things that have been forbidden, and all the layers of protection that have been instituted, just to prevent any possibility of a single man and woman interacting outside the cocoon of a shidduch date that has been arranged for them by others. Not only was mixed seating at concerts banned in Israel, but concerts themselves were forbidden lest people socialize outside! Can there be any logical end to it?
This brings us back to Shabbos Nachamu, the cheap substitute our community has offered its singles in place of the unfettered normalcy of Tu B’av. The big weekends with shadchanim, and lecturers, and chassidishe shechita, and early bird specials that break the bank have a failure rate of approximately 99%. We hear many boasts about the 3 or 4 couples who met at last year’s bash (2 of whom will probably divorce before long anyway), yet hundreds of people go home empty-handed year after year. For all the money and all the hype, these expensive and complex events fail for 99% of people — and this is the BEST our community has to offer. Where else is a 1% success rate considered impressive, with the 99% failures blamed on the victims (too picky, etc.)?
The “shidduch crisis” worsens as time goes by and the same failed ideas that brought us here are repackaged and recycled. The solutions are available to us. Will next year be any different?