I find the Orthodox Jewish approach to problem-solving fascinating, in a dark sort of way. It consists of a series of steps that looks something like this:
- Deny there is a problem.
- Grudgingly admit that a problem exists, but be quick to point out that the problem is very minor compared to other demographic groups. Therefore, we Jews are just great, and there really isn’t any problem worth getting excited about.
- Admit that a problem exists, but mostly in some other Jewish community that is obviously far inferior to one’s own.
- Blame the problem on television, movies, the Internet, the “secular world”, etc. In others words, good Jews who shun these spiritual contaminants don’t have such problems.
- Have a session at a conference to talk about the problem.
- Create an entire conference devoted to talking about the problem.
- Organize committees, task forces, and focus groups to specialize in talking about the problem.
- Devote a Shabbos to having rabbis talk about the problem from the pulpit.
- Raise money to throw at people who have a remote chance of making the problem go away, which absolves everyone else of responsibility for several months at least.
- Repeat spin cycle.
More than five years ago I started a movement called EndTheMadness to bring some sanity back to the realm of shidduchim. From the very outset I have maintained that the problem is NOT that thousands of eligible men and women are facing increasing difficulties getting married and staying happily married; this is only a symptom of far deeper problems that cut to the very core of how what passes for Orthodox Judaism is practiced today. Consequently, any efforts to alleviate the problems that focus only on the symptom (getting more singles to go out on more dates) without addressing the underlying problems are doomed to failure and will only help perpetuate the situation.
Unless the community and all its individual members are willing to step back and take a long, honest look at the way things are, the way things truly used to be before this problem existed, and what changed in between, there is no hope for a solution. If the community and its individual members take a long, honest look in the mirror, there will be some ugly things staring back, but unless we face these ugly things they will never go away.
With few exceptions, unfortunately, the community has to this point chosen to follow the usual pattern of addressing problems, with predictable results (none). The fashionable “response” at present is to raise money to pay shadchanim more than they currently receive and to encourage more people to try their hand at shadchanus (for all the right reasons, of course).
Mind you, the predominant method for singles to get dates nowadays is through shadchanim, be they so-called “professionals” (trained where exactly?) or friends, family, and random strangers. Since most people will finally agree that there is a “shidduch crisis”, it logically follows that shadchanim collectively are doing a very poor job. So what’s the solution? More shadchanim! And raise the cash reward! Classic step nine. Throw money at people who obviously are not doing a magnificent job to begin with, proclaim success when a few marriages result, and go back to life as usual for another few months.
Not to be outdone by those who are rewarding results without regard for the damage to people’s lives that is caused by flawed methodologies, a new incarnation of this idea has recently been hatched. In response to the widely believed canard that there are scores of eligible women for every eligible man, a new group is offering cash incentives to shadchanim for arranging a shidduch between people who are less than 2 years in age apart. The jackpot goes up to $2000 if the man is younger than the woman by 3 months or more.
As if shadchanim are not manipulative enough when it comes to shidduchim, as if there are not enough trivial factors that determine whether a shidduch will be explored or immediately scuttled, now shadchanim will be heavily influenced to push shidduchim largely on the basis of age differentials. We should be encouraging shadchanim to suggest shidduchim based strictly on matters of compatibility and leave all the ancillary machinations out of it. Why are we offering cash prizes to shadchanim that blatantly discourage them from suggesting the best possible match if the age differential is a little greater than some people consider demographically ideal?
The thinking behind this idea is to somehow coerce men into marrying older women instead of women who are significantly younger. After all, we learn from Lavan that one should not marry off the younger singles before the older ones, and much of the Jewish world has embraced the approach of this great Biblical role model.
But the biggest joke is that this is really little more than a pyramid scheme. Let’s imagine for illustrative purposes that there are 50 single men for every 200 single women. If left alone, these men would tend to marry women from the younger end of the available pool. Instead, we bribe the shadchanim to coerce them into marrying the 50 oldest women. In addition to creating marriages that would not otherwise be the first choices of the men, thus increasing the odds of shalom bayis problems and divorce, we still have 150 single women without a suitor. Unless the supply of younger men soon to enter the shidduch pool is far greater than the supply of incoming women, the 150 unmarried young women are soon going to become 150 unmarried older women, with more to follow. What problem exactly have we solved by manipulating the shadchanim?
I believe that the presumed catastrophic disparity between eligible single women and men is largely mythical. But even if it were true, as long as every marriage consists of one man and one woman, and as long as we can’t expect a bumper crop of single men, this entire idea is a puffy cloud of smoke. Not surprisingly, like so many other impotent and misguided ideas, it carries a plethora of rabbinic endorsements to lend an air of credibility and importance.
If indeed what we need most of all is a bumper crop of single men, perhaps the many thousands of dollars currently being made available to manipulate ineffective shadchanim and encourage more to join them would be better spent on making Jewish education more affordable and qualitatively better. That way, fewer parents would choose public school over yeshiva, fewer young men in yeshiva would be turned off to Judaism in their formative years, and fewer couples would practice birth control due to the exorbitant cost of living a normal Jewish life. However few or many men this would produce, the money would surely be better spent.
What we truly need, however, is not a bumper crop of men, but a healthier set of values and a return to a shidduch model that worked very nicely before shadchanim became all the rage. It should not need to cost thousands of dollars to arrange a single shidduch, not to mention the incalculable suffering caused by the countless misguided efforts of most shadchanim most of the time. If more natural meeting opportunities were once again opened up for singles, and if singles were encouraged to take full advantage of them as a first choice, not only after reaching the age of desperation, we would see far more marriages without spending an extra dime.
Those who are afraid that their sons and daughters will act promiscuously need not subscribe to this idea; in fact, their children might be better off not dating under any circumstances. But those who have confidence that their sons and daughters of marriageable age will act appropriately in a healthy social environment should be doing everything possible to once again make such meeting opportunities the norm. Step nine is to package the same failed ideas in different wrapping paper and pay for more of what hasn’t been working. Isn’t it time to look in another direction?