A monster of our making: Rabbi Efrem Goldberg calls for a new approach to shıdduchim
Photos: Coco Productions
It’s a time-honored part of the shidduch process to investigate a prospect’s personality, family background, and history before meeting in person.
But over the years, the “information gathering” has taken new, disturbing proportions. Attempts to clarify relevant information have morphed into efforts to hunt down the slightest flaw or blemish. And along the way, we’ve transformed the shidduch process from a journey of discovery to a skewed funhouse mirror that denies one side’s shortcomings or struggles while magnifying those of others to grotesque proportions.
The more difficult we make the shidduch system, the more unnecessary layers and demands we add, the more foreboding it becomes. Not only will potential shadchanim think twice before venturing in; our single children, relatives, and friends will remain waiting.
What is going on in the shidduch world? How did we get here? And more importantly, what can we do about it?
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, senior rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue, issues a personal and pained call for change
When I was studying to get semichah, there was no class or mentorship on how to properly field shidduch reference calls. But the more I think about it, that class would have been worthless, because it would have been given in a different century, both literally and metaphorically.
When I first started taking these calls 20 or so years ago, I never would have believed the level of detail I needed to know about my neighbors, friends, and congregants, how intimately familiar I needed to become with their wardrobes, their medicine cabinets, their financial statements, their genetics, and their family trees.
I truly cherish the chance to contribute in any way possible to helping couples find one another, which is why I welcome any opportunity to engage anyone with appropriate questions and to provide information and insights that can be helpful. But many of these “reference calls” have gotten out of control, putting rabbis and references on the defensive, making us feel like we must be hiding something. At some point when I was fielding these calls, I recognized a familiar feeling. I realized it is the same feeling I have had when testifying in court and have been cross-examined.
What is going on in the shidduch world? How did we get here? And more importantly, what can we do about it?
From Paper Scrap to Photoshop
I still have the scrap of paper that happened to be sitting near the phone when I received a call asking me if I would be interested in going out with the girl who would become my wife, Yocheved. There are simply a few scribbles that include her name, where she went to school, what she had done that summer, and some of her qualities and personality features. I knew and trusted the person making the suggestion, the person knew Yocheved, and that was good enough for me to want to find out more by going out on a date. There was no résumé, no picture, no forensic investigation.
This is obviously a relic of the past. Gone are the simple days when someone would make a suggestion to you, you would get basic information, trust them, and find out more for yourself. Over time, things changed — it seemed nobody could be eligible to go on a date without a résumé. Maybe one could argue the résumé merely formalized my scrap of paper: an organized, streamlin ed way to keep track of all relevant information. I have my reservations (for one, I would call it a profile, not a résumé), but for argument’s sake, let’s consider this an appropriate development.
Over time, perhaps catering to the demand of parents, shadchanim, or even the boys or girls themselves, I came to realize many people wouldn’t entertain a résumé unless it included a picture. Of course, physical attraction is a critical component of a successful marriage. In fact, the Gemara (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 ztz”l 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.”
From a scrap of paper and trust in the one redting the shidduch, we moved to a résumé, makeup artists, professional pictures, and the not infrequent use of photoshop. Perhaps we must accept this progression as an unfortunate but understandable consequence of dating during the information age. Where we went next, however, is less understandable, not appropriate, and not sustainable.
What Medicine Are They Taking?
We have gone from trying to collect as much information as possible to trying to both present and pursue something that doesn’t exist — perfection.
What’s my evidence? Almost every shidduch reference call I field these days includes the following question: Is he or she on any medications? This question is absurd for several reasons, including the implicit (maybe even explicit) suggestion that a rabbi, or anyone else, should violate the confidence of a congregant, neighbor, or friend and share such sensitive information without permission.
Let’s unpack this. What is intended when this is asked as a standard question off a checklist: “Is he/she on any medication?”
Am I supposed to share that they took growth shots as a teenager, that they need a Lactaid pill when they eat dairy? Should I mention that they occasionally take Advil when they have a headache? Should I share that they take allergy pills in the spring or rely on Tums over Pesach? Obviously, that isn’t what the questioner is looking for.
Perhaps the concern is that there is a significant psychiatric, psychological, or medical history that is intentionally being concealed. Purposely hiding significant issues through dating, courtship, or marriage is unconscionable, outrageous, and unacceptable.
The question of disclosing a significant “fault” when the party has concealed it has been addressed in halachah, most famously by the Chofetz Chaim, but also by countless poskim. Parents, rabbis, mentors, or those with influence over someone with a significant condition that should be disclosed should counsel the person on the issue even before beginning dating and should encourage when and how (not “if”) to disclose such information. A third party to the shidduch who becomes aware that a significant diagnosis or medical history is being hidden must ask a sh’eilah about how, when, and to whom it should be disclosed.
But let’s be honest: That specific situation, hopefully unusual, is not the intent or interest of the stranger I never met calling me because I’m identified as a reference. The question is never presented, “My son or daughter is dating someone seriously, or is seriously thinking of going out, we have reason to believe they may be concealing significant information, is that something to be concerned about?”
Rather, I fear that this question, a standard part of the new investigative script for “reference checks,” is trying to accomplish something else: weeding out even the slightest imperfection or “issue.” I can’t help but feel the questioner is expecting me to disclose ADD or mild anxiety, with the unsaid implication that this would be a reason not to pursue a shidduch. Is this fair, reasonable, healthy, or helpful?
There are people with these conditions and others like them who make exceptional spouses, devoted parents, and accomplished ovdei Hashem. Conversely, there are people who come from homes with no diagnoses and empty medicine cabinets who make horrific partners, who have terrible tempers, no ambition, and live selfish lives. And what about people who could benefit from some medications and support but don’t get it, possibly worried about what their references will be asked when the time comes. What kind of spouse will they make?
Are we doing a service to ourselves or our children by “weeding out” anyone with any medication at all when, if we are honest, we and our children are far from perfect ourselves, whether we are on medications or not? Is this unrealistic standard and that intrusive question something that will make shidduchim easier or harder? Will this make people more or less likely to set up friends, references more or less likely to help, men and women more or less likely to be open to directly learn about one another?
Shouldn’t a standard part of a relationship developing and growing be sharing, confiding, and trusting one another? (I am not referring to the chassidish system, which is radically different in many ways and on which I am not qualified to comment.) Instead of the self-confidence to participate in a journey of discovery, we have reached a point where too many people are relying on a shadchan to pre-screen and filter out even a hint of imperfection, often looking in a funhouse mirror that denies their own shortcomings or struggles and portrays them as blemish-free.
Hurting, Not Helping
This is not just an abstract commentary on today’s social mores. There are real negative consequences to this approach to shidduchim. The more difficult and complicated we make it by adding unnecessary layers and demands, the less likely the thousands of informal shadchanim, which is to say the average community members who get involved by trying to set people up or by willing to serve as references, will want to participate in the process. The result is that our single children and friends are the ones who will suffer.
These intense, comprehensive investigations are counterproductive for several reasons. First, they don’t seem to be working. Is there evidence that by asking these questions we have learned more in advance, placed better filters, and thereby have avoided later incompatibility or pain? While there are limited studies about divorce in the Orthodox community, it seems that broken engagements and divorce have been going up. Simply put, the increasingly comprehensive investigations don’t seem to be leading to any related increase in successful marriages.
Not only are these investigations not helping, it seems to me they are hurting. How many happily married people with beautiful, thriving families would have never even gone out in the first place if the type of invasive, intense investigations and unfair filters had existed when they were first suggested to each other?
Asking these types of questions demands a perfection that simply doesn’t exist. Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of all men taught (Koheles 7:20): “Ki adam ein tzaddik ba’aretz asher yaaseh tov v’lo yechetei — For there is not one perfect person on earth who always does what is best and doesn’t ever make a mistake.”
Imagine if Yitzchak Avinu’s reference was asked if anyone in his family is “off the derech”? What if Yaakov’s reference was asked if he had ever told a lie? What if Yosef’s references were asked if he got along with his brothers? What if Mashiach’s reference was asked about his yichus?
Could our greatest personalities in Tanach and beyond have passed the shidduch tests of today?
What We Can Do About It
Baruch Hashem, I have two married children and fully appreciate what it means to be a parent “in shidduchim.” I am familiar with the urge to want to know absolutely everything about the person to whom you will entrust your child, the individual who will, b’ezras Hashem, contribute half of the genetics of your grandchildren, the one who will join your family and you will love, trust, and treat as one of your own. I now know the feeling of wanting to hire a private detective and to interview every teacher, chavrusa, camp and school friend the prospective mate ever had.
But I recognize that feeling as a foolish urge, and so should others. Let’s go from a culture of suspicion to one of trust, from an expectation of perfection to an acceptance of reality, from a sense of entitlement to know everything in advance to an eagerness and excitement to learn and discover.
Parents must stop asking unfair and bad questions, and rabbis and references must make clear they won’t entertain them if asked. Instead of asking a question that is unlikely to be answered either because the reference doesn’t know or feel comfortable disclosing to a stranger, rewrite the script to include questions that will actually be meaningful in predicting what type of spouse a person will make.
Ask more productive questions I have not been asked nearly enough, such as: Does he or she display a simchas hachayim, and generally happy and positive? Has he or she displayed the capacity to be mevater, to be willing to compromise and sacrifice? Is he or she a meticulous planner or more of a go-with-the-flow type? Is he or she introverted and shy, or able to freely communicate and share?
More important than asking specific questions, engage references in a way that demonstrates that you are interested in learning about the person and not in uncovering flaws or weeding out weaknesses.
Rav Chaim Vital (quoted in Rav Shlomo Wolbe’s Kuntrus Hadrachah L’chassanim) said: “A person’s character traits are primarily measured based upon how he is to his spouse.” In other words: Wardrobes, medicine cabinets, and financial statements matter much less than character, values, and virtues. If we learn to ask the right questions and emphasize the most important things, perhaps we can improve the process of finding a mate, as well as the health and longevity of marriages themselves.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is the senior rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue, a rapidly growing community of over 850 families in Boca Raton, Florida.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 843)
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