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yesh omrim

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In defense of the picky single

30 July 2004

The Shabbat following Tisha b’Av, “Shabbat Nachamu,” is a popular day for holding that peculiar Orthodox Jewish institution, the singles shabbaton. Leaders of the Orthodox community are very concerned that single Jews get married. One way they demonstrate this concern is by organizing these events for singles. Another way is by wringing their hands over the Orthodox community’s declining marriage rate, often using the word “crisis”.

Pundits within our community have a ready explanation for this crisis: the singles are too picky. But this explains nothing. If there were only one single Jewish woman in the world, and every single Jewish man was at least twenty years older than her and covered with suppurating boils, the woman’s mother could accuse her of being “too picky” for not marrying one of them. Can we explain the declining Orthodox marriage rate without appealing to a tautology?

We live in a society where The Market reigns supreme. The habits and values associated with capitalism infect the other kinds of relationships we have. (I hear some dead Jewish guy had more to say on this topic.) Thus, for example, a conference last year for single Jews included a workshop called “Headhunting in the Marriage Market: A systematic and efficient method to package yourself, find, and evaluate a potential spouse.” If you treat yourself and your prospective spouse as products to be packaged, marketed, and evaluated, and hope that whoever you choose will stay married to you for life, you’re setting yourself up for paralysis. Anyone who’s made an offer on a house knows the fear that this incredibly expensive thing they’re buying might have some expensive flaw that they won’t notice until three months after the closing. In a culture that considers divorce a tragedy at best and a moral failing at worst, the corresponding fear about a spouse can be even more intimidating.

When you get married, you are not just making a business deal; you are committing to become a different person. With the help of your spouse, you are empowered to do a wide range of things that were beyond you as a single man or woman. At the same time, your responsibilities to your spouse prevent you from taking a wide range of actions that were previously open to you. The exact configuration of new powers and new restrictions depends on the personality and abilities of whoever you marry, the way you both decide to run your marriage, and the feedback effects that result from your mutual influence.

Treating your search for a mate as a “market” in which you have to “package yourself” is not compatible with this view of marriage. If you know that your marriage is going to make you a different person, you need to have some idea about what kind of person you want to become. (“The same kind of person I am now, but with more frequent sex” doesn’t count. Sorry.) Worse, at some point in a dating relationship, you need to reveal what kind of person you want to become, and see how much the other person can help you reach that goal. That’s not the way we play things in The Market. When you put a house up for sale, if you know the discipline of The Market, you don’t reveal how anxious you are to get the building off your hands before you start a new job in a city five hundred miles away.

If we as a Jewish community want more people to find spouses, we need to do a better job at helping them find themselves, and not just giving them brand names to identify with.