Why I Am A Boring Guest

Older Singles

What do the following four women have in common?

  • Andrea: management consultant, graduate of a seminary in Israel, summa cum laude graduate in business management, volunteer for a Jewish outreach organisation.
  • Channah: Kodesh teacher in a Jewish Girls’ High School, graduate of Beis Ya’akov seminary (classic Jewish higher-education college) and talented musician.
  • Sara: freelance computer programmer, Ba’alat Teshuvah (late-comer to religious life) of 12 years standing, graduate of Harvard and seminary in Israel.
  • Trudy: university lecturer in psychology, graduate of modern-style seminary in the USA and gifted artist.

While the connection may not be immediately obvious, they share the facts that they are sophisticated, attractive, deeply committed to lives dedicated to Torah and Mitzvot, and, wait for it, in their 30s and single.

Although the women are fictional (albeit loosely based on real people), the scenario is not. I (and many of my colleagues) observe this phenomenon in London, but it is happening everywhere. All over the world, there are hundreds of older observant single women who would love to get married, yet have been unsuccessful in finding a partner. I am not suggesting that there are no single men struggling with the trauma of single-hood, just that there seem to be a lot more eligible women around than men.

There is enough to fill a book about this situation, but on this occasion I shall confine myself to three brief observations.

The pain and frustration felt by older singles is barely appreciated by others in the community. Being 34 and unmarried in our community is not like being 22 and just a few years older: it is often an emotionally and religiously devastating experience. The long-term effects of living without a life-partner, devoid of the love, intimacy, support and sharing of life goals a successful marriage should provide, are immeasurable. It is seldom appreciated that remaining single impacts on many other areas of one’s experience and particularly one’s religious life. A common observation made by women in this situation is that they feel spiritually burnt-out and uninspired. They may find personal growth insurmountably difficult and struggle with other aspects of their Jewish lives: davening, learning, and enjoying Shabbat and Yom Tov are among the most notable casualties.

Older singles also feel disenfranchised by the observant community. Our communities tend to compartmentalise people – there are girls, newly married women, mothers, divorcees, widows, but mature singles scarcely appear on the religious community’s radar. The existence of these women disturbs the happy, simplistic vision of community shared by many within it, in which everyone falls into an idyllic marriage before the age of 23. It is assumed that there must be something wrong with those who didn’t or that they are ‘too fussy’, which avoids facing the reality of their existence and the need to treat them as functioning adults. Singles even feel that people speak to them differently from the way they speak to married women. This is especially painful for women who take important, often life-changing decisions in their professional lives. In short, the community gives vibes that infantilise unmarried women, contributing to their feeling of exclusion and failure. While conjuring up husbands may be extremely difficult, this aspect of singles’ distress is the responsibility of the community and is completely unnecessary.

The consequences for the Jewish community are also significant. A growing group of older women, all of whom would love to have been married years ago, are marrying late and subsequently having fewer children. Some otherwise fertile women may have no children at all. This is going to have a catastrophic effect on future Jewish demographics. Dealing with this issue must be considered an international Jewish priority.

These issues trouble me so much that I have become a boring guest, because wherever I visit, I ask the same question: do you know any eligible men? I invite you to share in this project and become a boring guest too.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

The Herd Mentality

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Tolerance and disagreement

The astonishing capacity of Judaism to welcome disagreement, tolerate and even validate a range of views (albeit within the system) on almost every issue is, in my opinion, one of its greatest strengths. Yet it is, perhaps, the most sophisticated aspect of real Torah thought; the Talmud (Chagigah 3b) acknowledges that it takes tremendous wisdom and effort to think this way, yet it is vital to learn to do so.

It is fascinating to note then when an outstanding attribute is native to the Jewish people, even outsiders can recognise it. A year ago, I read a fascinating book called ‘The trouble with Islam today’, by the controversial author Irshad Manji, which contains a number of really thought-provoking observations. In a chapter provocatively called ‘Seventy virgins?’ she considers the subject of herd mentality:

What I knew was that believers in the historically ‘reformed’ religions don’t operate on a herd mentality nearly as much as Muslims do. Christian leaders are aware of the intellectual diversity within their ranks. While each can deny the validity of other interpretations – and many do – none can deny that a plethora of interpretations exists. As for Jews, they’re way ahead of the crowd. Jews actually publicise disagreements by surrounding their scriptures with commentaries and incorporating debates into Talmud itself. By contrast, most Muslims treat the Quran as a document to imitate rather than interpret, suffocating our capacity to think for ourselves.

Now, Manji is hardly an expert on Judaism, but her comments really set me thinking about the parameters of tolerance and disagreement within Jewish thought. That more than one view in halachah (Jewish law) can be tolerated within the system is apparent from the proverbial ‘elu v’elu’ (a statement acknowledging that more than one view can be the ‘words of the living God’) but the imperative to accord respect to other views is less well known. In summarising three years of disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai (the schools of Hillel and Shammai), the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) comments:

As both (the views of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai) are the ‘words of the living God’, why did Beit Hillel merit that the halachah (Jewish law) be fixed according to their view? They were gentle and tolerant and they taught their own views and those of Beit Shammai and even expressed the views of Beit Shammai before their own view.

In his introduction to BeReishit (Genesis) the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, pre-eminent 19th century European sage) suggests that lack of tolerance for Torah viewpoints other than one’s own is the very cause of destruction. Writing about the religious leadership of the Templeera, he observes:

They were righteous, pious and toiled in Torah, but they were not diplomatic. Because of the hatred in their hearts for one another, they suspected anyone who conducted his religious life not in accordance with their view of being a Sadducee or a heretic. As a result, they came to horrible bloodshed and every known evil, until the Temple was destroyed. This vindicated what happened to them (the destruction of the Temple). Since God is upright he does not tolerate such ‘righteous’ people unless they are also diplomatic, not crooked, even if they act for the sake of heaven, for this causes the destruction of creation and the ruin of society.

I realised why I was thinking about Irshad Manji this week: her observations were dredged from the depths of my mind by my sadness at the monochromatic nature of much of the contemporary Jewish world, especially in Israel. Her comments depict the Judaism I know and love, the one I see in the Talmud and classic Jewish sources, the one taught me by my own rabbis and role-models, the one I try to practice and teach my children and students. They don’t, however, describe the Jewish world I see around me, one in which authoritarian pronouncements have become common, strongly-worded decrees seem to limit thought and practice, and variant opinions and their exponents are trashed, not discussed. We have reached the stage at which there is only one ‘acceptable’ view on most topics, the opinions of previously-well-respected Jewish thinkers are no longer considered party line; we have our own censored publications to ensure that no-one finds out about them anyway. Suggesting that this impacts only on a small part of Israeli society is to bury our heads in the sands of a global Jewish reality.

Hardly a week goes by without another decree: a few weeks ago it was the banning of higher-education courses for Israeli women, last week, the emphasis on policing ‘kosher’ clothes shops in religious districts. Is Manji right? Are we really ‘way ahead of the crowd’? Only just, I fear.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents