Solving the Shidduch Crisis Without Nose Jobs

The reactions have poured in, fast and furious—emphasis on furious. Noted author and trailblazer Yitta Halberstam recently wrote what might be the most universally offensive article about shidduchim that the world has ever seen.

Ms. Halberstam, best known for co-authoring the popular “Small Miracles” book series, was also featured in an article in the NY Times about Orthodox Jewish women breaking gender boundaries (something Deborah Feldman could have benefited from). This time around, however, she set off a small firestorm and pushed gender equality backward by a couple of generations.

The recent article is so outrageous that I will not even attempt to address everything in it. Just know, if you have read the article—if you have not, I recommend doing so before continuing to read my critique—that whatever raised your eyebrows and your blood pressure seems to have done the same for thousands of others. There are, though, a few areas of discussion that I think are particularly important to cover.

First, let us examine the details. Halberstam actually suggests that young women should undergo elective surgery to fix their bodies. Yes, you read correctly. If a girl is not married in her early 20s, this must be because her nose is too big. Can an approach to this issue get any more superficial than that? It cannot.

Surely one of the purposes of dating for marriage via the shidduch system is to avoid the superficiality of choosing a mate based purely on appearance. Where do the men imagined by Halberstam come off being so picky about appearances, picky enough to make young women look to surgery to match their expectations? Why should we as a community play into such stupidity? Do not both the Tzitz Eliezer and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach prohibit elective surgery performed only for the sake of beauty? (Yes, I know others permit it, but since when is Ms. Halberstam qualified to decide a dispute between great poskim?) Does Ms. Halberstam realize that some people unhappy with their looks still know better than to kowtow to social pressure to look a certain way? Seriously, read her ideas out loud in your voice: “An Orthodox Jewish woman is advocating plastic surgery to improve normal girls’ appearances.” Does this sound right to you? To any shadchan you would trust?

Another detail: the girls discussed in the article who came to the meeting are an excellent case study. (As an aside, Halberstam embarrasses them. She calls many of them plain-looking. This is not only unkind, but it is also a superficial judgment. The whole point of meeting people in person is to get to know them and not make snap judgments based on their appearance. Halberstam fails at this—miserably.) Why, in fact, did they not wear make-up? I venture to guess this was because of their Bais Yaakov education. In that world, cosmetics are often portrayed as tools of the yetzer hara, to be avoided at all costs. The ones who do wear a little make-up are the disdained “modern” girls. Is it any wonder, then, that these girls do not magically transform from asexual teens to young women in touch with their femininity? Hardly. A similar problem, one far more serious, occurs after marriage. It is very difficult for the “good girls” of the Bais Yaakov system to adjust from complete insularity from everything sexual to a healthy, sexually active marriage. I would wager that most of the girls at the meeting did not want any prospective mother-in-law to think them “loose” by Haredi standards. I believe that were these girls given more leeway in high school and taught that looking good was not the work of the Devil, there would be less reluctance to wearing make-up at a gathering of religious women.

My second concern with Halberstam’s article is the bigger picture that she reveals about the world in which she writes. The current Yeshivish shidduch system is a hybrid one. It combines the nearly-arranged marriages of the most insular Jewish communities of the past and the common dating system of the West. In this hybrid system, the parents vet potential mates, most of whom they do not know, then the young adults go on a sufficient number of dates, and if all goes well, the couple gets engaged.

There are advantages to this system. It avoids much heartache and saves time that would otherwise have been spent trying to meet appropriate people. Personally, I used to think this system was the best possible—and when it works, it just might be. But we now see what happens when it fails.

What is happening now in the world of shidduchim is best compared to “crony capitalism.” There are “haves,” young men who have dozens of girls recommended to them, and there are “have-nots,” who sit around praying for a call. Each of the “haves” gets his pick from a pool of prospective girls who stay the same age no matter how old he gets. The “have-nots” try to find a match from the reject pile. This unbalance is inherently unjust, not to mention the problem of the many levels of protekzia required to get a girl’s name into the hands of a sought-after guy.

Women in the structured shidduch system are left with no leverage. They cannot look for a man, because the system etiquette requires that the man choose the woman—and by that, I mean the man’s mother. There usually is never a list of men waiting for a “yes” from a woman.

This inequality is not a minor issue. Any system where the “haves” are spoiled by their riches will become corrupt. In this case, the corruption is in the narcissism of men and their mothers. They become obsessed with getting the perfect match, because they have that luxury. This obsession leads to lists, résumés, and many of the other problems the community faces today. (Not only the firmly Haredi or Yeshivish communities suffer these problems. Large segments of the Orthodox community, where traditional communal structures like the shidduch system and right-leaning education systems are the norm, also encounter versions of ritual and social inequality in setting up singles for marriage.)

Another breakdown in the shidduch sysem is the attempt to adopt the model of nearly-arranged marriages found in the Hasidic community and in the romantic collective memory of the Old Country. I suspect that when marriages were arranged in the shtetl, parents knew the prospective match offered to their child. Parents and children alike knew each other from around town. In this environment, parental input was not only valid; it must have been extremely useful.

But in our world, where young men study in yeshiva and young women study in seminary (and usually change greatly in that time) and potential matches are made across the globe, parental input no longer means as much. It is possible, or even likely, that parental input can be harmful. Parents may not know their children as well as they think. When parents control the dating process—when those choosing potential dates are not on the same page as those choosing whom to marry—the results can be uneven or catastrophic. Further, parents love their children very much. They will take the time to vet hundreds of potential mates to a degree no one would dream of doing for him or herself. Parents are too dedicated. In this case, that dedication becomes a flaw.

Limited parental involvement is wise, but parent overlords are becoming a bigger problem. But this is a symptom of an even larger problem. Many Orthodox couples are supported by their parents and in-laws, at least for a time. Since the parents have such a stake in the outcome, they are given a larger role in the decision. If marriage came only after financial independence, parents would have a lesser role in managing shidduch choices, and that would be a good thing.

How will young men and women, particularly in more structured, gender-separated communities, get married if their Mom and Dad are not taking care of all the work? There are two answers, and though they should be obvious, for so many they clearly are not. First, young people will date more willingly without all the superficial vetting. They care much less about that than their parents. The jam will loosen, and young men in particular will agree to date a wider pool of women. Dates will happen more freely, obsessions with superficialities will dissipate, and neurotic details will not make or break a date.

This first solution will help tremendously. But the best solution remains the proposal by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky in the Jewish Press last summer. In “What We Can Learn From Chazal About Dating,” Rabbi Pruzansky suggests social opportunities for young singles to meet each other. This will increase their pool of friends from one gender to two. It should go without saying that things will sort themselves out from there. This should not just be an improvement to the structured shidduch system; it should be the system, where young people get to know one another in a relaxed setting and all the assistance needed is down-to-earth guidance from parents, friends, and teachers. No résumés, no built-in advantages for men, no proud, controlling mothers turning away the “riffraff,” and no 180 degree turn in education from avoiding the other gender completely to cultivating a loving relationship on demand. As Rabbi Pruzansky so eloquently says, this return to a natural approach to shidduchim is, after all, living by the dicta of chazal.
This approach has already blossomed in large segments of the Modern Orthodox world, and I hope it takes root in the centrist and Yeshivish worlds before long. If it does, we as a people will hopefully save our daughters from the horrors of self-image obsession—from attitudes that look to eating disorders and elective surgery as the necessary ingredients for happiness.

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink is the rabbi of Pacific Jewish Center / Shul on the Beach in Venice Beach CA. Rabbi Fink is also a 2012 JD Candidate at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He blogs at

Related Links:
Original Post on
Purim and The Tyranny of Beauty
What We Can Learn From Chazal About Dating
Turning the Page on Shidduchim in the Ultra-Orthodox Community