Category: Jewish Culture

“Gadolatry” In Orthodox Jewish Discourse

I first heard the term “gadolatry” attributed to the late professor Arthur Hertzberg. A portmanteau of “gadol” and “idolatry,” the word “gadolatry” refers to a perceived phenomenon in Orthodox Judaism where select rabbinic leaders are treated with a degree of deference or reverence, bordering on worshipping the person of the rabbi himself. That Dr. Hertzberg would coin such an inflammatory term is not surprising given his personality, such that any reactions of offense or outrage are as intentional as they are predictable. However, it has been my experience that those strong passions on either side have turned the reasonable question of the role of the gadol in Judaism into the single greatest impediment to intelligent religious discourse in the Orthodox Jewish community.

While I have no expectations of resolving this divisive issue, I do hope to explicate the rationales implied when one invokes a gadol, and why others may find such an argument unconvincing.

The Myths and Realities of “The Shidduch Crisis”

There are few topics in Jewish society which can simultaneously evoke rage, empathy, and unsolicited opinions and advice as Jewish dating. To take just one example, my statistical analysis of dating prospects drew approval from other frustrated singles, criticism for contradicting the positive experiences of others, and suggestions as to other sites to try and even a few specific set-up offers. Aside from the blog posts here and elsewhere, there are numerous books on the world of Jewish dating including “Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures,” which ironically can be added to your wedding registry.

To be sure, I’ve done my share of personal reflections as a single – after all it’s great blog fodder. Longtime loyal readers may recall such classics as The Harm in Being Nice, Waiting on a Friend, The Mind of a Matchmaker , and Top 10 Dating Questions – all of which for the most part still holds up today. And I’ve been guilty of offering my own Guide to Jewish Dating and another one specifically for online dating sites. But fast forward several years, countless women, forgettable dates, even more encouragement, criticism, and unsolicited advice, I am still single. However in the past few years serving as a Rabbi I’ve also gained a much better perspective. While my community attracts young Jews, it is by no means a “scene” which means there is significantly less communal pressure for single’s to get married. Furthermore, I have personally adopted a “no dating congregants” policy, meaning my religious communal experience of synagogue attendance is uncharacteristically devoid of any pretense of trying to impress women.

Thus I write from the relatively unique perspective of being a single rabbi – aware of the struggles of others while experiencing the same challenges first hand. Consider it unintentional participant observation if you will. And with this dual perspective I have come to the following conclusion: the so-called “shidduch crisis” is a collection of myths which only exacerbate the social pressures and anxieties at the core of the Jewish single’s community, specifically the denial of individuation.

Synagogue Constitutional Conventions

Synagogue politics are rarely pleasant but they’re often necessary to ensure a functioning congregation and to provide protections from hostile takeovers. Personally I’ve always been content to just show up to shul, daven, and go home, but just because you’re oblivious to the legalese of official documents in no way mitigates their importance. Having a constitution and explicit rules is crucial for defining expectations but also for conflict resolution should disputes arise.

For better or worse, few people have ever read their shul’s constitution – assuming the synagogue even has one. To understand the political issues a synagogue faces, consider the following proposed draft constitution from the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (PDF).

I’m not going to go through the entire document, though if you’ve never read a constitution it’s probably worthwhile to note the issues the constitution seeks to address. I have no idea what the current constitution states and which passages are new or emendations to a previous document. Still, two passages are notable for their current implications.

Here’s one example:

FORMS, INTERPRETATION AND AFFILIATION: The Congregation shall follow the forms, practices, and usages of an orthodox interpretation of Judaism committed to Halacha and may affiliate itself with the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America.

Given the HIR’s reputation for envelope pushing the constitution allows for a seemingly wide berth. That the HIR is expected to follow “an orthodox interpretation” implies that there is there is no uniform “Orthodox” institution let alone a singular orthodox interpretation (note the use of lowercase for “orthodox.”). Furthermore, the HIR’s affiliation with the Orthodox Union is optional – it is one possible sign of orthodox affiliation. In theory, HIR could leave the OU or simply adopt contradictory policies without violating its constitution. As long as the HIR can show that it is “committed to Halacha” – however they define it – they will still be within their constitutional mission.

The next passage reflects the social progressiveness of the HIR, and I would not be surprised if The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot campaigns synagogues to adopt similar policies:

Notwithstanding any other provision of these By-Laws, one who withholds issuance or receipt of a Get shall (a) be ineligible for membership in the Congregation, if not yet a member; (b) have his or her membership immediately suspended if such withholding occurs while a member of the Congregation; (c) not be permitted to occupy, or if elected, to retain any appointed or elective position in the Congregation; (d) not be permitted to serve as an employee of the Congregation; and (e) not be given any honor or recognition, or be granted any right or privilege or participation within liturgical services on any occasion whatsoever.

This Section shall apply only to the following situation:
1. Where a married couple has either separated in contemplation of a divorce and been living apart for a year or been granted a civil divorce,
2. One of the parties has filed for issuance of a civil divorce,
3. One of the parties has made a verifiable, formal written request for the unconditional termination of the marriage by execution and receipt of a Get, and
4. The other party has refused to comply with the request of a Get and has not appeared before a beth din recommended by the Senior Rabbi or the beth din’s designee to explain this non-compliance within three (3) months following the fulfillment of the prior three conditions.

If after the allegedly recalcitrant party appears before a beth din, the beth din rules that sanctions should not be adopted, or should be adopted in a modified fashion, then the ruling of the beth din shall be determinative in this matter. The actual or potential application of this Section to a member shall not prevent the member from being suspended or expelled by the Board of
Trustees pursuant to Section 4 of Article II.

Note that this passage refers to withholding either the issuance or receipt of a get such that it does not automatically assume the husband is automatically in the wrong by default.

If you find any particularly interesting passages for discussion, please comment below!

UPDATE 5/16/2013: I just received the text of the officially approved constitution which can be downloaded here. There does not seem to be any meaningful changes between the draft and the approved constitutions in the passages which I had cited.

Why Orthodox Jews Should Not Oppose Legalizing Same Sex Marriage

On May 23 2011 several prominent Orthodox Jewish organizations issued a joint statement declaring their opposition to legalizing same sex-marriage. The brief statement is as follows:

On the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage, the Orthodox Jewish world speaks with one voice, loud and clear:

We oppose the redefinition of the bedrock relationship of the human family.

The Torah, which forbids homosexual activity, sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony. While we do not seek to impose our religious principles on others, we believe the institution of marriage is central to the formation of a healthy society and the raising of children. It is our sincere conviction that discarding the historical definition of marriage would be detrimental to society.

Moreover, we are deeply concerned that, should any such redefinition occur, members of traditional communities like ours will incur moral opprobrium and may risk legal sanction if they refuse to transgress their beliefs. That prospect is chilling, and should be unacceptable to all people of good will on both sides of this debate.

The integrity of marriage in its traditional form must be preserved.

This statement was issued not only by Orthodox institutions considered “right-of center” such as Agudath Israel of America or National Council of Young Israel, but also by more moderate Orthodox organizations such as the Orthodox Union (OU) and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).1 Unlike most religious proclamations which are directed towards specific religious communities, this joint statement advocates a political position – though based on religious principles – to the secular world beyond the normal scope of religious influence. To be sure, this joint statement is hardly the first time rabbinic organizations have issued political statements. Across all major denominations, the Orthodox RCA, Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, and Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis have all passed resolutions advocating public polices exemplifying their respective religious beliefs, with few (if any) complaining about the separation of church and state.

But due to the inherent subjective moral arguments against same-sex marriage, I argue that Jews – especially the Orthodox – would be better served in not opposing its legalization.

The Statistics of Shidduchim – A Case Study In Futility

One man among a thousand I found,
but a woman among all these I have not found. (Kohelet 7:28)


There was a time on this website I used to write about my dating life, which as it turns out I haven’t really done since 2006. I think I’ve avoided doing so for a number of reasons, the main ones being my being in a long-term relationship (since ended) and now a relatively public figure as a pulpit rabbi. However, in two days time I will taking a significant step in the dating process by leaving the popular dating site Saw You At Sinai1 (SYAS) as a paying customer.

For those unfamiliar, SYAS is essentially an online implementation of the blind shidduch / matchmaking dating system. Users create profiles, but instead of searching for other singles users choose matchmakers who do the searching and suggesting for them. Some prefer this method to avoid being contacted directly by creeps, having a reliable person vet out the weirdos, or less cynically prefer to have a mutual acquaintance look out for the interests of both parties. The obvious limitation is that a user’s options are entirely dependant on the judgement of the matchmaker.

As of this posting, SYAS boasts 595 matches made and there are of course hundreds if not thousands of Jewish couples who continue to meet through the shidduch system. However, despite empty platitudes of encouragement, it is obvious that this system does not work for everyone, and I would place myself in this category. Thanks to the records of my SYAS account, I will prove mathematically just how ineffective and futile blind shidduch dating can be.

In the SYAS system, a matchmaker suggests a match which is then sent to either the man first, the women first, or both simultaneously (to avoid deadlocks the women make this decision in their preferences). Once a match is sent either party then “approves” or “declines” a match accordingly. If both parties approve, contact information is released and it is expected that they’ll call and arrange a date. Simple enough.

Now let’s start with my numbers. The first recorded match I have is in 2004 at which point I was still living in Chicago. That gives us about 7 years to work with, minus 2.5 years during which time I suspended my account while in a serious relationship. Here are the stats:

  • 711 suggested matches
  • 152 of which I accepted
  • Yielding 28 first dates
  • And zero (0) meaningful serious relationships

Breaking down these numbers, I approved approximately 21.37% of all suggestions and of those women whom I approved only 18.24% reciprocated. Out of all 711 total suggestions, only 3.93% resulted in an actual first date. As pathetic as these numbers are, they don’t even tell the full story. In the event a woman chose to receive the suggestion first, it would not necessarily appear in my list and thus I could be under counting just now many times I’ve been declined.

One could look at these numbers and say that I’m too selective even though my percentage of approving women at 21.37% is greater than the 18.24% reciprocity. From my experience, here are the main reasons why I declined matches:

  • Already Friends / Dated – I don’t have an inherent objection to dating people I already know, but I can tell if I’m not interested. If I’ve already dated someone, no point in trying again unless there’s a good reason. On the plus side, it does give me a sense if the matchmaker is on the right track.

  • Too Far / Distance – I’ve never done well with long distance relationships, and since becoming a rabbi I have neither the time nor money to travel. Despite saying this explicitly in my profile I’ve gotten many suggestions for people who live outside of my stated geographic range. (The most inexplicable one was London). A bad sign since it clearly indicates the matchmaker ignored what I had to say.

  • Personality – This is a little more complicated to quantify. As I discussed in my guide to online Jewish dating, writing profiles can be tricky. More often than not, women on SYAS write horribly generic statements which tell me nothing about themselves such that I have no idea how this person would match the personality for whom I am looking.2Even off the site I’ve found that many people find it difficult to answer the simple question, “how is she what I’m looking for and vice versa?” Just recently a good friend was pushing me to date a mutual friend of hers, however she was at a complete loss at how to describe her beyond the generic, “nice, sweet, pretty” bromides. Following what I’ve said years ago, I will only invest time, energy, and money into people whom I want to date. Meaning, there has to be a good reason for me to go out with this person as opposed to me justifying my reluctance.

I’d also add that I’ve periodically gone outside my range just for the sake of not being too obstinate, though the results have been the same.

Then of course is the actual date itself. In my experience, absolutely zero (0) blind shidduch date in any media has ever produced a meaningful serious relationship (though a few have resulted in good friendships). There are probably a whole slew of personal reasons for this, some of which I’ve explored at length elsewhere on this site. Both of the serious relationships I’ve had have come from meeting people in normal, if not optimal social settings.3

Has shidduch dating worked for some people? Absolutely. However, to insist that people continue to operate within the confines of a system which has clearly failed them is, as Einstein would put it, “insane.” One person is not a statistically significant sample, but I doubt my experience in the blind shidduch world is unique.

While I’m not quite giving up on dating, I am acknowledging based on the empirical evidence that this method is not working for me and it would thus be foolish to continue actively pursuing blind shidduch dates, let alone paying for the privilege. Since I started dating I would not be surprised if I have received at least 1,000 total dating suggestions; but like Kohelet, I have not found even one.

As Kohelet might say in this case, this is a time to move on.

1. The site’s name itself is sort of an inside Jewish joke, referring to Midrashic statements that all Jewish souls were present at the reveleation on Mt. Sinai. See for example B. Shabbat 146a.
2. To be sure, not everyone can express themselves verbally, but as I wrote in the guide to online Jewish dating, if you cannot get your personality across in a profile, don’t choose this medium since your profile is all someone has on which to rely. Additionally, it is possible to write good profiles; compare for example random ones found on Ok Cupid with any of the exclusively Jewish sites.
3. One at the first Edah conference, the other at a Shabbat meal in Washington Heights.

Episode 16 – Love in Judaism

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Rabbi Yuter leads a Beit Midrash session discussing interpersonal and romantic love in Judaism.

Love in Judaism Source Sheet (PDF)

Episode 16 – Love in Judaism

Using Facebook For Jewish Dating

It’s no secret that people have been using Facebook not only to (re)connect with existing friends, but to make new ones, usually based on mutual acquaintances. Given sensationalist news stories1 about the worst that can happen from Facebook, some are reluctant to friend anyone they don’t know personally, just as they would not immediately share personal feelings with random strangers.

But the Orthodox Jewish social world is driven very much through intermediaries. Upon first meeting someone, it’s normal for people to play “Jewish Geography to see if there are any mutual acquaintances. Additionally, many Jews will infer an individual’s basic character traits based on where a person lives or went to school, fairly or unfairly relying on internal cultural stereotypes. In the realm of Jewish dating, I’d guess that most people are set up either through professional shadchanim or mutual friends, intermediaries who ideally know both individuals personally.

While there are in fact several shidduch groups on Facebook geared specifically towards setting up members, I’m curious how many times people use Facebook to set up two mutual friends, or at least find mutual friends on their own and ask for assistance. For example, at this time I have 1,258 friends (I started on the site back in 2004), and many of those people comment on various posts and links such that we get some great discussions going. Or someone may see that I commented on someone else’s post and will follow the link etc. The point is it’s very easy to peruse someone’s social network, either stalkery actively or just through normal usage.

So my question is, to what extent are people using FB for online Jewish dating, given that people often put up more current pictures and share more of their personalities than they do on most dating sites? I’d guess the risk of meeting a creep would be just about the same and you’d have the independent verification of a mutual friend.

It seems so obvious I think I’m missing something.

Update: Turns out there’s already a website geared to such things:

1. And this is all from the past month.

Land of Confusion – A Response to R. Broyde on Women Leading Kabbalat Shabbat

Since The Jewish Week reported that the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale had held a special minyan featuring a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat, the Modern Orthodox Jewish establishment has been apoplectic with yet another example of R. Avi Weiss pushing the envelope of women’s roles in Judaism. Cutting through most of the distracting rhetoric is R. Michael J. Broyde who posts his thoughts on Hirhurim Torah Musings.

Baltimore/DC Rabbis’ Open Letter on Gay Marriage

In response to my podcast on the “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community”, a friend sent in a PDF of “An Open Letter to the Greater Washington Community” included below which seems to focus on opposing gay marriage.

While it may be worthwhile comparing the tone to the aforementioned Statement of Principles, it is important to address the context. First, the open letter could be responding to the issue of civil marriage which the Statement did not address, or to the religious ceremonies which the Statement also rejected.1

Also worth noting is that as of this blog posting, only R. Joel Tessler signed on to both documents – though this could also be attributed to Baltimore/DC rabbinic politics as well.

Episode 6 – Statement of Principles on Homosexuality and Orthodox Judaism

Today’s podcast covers each point in the new “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our (i.e. Orthodox) Community”, why I signed on and why it’s necessary. As always, comments welcome below.

Episode 6 – Statement of Principles on Homosexuality and Orthodox Judaism

Links Referenced in the Podcast