Do Orthodox Jews Have Arranged Marriages?

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Dear Jew in the City,

Do Orthodox Jews Have Arranged Marriages? Does Jewish law allow this?

Thank you,

Alex

Dear Alex –

First, another question: What does “arranged marriage” mean?

For that matter, what does “allowed” mean?

Let’s assume “arranged marriage” doesn’t just mean a blind date. Does it mean two sets of parents agree their children will marry each other, without giving the children a chance to accept or reject the plan?

If we’re talking about that degree of “arrangement,” well, I’m no posek (halachic authority), but I can offer a couple of texts that seem relevant.

Note: In the passage cited below, the Talmud uses a Hebrew word that means “acquire” to describe the technical process of binding two people in an official betrothal. It would be impossible in a short essay to both discuss that word choice and also address the question about arranged marriages; let’s just assume for the moment that the use of this word does not mean the husband owns his wife, and table exploration of what it does mean.

And another: The Talmud consists of two parts: The Mishna is the first written record of Oral Law; the Gemara discusses and expands on the Mishna, line by line, often in a question-and-answer format. 

The very first line of the Mishna in tractate Kiddushin states that there are three ways a woman can be “acquired” in marriage. (Giving her something of symbolic value, like a ring, is one of them.) The Gemara raises some questions about that phrasing, including: Why use the passive voice to describe how a woman is “acquired”? Seems like the man does the action, so why not state the law in terms of how a man “acquires”?

Among the answers is the suggestion that the Mishna was concerned emphasis on the groom’s role might lead to a misconception: “[the reader] might have thought [the man could betroth her] even without her consent.”

Which, of course, he can’t.

The technicalities of betrothal might seem to be in the hands of the groom, but the very first words of the tractate emphasize the same point Westley makes in my favorite movie, The Princess Bride: “If you didn’t say it, you didn’t do it.” If she doesn’t clearly express her consent, then it didn’t happen; they’re not married.

Not even parents may force two people to get married. In fact, we might infer from a biblical story about an “arranged” marriage that not even God can force it.

In Genesis chapter 24, Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for his son, Isaac. The servant encounters Rebecca, who fits all his criteria, in a manner that seems too perfect to be a coincidence; it must have been divinely arranged. Her family agrees; when asked whether they will agree to the match, they respond, “The matter came from God; we can’t say good or bad to you. Behold, Rebecca is before you; take [her] and go, and she will be a wife for your master’s son like God declared” (24:50-51).

At that point, we might think that not only is Rebecca’s marriage being decided by her parents, but they themselves believe it’s been arranged by God Himself – out of their control as well as hers.

But when the moment of truth arrives, when the servant is ready to get going and Rebecca’s family tries to delay, it’s Rebecca who has the final word. “Call the young lady and ask her word… And she said, I will go” (ibid. 57-58). Rashi cites a Rabbinic statement about this verse: “From here we learn that we only marry a woman with her consent.” (It is further suggested that her firm phrasing emphasizes her autonomy: “I will go – of myself, even if you don’t want.”)

Based on the above Talmudic statement, as well as this biblical precedent, it seems extremely-arranged marriage would in fact not be allowed in Jewish law.

But is that what people mean when they talk about arranged marriages, or is the question more about the in-between scenarios? How much of a role may, or should, parents or rabbis play in determining who will marry whom?

This is where we get into gray area – where the question of what “allowed” means comes into play, as well as further gradations of “arranged.”

Having grown up and lived much of my life in somewhat of a modern-ish Orthodox bubble, I can’t claim familiarity with the ins and outs of how various Haredi or Hasidic communities approach dating. But there’s a line I like to quote:

A Haredi relative once shared with me a conversation he had with a friend who, if I remember correctly, belonged to a particular Hasidishe sect. We’ll call him Reb Yankel. As I understand it, in my relative’s community the standard procedure is that a young man and young woman are introduced, get together a few times – in public places, but not directly chaperoned – and then, if everyone is agreeable, perhaps they get engaged in a matter of weeks. While this might sound alarmingly structured and brief to some, the norms in Reb Yankel’s community were considerably more extreme. (I never asked for details.)

Discussing their different approaches to dating, Reb Yankel declared, “It would be assur (prohibited) for us to do it your way, and it would be assur for you to do it our way!”

What did he mean by that? Are there Jewish laws – rules about what’s allowed or prohibited – that guide the dating process?

Well, sort of; there are plenty of texts related to interactions between men and women that have guided Jewish views on dating for centuries. But as I understood it, Reb Yankel wasn’t talking about the laws on the books; he was talking about the complex interplay between what the books say and how different communities live.

When a particular community has established norms, those norms create a reality that itself determines what the norms should be – a self-perpetuating cycle that is particularly evident in matters of modesty and interactions between men and women.

As Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz, a leading Religious Zionist rabbi who passed away just a few weeks ago, wrote:

Human sensitivity to different things is affected by the environment, and by the society’s accepted policies and ways of life, which engender different responses to similar phenomena. That is to say, the same phenomenon might lead to different effects and responses based on the accepted way of life of each and every society… Social reality has an effect on the desirable standards…For the conditions of a society establish the level of sensitivity to different stimuli… (Responsa Si’ach Nachum 112; translation from deracheha.org/mechitza-3-in-society)

If men and women are not accustomed to any interaction at all (and it’s not my intention here to discuss whether extreme separation is ideal), then each is likely to have heightened awareness of the other’s presence when they are together. Even an interaction that would be totally innocuous in another setting, for two people who have never experienced such a thing, carries potential to be sexually charged and cross the lines of modesty – and so, Reb Yankel contended, it would be inappropriate for a young man and a young woman to simply go out on multiple extended dates.

Moreover, in a community in which parents always play a heavy role in the process, the young man and young woman may not have developed the tools they would need to guide the process themselves.

On the other hand, in a community where children grow up expecting more of a chance to get to know a prospective spouse, with a lighter (if any) parental hand – Reb Yankel acknowledged it would be assur to do it “his way” and deprive them of that. Those conversations, held in public, will not carry the same sense of immodesty as they would in a setting that never does such a thing; instead, they are likely a necessary prerequisite for consent to marriage and a crucial foundation to building a solid marriage relationship in the world they know.

Where are the lines? What’s degree of “arrangement” is appropriate in each community? That’s not a question I can answer; even laws on the books sometimes involve gray areas, and unwritten socially-based norms can be even murkier.

We might, however, keep the following in mind:

1-Extremes are generally problematic. (See, for instance, the beginning of Rambam’s Hilchot De’ot.) They are also subjective; what I see as extreme, you might see as normal and necessary. But some things do just cross the line, and marrying someone off without their consent is one of those.

2-Consent can itself be murky. Even if a young person can technically reject a match, they may not feel they can. There are a lot of stories out there about young people who felt pressured to say yes when they really weren’t sure or ready.

If a person says “yes” under pressure, it’s not consent. Which means we need to think about potential sources of pressure, and how to avoid them – in all communities, and in all families.

It’s hard to know, though, what communal or personal pressures any individual might feel, especially since there are so many that might be unintended: a parent’s enthusiasm about a prospective match might be read as an assumption that it’s a done deal; the fact that most of one’s acquaintances were married by a certain age might create a sense of urgency to just do it already.

These pressures can exist in any community, anywhere on the spectrum of “arranged” or even when couples meet on their own; people of all stripes can get so caught up in things that the poor bride and groom never have a chance.

And since we can’t always anticipate or even recognize the pressures an individual might feel, we have to actively work to prevent them.

It’s on all of us, in all communities – parents, friends, community members and leaders, matchmakers, whomever – to explicitly temper enthusiasm and hopes with reassurance that the power to choose rests entirely in the hands and hearts of the people deciding whether to spend the rest of their lives together. And to make sure they know it’s entirely ok to say no.

3- Communities are made up of individuals, and despite the strong impact communal norms can have on an individual’s development, there will always be those who are different, who need something different. (And different does not mean bad – another thing we may need to explicitly remind each other.) I like to think even Reb Yankel wouldn’t call it assur to meet an individual’s specific needs, even if those needs differ from others in the community. That goes both ways, of course: those in communities with matches more heavily arranged, who might need a little more time or a little more of their own control in the process; and those in communities where nothing is “arranged” for the couple, who might seek out guidance others don’t understand or be truly certain of their “yes” unusually quickly. It can be a challenge to maintain awareness of the distinctions between halacha and communal habit, but that awareness is crucial to creating space for a variety of needs within the parameters of halachic requirements.

The gray areas in dating and marriage within halacha call for communication, respect, honesty, and balance – just like most of life.

And for the black-and-white: no, we’re not allowed to force someone to get married.

 

Sincerely,

Sarah Rudolph


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