Editor’s Note: This week we welcome Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen, OU ambassador to the NY Jewish community and Director of Community Engagement for Yachad, to The Jewish Link, who will be writing a regular column on relationships and shidduchim.
Join The Jewish Link of New Jersey on Facebook on Monday, 9/19, at 12 noon, for a live Q&A with Rabbi Cohen! Feel free to ask him questions about this article or ask other questions that you would like him to address. The conversation will also be archived for later viewing. Thanks to our social media partners The Orthodox Union and YUConnects!
Boy, how the times have changed! When I was in shidduchim many years ago, requesting a picture of a young lady was an absolute no-no. Although it was important to be attracted to the young lady, or the young man for that matter, there was no choice but to rely on the assertions of the shadchan. As different human beings have different tastes—as the saying goes, taam verach ein lehitvakeach (no arguments about taste and smell)—many inevitably were disappointed when using this approach.
I can’t pinpoint when exactly it happened, but now it seems everybody must provide a photo with a shidduch resume in the Orthodox dating world. People pay much money for elaborate photo shoots to ensure they look their best. After all, if they don’t look good when they are trying so hard, you can likely assume the rest will be downhill in the “looks” category.
In either time period, whether the olden days or the new resume era, there is an underlying reality to the world of shidduchim and interactions between opposite sexes. Sexual tension is at play either on the surface or immediately beneath it. Frankly, it should be and it is important to acknowledge it. I have never met a person who didn’t consider their spouse to be attractive. Kudos to those who decided to save people lots of time, by enabling them to hopefully date a person where the “looks aren’t an issue.”
Acknowledging the stakes and dynamics, I must share that a number of wonderful Orthodox singles, who I consider to be God fearing and meticulous in mitzvah observance, have shared with me in confidence that they have violated negiah (physical contact prohibitions) in the dating context. I’m not speaking here of people that are not careful about such things; I’m speaking of people who expressed deep regret after having had some form of physical contact on a shidduch date.
Circumstances vary as to how this occurs. Sometimes, it is an engaged couple, who are spending too much time together late at night in places that border on yichud prohibitions, although may be technically not yichud. Sometimes, it is a person feeling vulnerable and their counterpart maybe isn’t as observant as they. Sometimes, it is an extremely sexually frustrated older single, craving both emotional closeness and a release of sorts.
I’m sure there are many that have such temptation but manage to avoid such contact as well. They should be commended for their self-control, but I’m not sure that the other should be condemned. How common are these infractions? There is no way to be sure, but anecdotally they certainly are a strong minority of cases. Consider that people aren’t bragging about these violations, at least judged by the guilt that I observe welling up in those who have shared with me.
I had a friend, z’l, who was a psychologist. He used to share with me that it is a hard profession. Nobody recommends you and tells people they are seeing you. They also look the other way should they bump into you in the street. These scenarios about “dating violations” tend to have a similar smell to them, as vulnerabilities aren’t often shared with the public.
It is intriguing to me that many Orthodox married couples observe laws of family purity without violation. I have never had a religiously meticulous couple tell me this was an issue for them in their marriage. I’m sure there are exceptions, but there is a halachic concept of “pas besalo,” of knowing that the restrictions will pass soon. They also have already enjoyed intimacy together. A frum single, who has yet to have such a sexual experience certainly is more greatly challenged. A single who was physically active in their youth and shifted gears post-Israel, might also have difficulty in remaining loyal to a new-found halachic lifestyle. This reality might explain the discrepancy in my therapeutic experience.
The attention to “looks” and attraction in dating is healthy and important. Self-control in the face of desire is a life-long challenge in so many realms and shidduchim is no different. The very same acts can be beautiful and transformational and also guilt inspiring and awful. Which feelings we experience are purely defined by context and managing the boundaries that the Torah places around the most powerful and complicated realm of human interaction.
My question to you dear reader is how do you manage attraction and desire in the dating context? Are you cognizant of your feelings? Do you ever discuss them with friends, mentors or even parents? I hope you will tune in and discuss them with me as we launch our new Facebook live-feed discussion of this scintillating topic and hopefully many others as well in the near future, including concurrently dating multiple people and telling the truth about one’s age, to name just two.
Rabbi Cohen is the author of We’re Almost There: Living with Patience, Perseverance and Purpose (Mosaica Press 2016), which has a section devoted to marital harmony and shidduchim. He holds a masters in counseling from the University of North Texas. He has a private practice in Manhattan working with singles and couples. His column will also have a live component, with a Q&A scheduled after every column release on The Jewish Link of New Jersey’s Facebook page. Learn more about Rabbi Cohen at www.rabbidovidmcohen.com.