Thanks to Netflix, the mysterious world of Ḥaredim, or at least a certain framing of it, has been screened into millions of Jewish and non-Jewish homes via the series Shtisel and Unorthodox. These two shows are linked by their shared focus on what many consider the most intriguing and perplexing aspects of ḥaredi life—namely love and marriage—and are also neatly emblematic of two dominant forms of media discourse about Ḥaredim. The first, exemplified by Shtisel, generates sympathy for Ḥaredim by domesticating them: showing that beneath the weird clothes and even weirder customs, they struggle with the same human challenges and dilemmas faced by the viewer. The second, by contrast, emphasizes the otherness of Ḥaredim in order to caricature them, arousing the righteous indignation of the audience.
This repetitive dichotomy—one side obfuscating the very real distinctions between Ḥaredim and everyone else, and another side distorting these distinctions by removing their human context, might make for some entertaining TV—but it doesn’t help those who want to genuinely understand the dynamics of the ḥaredi community.
The dance between the two approaches had another iteration recently, with a debate in the pages of the Forward between the Reform rabbi Robyn Frisch, who insisted that her ḥaredi son’s marriage was not “arranged” and likened the process instead to a more thoughtful version of a dating app, and the British activist Yehudis Fletcher, who countered that many ḥaredi, and particularly ḥasidic, marriages are not merely arranged but actually “forced.” While both sides of the debate can score points by highlighting the untruths and misrepresentations inherent in the other, it illuminates little about what is really going on inside the typical ḥaredi home.
A more productive approach is to start from a standpoint that is sympathetic, but ultimately, instead of deceptively emphasizing points of commonality with wider society, shows how the ḥaredi shiddukh (matchmaking) system works according to its own coherent, autonomous logic. As we shall see, it is precisely through rejecting—nay, inverting—liberal norms that the shiddukh system manages to be so successful in achieving the very human aims that those participating in it have.
Before providing such an account, it is necessary to make a distinction between two different ḥaredi shiddukh models: ḥasidic and non-ḥasidic (often known as “yeshivish” or litvish, that is to say Lithuanian). The latter of these incorporates many more elements of the Western approach that provide autonomy and choice to the young men and women who go through it. Indeed, the widespread failure on the part of outsiders to maintain this distinction is responsible for much of the confusion about a system that, in some depictions, looks like Tinder in a black hat, and, in others, like a scene from rural Pakistan. Here my analysis pertains specifically to the ḥasidic world, both because this is what I know personally, and because when the ḥaredi marriage system is attacked, it is really the more extreme and alien ḥasidic version that the critics have in mind.
The ḥasidic shiddukh starts not with the prospective couple, nor even their families, but with the social institution of the matchmaker, known as the shadkhan, the man or woman immortalized in Fiddler on the Roof whose vocation in life is to find appropriate matches. Each shadkhan keeps a roster of boys and girls in the local community and as many as possible in other ḥasidic communities, complete with all the information they can find about them through their social contacts. They form ideas about potential matches based on two considerations. The first is to match up culturally compatible families, with similar religious perspectives (hashkafos) and lifestyles. The second is that, roughly speaking, a 10 gets matched up with a 10, and a 5 with a 5. The criteria for these measures of quality are long and diverse, with physical attractiveness a relevant but second-tier consideration. The most important are good character traits (called middos), a stable family background, and, above all whether he or she is a “good boy” or “good girl,” a euphemism for cheerful compliance with the communal norms expected for that age.
Once the shadkhan has come up with a suitable match, he or she contacts the parents on both sides to suggest it, at which point stage two commences. This consists of the parents gathering as much information as possible to decide whether the suggestion is a good idea or not. Despite all the efforts the shadkhan puts into making sure the match is a good one, a high proportion of suggested shiddukhim do not get beyond this stage. If both sets of parents, however, are impressed with the suggested match, then the next stage ensues, in which the parents will meet with the prospective match to get a more personal view of their qualities and gauge how appropriate they are temperamentally and emotionally for their child.
Finally, if these meetings go well, then the final stage in the matchmaking process commences, in which the prospective groom and bride meet. In the non-ḥasidic ḥaredi community the young man and woman are expected to go on seven or eight “shiddukh dates” in hotel lobbies or parks where topics to be discussed include weighty matters of religious perspective and what kind of home they want to build. By contrast, the prospective ḥasidic couple have two or three meetings, often with the parents waiting in the next room, and they are encouraged to keep it as shallow and chit-chatty as possible. The challenge for both boy and girl, quite simply, is not to do or say something stupid that puts the other off, and, for their part, to decide whether they will say yes or no.
It should, I think, be clear that to try to mount a defense of this system on the grounds that it complies with liberal ideals of personal autonomy and choice would be pointless, even perverse. The locus of agency here is not in a sovereign individual seeking his or her personal ideal of romantic fulfillment. Instead agency flows down from the community, as represented by the shadkhan, to the parents, and then only finally to the young man or woman, who, every other decision having already been made, has only the binary choice left of whether to say yes or no. In wider society, even the token practice of asking a young maiden’s father for permission to propose is seen as quaint, if not outright offensive in implying that the decision is anything other than the sole purview of the bride and groom. For Ḥasidim, by contrast, the matchmaking process is no journey of self-discovery; to the contrary, it happens at the age of nineteen or twenty when the man and woman, recent graduates of an intensely protective education system, have, if everything has gone to plan, not much of a self to discover yet.
An outsider might reasonably think that such a system would require the central planning or direction of rabbis. In reality, though, one of the sharpest limits of rabbinic power in the ḥasidic world is the shiddukh process, where the role of even the most powerful rebbe is typically advisory. The system, rather, runs on the eager participation of ordinary people, from the shadkhan driven by the mitzvah of finding matches (and, of course, the fee paid by satisfied parents), to the parents intent on marrying off their children in a timely fashion, to the young men and women desperate to graduate into adulthood and access the full benefits of membership of the ḥasidic community. It is true, of course, that these desires are not innate, but shaped by a lifetime of immersion in a specific ethical and cultural community, but they are not forced into it by any dictator figure. In this respect, if no other, the mechanisms of compulsion and constraint in the ḥaredi society more resemble, as Michel Foucault or Noam Chomsky would perhaps point out, those employed by a liberal social order than traditional authoritarian models. The factors that push young ḥasidic men and women to make the decision to get married young and almost immediately commence having children are the complete complex of social conditioning and education (formal and informal) that make what to the outsider seems incomprehensible, not only natural but desirable above all things.
The deep desire of all its stakeholders to make good shiddukhim results in a system that, as a whole, is astonishingly successful. By successful, I mean, first, that it delivers near universal marriage rates, and, second, a divorce rate lower than anything the Western world has seen in at least 60 years. A young Ḥasid has an overwhelmingly higher chance of getting married, and of staying that way, than the average Westerner. The only way of denying this success is to argue that, though they do not get divorced, behind the curtains, ḥasidic husbands and wives are trapped in deeply unhappy marriages with no means of escape. What such a hypothesis cannot reasonably explain, though, is why ḥasidic teenagers who, supposedly, grow up surrounded by married couples who hate being married to each other, nevertheless yearn for nothing more than to enter this supposedly toxic arrangement for themselves. This, of course, is precisely the case of the protagonist of Unorthodox, growing up in a joyless home with a depressive father and dreaming of freedom outside the community. If most ḥasidic children grew up like this, then they would too. But of course they don’t.
What remains is to explain what it is about the ḥasidic system that makes it so successful. Undoubtedly important is the unique degree of support the extended family and wider community provides to married couples when they face the inevitable challenges and stresses of married life, from a network of aunts and uncles who provide childcare to an ever-growing ecosystem of micro-charities known as gemakhim that support every conceivable area of life. Another crucial factor is that the ḥasidic community has idealized gender roles which are clearly defined, stable over generations, and, most importantly of all, attainable for men and women of relatively modest talents, or at least those who have been through the ḥasidic education system. A detailed description of the social construction of gender within the ḥasidic community is a subject for a separate article, but the critical point is that the socially accepted definition of a “good wife” or “good husband” is one that the average community member can, with sufficient effort, fill, thus earning the respect and admiration of his or her spouse. What is missing in such an analysis, however, is that enigmatic phenomenon we call love.
In modern society, it is considered axiomatic that the basis of any marriage, at the very least any good marriage, is love; the concept of a “loveless marriage” is synonymous with marital failure. The word “love,” however, has a wide range of meanings: one may legitimately love a chocolate bar, one’s children, or a new girlfriend. The question of the role of love in a marriage disguises a latent ambiguity between the kind of hysterical feelings that drive a besotted young man to stay up all night writing and re-writing romantic letters, and the silent, easy affection of the pensioner who makes sure his wife of 60 years has her cup of tea ready each morning. The Western concept of love involves conflating these feelings into a never clearly defined category, which is then made the lodestone of married life.
In the ḥasidic world by contrast, the building block of a marriage is something more concrete, even measurable: the concept known as sholom bayis, which we may loosely translate as harmony between man and wife. Sholom bayis denotes a marriage characterized by stability, compassion, support, mutual respect and the absence of recurrent friction. In hasidic life, love is not a frequently discussed topic, and indeed, the like/love distinction, so basic to English, does not exist in Hebrew and is not used in vernacular Yiddish. Sholom bayis, by contrast, is omnipresent, a meta-value across the community, which must always be given pride of whenever decisions are to be made that might potentially infringe upon it. It is a given that the cultivation of feelings of warmth, and physical attraction between the two parties are desirable, if not essential for bringing sholom bayis into the home. However, many of the emotions that fall under the general banner of love are quite tangential to it, at best. The euphoric, exhilarating sensation of love at first sight, and its flipside of anxiety and jealousy when things don’t go according to plan, is a uniquely powerful part of the human condition, forming, as it does, the basis of large swathes of both popular and high culture. What it doesn’t help much with is sustaining a mutually satisfying partnership over decades as you struggle with the challenges of building a home and raising children.
When pushed to explain how a system that whittles down romance and courtship to almost nothing can possibly create a loving marriage, Ḥasidim will usually resort to one of two arguments. The first is that ḥasidic husbands and wives learn to love each other after they get married, the second, is that love as we know it is a cultural invention which has little relation to a successful marriage. Both of those answers contain an important element of truth, but, as we should expect when discussing the mysteries of the human heart, the truth is a bit more complicated than that. Many readers will be familiar with the famous exchange between Tevye the dairyman and his wife Golde from Fiddler on the Roof:
Do you love me?
I’m your wife
I know. But do you love me?
Do I love him?
For 25 years, I’ve lived with him. Fought with him. Starved with him. 25 years, my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?
Then you love me?
I suppose I do.
And I suppose I love you, too. It doesn’t change a thing. But even so, after 25 years. It’s nice to know.
The question of whether a ḥasidic man loves his wife, and vice versa, simultaneously makes no difference, and is achingly important, is impossible to define and yet so easy to spot. Like happiness, love is not acquired by seeking it. Sholom bayis, by contrast, is a real target, and if you make a serious effort to find it, you probably will, especially if you have a village backing you up as you do.