Several years ago, I spoke at a conference run by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). They really understood my points about the teen girls in Crown Heights, Brooklyn’s Chabad Hasidic community; they seemed to commune with the beauty of living in a tight-knit, spiritually alive group and with the pain of being an outlier in a society whose basic tenets alienate you. JOFA’s overall goal—to empower women as much as possible within the bounds of Orthodox Judaism—intrigued me, and I had a wonderful time chatting with people who walked a difficult tightrope of adherence to Torah’s gender distinctions and desire to break things open for women who were craving more agency, freedom, and Judaic knowledge.
They were making clear strides in education, prayer, and other spheres, and they reached Orthodox communities I never would have expected. Most attendees were modern Orthodox: enthusiastic believers in pursuing secular studies and activities along with Judaism. A small, intriguing minority came from groups who were less assimilated—more separate from non-Jews and non-Jewish thought. One woman described herself as Hasidic without a particular rebbe: her family had tried different groups and enjoyed several; she had grown up in Borough Park, Brooklyn, where Hasidic communities were plentiful and diverse. A small cadre described themselves as Chabad Hasidim, followers of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. They were looking to open things up for Chabad women and girls: give them greater chances to learn deeply and pray with a sense of power.
At one point, I was sitting with a friend, listening to a well-known modern Orthodox sociologist discuss her work. The sociologist commented that there was an “epidemic” of single Orthodox Jews above the typical marrying age. My friend, hard to categorize (like so many people) but more or less modern Orthodox, looked shaken. She caught my eye and asked: “Epidemic?” Then she began crying, surprising herself as much as me, and ran into the bathroom. At the time, she was maybe 30, with no particular marital prospects.
I glanced around to gauge overall reaction; others in the room seemed to find this notion of “epidemic” completely reasonable and unremarkable. As someone who has never wanted to marry or have children, I was struck by this lack of reaction, especially after seeing my friend’s raw hurt. I have a sense that singlehood is becoming more common in the Orthodox world, but “epidemic” suggests a horrible problem: the plague, polio. As my Hasidic friends would say: Chas v’shalom! (God forbid!)
The whole point of the conference was to push the boundaries of gender expectations. Marriage, in some ways, is the ultimate Jewish gender expectation. Even if you can study Talmud and lead prayer sessions with dynamism and spark, you probably won’t be happy if you’re forced into marriage when your deepest essence calls you towards a more solitary existence. If you’re not attracted to your spouse—and some truly do lack sexual interest or feel attracted only to same-sex partners—you’ll probably struggle mightily to soar as a spiritual soul as you try to fulfill your marital obligations. And if you’re not a fabulously gifted actor, your spouse will likely suffer as well.
I have several friends and acquaintances, both male and female, who are single Orthodox Jews in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. Many spend a lot of time at Orthodox singles events but haven’t yet found “the one.” I have no doubt that some would truly love to find that “one”—and they seek him/her with a quiet passion. Others… well, I don’t know. I do find it interesting that they attend these events so frequently, along with others on the very same quest, but somehow never seem to find anyone appropriate. Could it be that they don’t want to find “the one” because they’re frankly happier on their own, but they feel compelled to do all this searching because their communities insist that they try? I’ve never been inside their heads, so I can’t say for sure. But I’ve wondered.
When I lived among Crown Heights, Brooklyn’s Lubavitcher Hasidim, there was a fairly large subculture of single newly religious women who were not particularly looking for husbands. They were much older than typical Lubavitch marrying age, and some had almost surely hit menopause, eliminating one primary reason to partner up. They were an intriguing group, and I got to be friends with many of them. They ranged from successful professionals to women on the margins who never quite found their niche anywhere. All enjoyed the community aspect of Crown Heights: the chance to join families for holiday meals, Bar Mitzvahs, weddings, and the like. They never seemed to host their own holiday gatherings; they appeared to feel that a proper spiritual celebration required a traditional family’s hospitality.
A piece of me found their presence comforting. I entered Crown Heights to research my book, but I was also on a spiritual journey. I have an unusual blend of skepticism and openness, and, crazy as they sometimes sounded, I loved many of Chabad’s core beliefs. The notion that Moshiach (the Messiah) might come at any time particularly struck me. The Messianic era—which might well be imminent—would usher in a glorious new world where God’s presence was obvious, immortality and physical strength forever would be natural, and the deceased would be resurrected in good health. Yes, logistical questions arise, but this is the Messiah: issues like overcrowding would be handled in the normal course of events.
I didn’t believe it, but I didn’t actively disbelieve it. There could be something to it; who was I to negate the faith of so many whose gut impulses and allegedly mystical experiences led them to this particular conviction? But there’s something alienating about a culture that has a deep-seated expectation you know you’ll never fulfill. When I say marriage isn’t for me, I ask you to trust me and not assume I’m ignorant of my true nature. I know how relieved I am to arrive home after a night of socializing or a full day of working with others. I thrive on my own, making independent choices, seeing people when I want and then having space and time to reflect on it all in my quiet apartment. I don’t want to be intermeshed with anyone at nearly the level of spousehood.
Those newly religious Chabad single women showed me that I would have a place in the community, hanging out with them as well as all the families I met. I wouldn’t be the lone wolf among a sea of families; there’d be other lone wolves. But those lone wolves were disparaged on many levels.
Single women were known as “girls” regardless of their age, just as married women were… women, even if they were only 18. Now, I am a big fan of halting the aging process; ordinarily I’d have no problem being called a child while younger people are seen as adults. But “girl,” in this case, implied an unfinished person, a soul who never came to fruition because she never found the mate who would complete her. It was demeaning, and I bristled at it in the same way I bristle when people call their household help “the girl.” That one factor—whether or not you had married—determined basic status, and it just didn’t speak to me because I had no desire to land a husband and knew in my soul that I was better off without one.
The single women themselves perceived this distinction, and though many of them seemed very content, they knew where they stood. A common refrain among them was: “That’s my opinion, but I don’t really know; I’m just a baal teshuva” [returnee to the faith; in other words, a Jew who chose religious life after being raised in a less observant home. Marital status has nothing to do with it.] Thing is, I never heard that comment among married people who had not been raised Orthodox, though there certainly was some status distinction between those with Orthodox lineage and those with none. “Just a baal teshuva” essentially meant “just some shmoe who was not raised Orthodox and never even married.”
The whole thing really turned me off of the whole belief system—not for others, but for myself. I don’t want to be some shmoe. Call me arrogant, but I will go further and say that I’m not some shmoe. I have many, many faults, but I am not a shmoe.
To be fair, I highly doubt I would have been attracted to Orthodoxy even without this issue. I’m a free spirit who sees spirituality in flexibility and experimentation: popping into interesting non-kosher restaurants wherever I go, taking compelling opportunities when they appear, even if they come at a time when the Jewish calendar would prohibit them. I also feel most comfortable and at home in my body while wearing pants: forbidden in strict Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. And the whole idea of basing my life on Judaic texts when there are so many other philosophies and possibilities out there seems counterintuitive to my freewheeling mind.
But I would have been a lot more open to suspending disbelief and giving it a try if my core needs as a person who needs space and privacy and does not gravitate towards wifehood or motherhood were respected. The irony: in some ways, I love Chabad philosophy precisely because it exalts the power of the individual. Any one person might bring the Messiah through a seemingly small action. Since I value the individual personality as the fundamental unit of existence, this strikes me as on target and perfectly wonderful. But, to be a full self, a person needs to marry. That notion ruins it for me because it completely contradicts my fundamental sense of what is true and right.
This is a problem throughout Orthodoxy, from the most modern through the most sheltered and strict. Actual Jewish law on the matter is interesting. Men are required to marry and reproduce if biologically possible. Technically, women are not, but if women avoided marriage and reproduction en masse, they’d stop men from fulfilling their obligations. Hence, the strength of the marriage expectation for both genders.
But there are rules and there are rules. Some rules are hugely important edifices, looming over life with their vast expectations. Others are more like ideals that are often overlooked. There are laws against gossip and evil speech, but I’ve never heard an Orthodox Jew say: “That’s my opinion, but I don’t really know; I’m just a person who tends to make nasty comments.” Yet… the person who goes around making nasty comments is hurting feelings and doing great damage to other human beings. The person who doesn’t marry because he/she can’t imagine enjoying that kind of partnership is frankly saving another soul from a lonely life of wondering why he/she is unable to inspire true love, attraction, and commitment.
Those who wanted to marry but never found the right partner may have fallen short on a life goal, but who among us achieves every dream? The relative importance of this particular disappointment depends on the person and, I’m convinced, on the values perceived in the larger social circle. If you give your single friends and family members the impression that they’re sorely lacking in a fundamental way, they may start to believe you. And why would a person who tries to spread light and love want to give others the impression that they’ve failed absolutely? I can’t imagine a universe where that would be a spiritual message.
On some level, the exaltation of marriage or at least partnership reaches far beyond the Orthodox Jewish world. When I turn on the television or begin reading a book that describes personal lives, I’m often reminded that most see partnership/marriage as the ideal state—and singlehood as something to avoid if possible. Real life examples abound. I’m thinking about a secular organization I belong to here in Cambridge, MA. I usually attend events on my own, but once, I brought a male friend who happens to give off an air of attractiveness and affluence. What an amazing social psychology experiment. People who normally paid little attention to me zoomed over to introduce themselves to me and my friend. All of a sudden, I was part of the popular crowd. When the next event rolled around and I attended on my own, I was back to my marginal status; the difference was all too clear.
So why am I picking on Orthodox Judaism when the situation extends much further? First of all, the Jewish expectation to marry is very specific and defined, with an unusually strong stigma against those who remain single. But there’s more. Judaism contains powerful notions of the spiritual self, the gorgeousness of wrestling with God, and questioning with passion. It prides itself on community and reaching out beyond family towards others in your midst. Such a complex, discerning worldview that values empathy and compassion can transcend this tendency to judge people based on marital/partnership status. It’s just wrong. It takes one trait and inflates it far beyond its actual importance. Jewish culture can do better, and so can you.