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The ‘Crisis’ of the Single Orthodox Woman

The recent publication of “Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game” by Jon Birger and his accompanying piece in TIME has set off a flurry of discussion on demographics in dating. Josh Yuter’s response in the Sisterhood, for example, critically examined the so-called Shidduch crisis and found the argument wanting. I read his piece with great interest and mostly in agreement. I, as an individual, as a single person, am not a crisis. I do not believe my unmarried life to be a tragedy or a disaster — it is my life — my friends and my family, my home, my career, in fits and starts. We would do well indeed to start treating people as individuals and allow them to find their own happiness.

And yet.

As a student of the humanities in college I tended to think not in numbers, but in individual stories. However, one of the first things I learned from the great historian of Irish history, Emmet Larkin, was that history is about economics. If the statistics point to a phenomenon, it is generally a good idea to pay attention to that phenomenon and to see how it plays out within the lives of individual people. So, it behooves me to point out that the TIME article, if its numbers are correct, is not blaming the Shidduch Crisis on demographics, rather, the demographics are an indication of a phenomenon wherein there are more women looking to be married than there are men, which in turn leads to a crisis.

But even more than that, it is easier to say there is no Shidduch Crisis if you are not a woman. I have no doubt that to be a single man in your upper 30s in the Orthodox community is difficult. Rejection is painful, and loneliness can be it’s own sort of torture, no matter your gender. I am also sure that single men feel a certain amount of estrangement from their family-focused communities. However, to be a single Orthodox man is not a crisis of identity.

Orthodox Judaism in America (excluding perhaps, some streams of liberal and modern Orthodoxy) has no religious or communal framework for single women. The expected trajectory for a woman in the Orthodox world is that she will graduate high school, spend a year studying in Israel and shortly thereafter be married. But more and more often, for more and more women, that is not happening.

When I try verbalize what the experience of a single woman in the Orthodox community, I come up with a blank — it is an emptiness, something without a place. This is not to say that within their communities Orthodox single women aren’t loved or appreciated or given the freedom to pursue their own lives. They are and they do. But the ritual and communal markers still belong to the men. Traditionally man would make kiddush for his wife and his children on Shabbat, he would make havdalah as well. His blessing stands for himself and encompasses them. He may make these blessings for himself and others whether married or unmarried. An unmarried man may continue to learn Torah, well after high school but a woman cannot receive the merit of her husband’s Torah learning without a husband. For a woman to take on the mantle of those acts is an exception, an aberration from the way things should be.

So what is an Orthodox woman to do in that long religious and communal twilight zone? Would I like to see an Orthodoxy that gives full ritual and communal personhood to single women (and to women in general)? Absolutely. Do I think it will happen? No. Certainly not in my lifetime. I am also aware of the fact that not all Orthodox women want what I want. Many women want to remain within the communities they grew up in. They want to lead the lives they were told they would have, they want to fill the religious and communal roles in keeping with the mores and values of their society. And why shouldn’t they? The mores and values of their society are their own mores and values.

Yes, we should treat people — men and women both — as individuals and allow them to make their own way in the world, but individuals exist in a context and that context is society. Right now, unmarried Orthodox women have two options — remain in a community that has no place for them, or leave.

How is that not a crisis?

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