Stranger in a Strange Land

by Susan Handelman


A Roman woman asked Rabbi Akiva how long it took for G-d to create the world. "Six days," she was told.

"What has He been doing since then?"

"He's been arranging marriages," answered the rabbi.

Unimpressed, she claimed that was hardly a Divine occupation, and that she, too, could do it—for she owned many slaves and could pair them off with little difficulty. Rabbi Akiva warned her not to think it was so easy: "It is as difficult for Him as dividing the Red Sea."

Nevertheless, she immediately went about pairing off her slaves. The next day, they appeared before her—one with a cracked forehead, another with an eye knocked out, another with a broken leg. "What's the matter with you?" she asked them. One female said, "I don't want him"; another male said, "I don't want her"; and so on. Forthwith she sent to Rabbi Akiva and professed: "There is no god like your G-d and your Torah is true. What you told me is quite correct."

(Bereishis Rabbah 88:4)

Times Aren't A-Changing

Things have not changed much since the days of the Roman woman. With the large and ever-increasing number of Jewish singles on the contemporary American scene, it should be even more understandable today why Divine time and effort must be expended on behalf of the unmarried. Yet there is plenty cause for anxiety when one looks around and sees how slow people on earth are to take their cue from Divine concern.

In most Jewish communities, there are ever-growing numbers of Jewish singles—be they those who have not yet married, divorcees, widows, or widowers—whose difficulties, loneliness, and pain are, to a large extent, unnoticed. While the experience of loneliness is common to both the Orthodox and non-Orthodox, the problems facing the Orthodox Jewish female are in a sense more acute. To be sure, the feminist movement has so altered American society at large that being single and husbandless is no longer considered a stigma. While this is not the place to discuss the feminist view of the position of women in Orthodox Judaism, even the feminists agree that within the sphere of home and family, the Jewish woman is not only respected, but pre-eminent, and the home is probably the central institution in Orthodox Judaism, in many ways even more important than the synagogue.

What, then, does the Orthodox Jewish woman do if she treasures the idea of the Jewish home as a "miniature Sanctuary" as the Rabbis call it, if she seeks union with a husband, a union which according to the Torah brings the very Divine Presence to dwell between them, if she sees the mad chase for worldly power, prestige, and self-aggrandizement as ultimately far less meaningful than the intimacy of a relation with a man also committed to a higher ideal, to the service of G-d and fellowman? And yet, despite her best efforts, she has not found him?

The Orthodox Scenario

In many Orthodox communities, the scenario may be as follows: One by one, she sees her friends become engaged and married with shouts of "Mazel Tov! Mazel Tov!" Engagement parties (the vort), and weddings take place where well-meaning married women and friends come up to her, pityingly look her in the eye, sigh, and intently say, "Im yirtzeh Hashem by you," —that is, "G-d willing, you too should find a husband soon." As time goes by, the looks become more pitying, and sometimes contain a hint of annoyance, as if to say, "Well, what's taking you so long?" She might even find herself at her friends' wedding seated at the special table reserved for "unmarried girls" instead of seated with her married friends. There is a kind of cruel but realistic logic in this. For she notices that as soon as her friends marry, they seem to enter another realm of existence, having "graduated" to the circle of "the married women." After all, their husbands are now the focus of their lives, and they are struggling to adjust to their new mates, set up a house, work. There is less and less to share together. The single woman becomes more isolated socially; she does not want to intrude herself on her old friends, and has problems making new ones, for the other single girls are much younger than she. Well-meaning friends begin to tell her, "You know, you're not getting any younger" and "You know, nobody's perfect; you have to compromise. You can't have everything. Why don't you settle?" She wonders if they would give the same advice to their own daughters.

If she does not live with her family, she may begin to dread Shabbos and the holidays, once a source of joy to her. For she will be the one dutifully invited to a meal—if people remember—and the warmth, intimacy, and fullness of their homes can underscore her emptiness and loneliness. But she must be careful not to appear too depressed—for then she will be unattractive, and who will find her a match? She painfully drags herself to the few people in the community who are shadchans—not professional matchmakers, but good souls who do it out of a sense of obligation to the unmarried, who empathize, and who consider it an important mitzvah. But sometimes she wonders what they must think of her to have matched her up with some of the men she has gone out with. "Well, what does it hurt to try," they respond. "You never know." But it does hurt. For each buildup raises hopes that this could be the one. He and she are not going out for a light-hearted evening together, but specifically for the purpose of deciding if they want to marry each other. It can be tense—they probe and explore each other's characters and psyches, spend hours intensely talking, after which she comes home drained. How much longer, she wonders, can she endure this.

Moving Away to Nowhere

All of this applies in the best of situations, in a tightly-knit Orthodox community. If she decides to move away from the community to another part of the city, or if she lives in an area where the Jewish community is weaker than in certain parts of New York, it is even harder. The "Modern Orthodox" communities of young professional Jews with whom she might have an affinity are even more couple-oriented than the older traditional Orthodox or Chassidic communities—and far more susceptible to American suburban values than the inner-city Jewish communities. As the religious Jewish community becomes more and more Americanized, it can paradoxically adopt a specific kind of non-Jewish worship of home and family as insular citadels. This emphasis on home and family appears to be traditionally Jewish, but in fact is not. The traditional Jewish home was not an enclosed castle: "Yosi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be wide open [for guests]; treat the poor as members of your household" (Avos 1:5); "Yosi ben Yoezer of Tzereidah said: Let your house be a meeting place for Sages; sit in the dust at their feet and drink in their words thirstily" (Avos 1:4). The Jewish home ideally was a place open to all, a place where love, property, and wealth were shared with all in need, where one Jew found sustenance and succor in another, regardless of financial, social, or marital status.

And What of Special People?

And what of the widow or divorcee who suddenly finds herself alone? In addition to the pain of loss, she suffers a sudden diminution of status. It is well known that the figure of a widow can represent a psychic threat. She embodies the fear that other women have of being left alone; she is an unpleasant reminder. In society at large, widows often find themselves social outcasts—old coupled friends no longer invite them. The widow can consciously or unconsciously be perceived by other women as a competitor for their own husbands. Precisely when widows and divorcees need the most support, they get the least.

In general, couples do not think of socializing with anyone but other couples—there is comfort in conformity. On the other hand, in an extremely Orthodox or Chassidic community, where free socializing with members of the opposite sex is generally kept to a minimum and social life revolves around the synagogue, the family, and the Shabbos and holidays—not dinner parties and urban night life—the single woman may more conscientiously be invited to share with others.

If the young Orthodox single woman is a baalas teshuvah, that is, one who did not grow up observant, but decided to "return" to the traditional observance of Judaism, her problems may be further compounded. She may have an extensive secular education, a career, and many worldly interests which others in the Orthodox community may not share, and she may find little in common with them. In the social stratification of the Modern Orthodox community, single people—even if they are professionally well established—are, in effect, relegated to the lower end of the scale. And she may find it hard to share in conversations revolving around car pools, husbands, shopping, the problems of local day schools and yeshivos, pregnancy, and so forth. In such suburban communities, families can be insulated and isolated, each in their own homes with none of the fluidity of the streets that characterizes the older Jewish communities. The single woman may tend to become a more or less forgotten accident, who now and then merits an invitation for Shabbos. And perhaps she too represents a certain kind of threat to some married women. For she, after all, is still free and independent, unencumbered by children, diapers, and bottles. Moreover, the singles will receive notices about their synagogue dues which tell them the rate is so much "per family"; and announcements about events where prices are always given "per couple."

Bar the Common Singles Scene

In these communities in general, there are usually not any people who take it upon themselves to perform the role of shadchan. Because she is Orthodox, though, she will not drive to the various events organized for singles on Friday nights. And she will certainly not go to the Singles Bars. She will scan the Jewish newspapers: "Orthodox Singles Weekend in Atlantic City Including a Saturday Night of Gambling at the Boardwalk Casino"; "Shabbos Bereishis Disco Evening." These, she fears, are just as bad as the Singles Bars. She may ask her friends if they know anyone; they will sympathize, but often claim, "No, we just don't know anyone."

And she wonders. The Torah she loves constantly adjures its followers to "be kind to the widow and orphan," be hospitable to the stranger, be sensitive to the needs of the lonely, think of a fellow Jew; the Talmud declares: "All Jews are responsible one for the other." It tells her that each Jew is considered a "miniature world," that each person is so important that if you save one life, it's accounted to you as if you've saved the whole world. Is she not as full a person, as important to the community, as a woman who is married? Surely one has to give priority to one's family—but for a Jew, one's own family is always seen as part of the larger House of Israel—and is she not also a full-fledged member of that House?

Time for Outside Help

It is difficult for the single woman to keep asking her friends to help her. She should not, in fact, have to resort to either pleading or silent despair. The Orthodox community should be as sensitive and attuned to this problem as it is to the proper education of its children, or to the financial maintenance of its institutions—and should as aggressively pursue action to help the single as it does any action important to building up the Jewish people. Perhaps the rabbinical committees of each major city who oversee such functions as kashrus and the mikvaos, should also gather together to discuss and formulate action on this problem, try to institute functions where Jewish Orthodox singles could meet in a dignified way, or awaken rabbis of local synagogues to the need to deal with the problem and sensitize their congregations. Perhaps intercity rabbinic lines of communication should be set up to aid those seeking marital partners.

This course could just as well be adopted by non-Orthodox communities, where the proportion of singles is even higher, and where the loneliness and frustration of singles can drive them <%-3>from the Jewish fold altogether. In fact, in recent years, non-Orthodox communities have been far more sensitive to this problem. A Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C., has special "Singles Services" which attract 1,200 young Jews on Friday nights. Perhaps both the non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox could well benefit from the traditional idea of the shadchan, the matchmaker who works to investigate the tastes and backgrounds of different parties and introduces them on a one-to-one basis. In fact, in recent years, many enterprising business people have set up high-class and sophisticated "Dating Services" in the larger urban centers, promising for $300-$500 to introduce one to a "a special friend." This is simply a variation of the old Jewish shadchan at an inflated cost. Even if one can't help in finding mates, then at least singles, widows, and divorcees should be treated with dignity and respect—the dignity and respect the Torah tells us that every Jew deserves.

Before G-d: Everyone Stands Alone

For ultimately, the neglect and insensitivity to the Jewish single is a symptom of a malaise in the Jewish community at large. Every Jew stands both before G-d and before man. The Orthodox Jew is particularly aware that before G-d, ultimately everyone is alone, is single; that the ultimate definition of a Jew is in relation to the Creator and the Torah, not to one's spouse, or children, or car pool.

"Do not regard anyone with contempt, and do not reject anything, for there is no man who does not have his hour and no thing which does not have its place" (Avos 4:3). The single woman is no less a person, no less a Jew than her married counterpart. She stands as fully before G-d as any other member of her congregation. A congregation of Jews aware of its standing before G-d ought not need to be made sensitive to the needs and feelings of the singles in its midst, for the practice of gemilus chasadim—loving kindness—should inevitably lead it to be aware of others, and act towards them with respect and dignity. And a true act of kindness is not one which makes the beneficiary feel patronized. The Hebrew word for "charity" is tzedakah, which is more properly translated as "what is right"—simply the right thing to do, an act to be expected, not a gracious favor bestowed upon some poor unfortunate. The single women, be they unmarried, widows, or divorcees, do not need to be pitied or condescended to; they should be made to feel as important to the community as anyone else, for in fact they are, and they have much to offer.

@SUBHEAD = Free to Give Quality Time

Single women, for example, may have more free time to devote to communal endeavors, and the Jewish community can ill afford to ignore this reservoir of skill and talent. It should not be automatically assumed that only "established" married women should be in positions of leadership and authority. Single women can be just as active in planning synagogue events, in teaching, in outreach, and so forth. The larger issue of the extent to which the woman's role should be "public," of course, will arise here. For instance, in some communities, women sit on the boards of synagogues; in others they do not. But there is no reason why an unmarried woman cannot be as effective a synagogue or yeshivah board member as a married woman.

Beyond the realm of the synagogue, there is the network of social services that any fairly large Jewish community organizes—for the elderly, the orphaned, immigrants, the poor, the handicapped, etc. In fact, historically, unmarried women deeply committed to Judaism have made extraordinary accomplishments in this area. The case of Sarah Schenirer, of course, is an outstanding example of a devoted, unmarried Jewish woman who saved an entire generation of Jewish women for Judaism in Europe before World War II, and who erected an educational system for women that today is the foundation of religious communities all over the world (the Bais Yaakov schools). And let us not forget Schvester Selma of Shaarei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem, who exemplified nursing as a lofty form of chesed for three-quarters of a century.

Women who are professionally trained and may work in the non-Jewish world also have much to offer when they volunteer their skills to Jewish organizations as lawyers, doctors, computer operators, administrators, researchers, and so forth. It is unfortunate that these women often feel more comfortable in the non-observant Jewish world, or in the non-Jewish world, where their marital status is not a "badge of shame." There are many instances in which older unmarried women and divorcees come to feel so alienated that they leave the observant community altogether.

The Single Woman's Responsibility

Yet the single woman also has a responsibility to give of herself, to develop whatever talents and skills G-d has given her, and not to withdraw, mope, and go to waste because she has not found a suitable partner, or because of social stigma. To take a small example, there is no reason why she herself cannot fulfill the mitzvah of hospitality and invite her married friends over for a Shabbos or Yom Tov meal. Of the 613 mitzvos, only a very few depend on one's marital status.

In other words, not only does the Jewish community, need to make a place for her, she needs to actively create a place for herself. The suggestions given above are only a beginning. Each synagogue, each community needs to reflect upon this problem and surely will find ways in which to more fully integrate its singles. And each unmarried woman needs to reflect upon her self-image and her potential, and try to live her life to the fullest.

Finally, the status of the Jewish single woman is one of the barometers of the health of a religious community. It is not the values of Torah which make her feel anomalous; it is the departure of the Orthodox community from those very values which isolates the single. If G-d, Who certainly has had plenty to supervise these past 5,000 years, has been occupying Himself with the unmarried, then certainly the rabbis and Jews of today who seek to emulate His ways can pay them some attention as well.



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