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April 21, 2011 11:33 pm

Anorexia and Corrupt Values in Jewish Dating

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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Photo: Jeff Belmonte

The New York Times article last week about the explosion of anorexia and eating disorders in the orthodox community highlights a tragedy that has long been buried. About four years ago I published a column about an eighteen-year-old girl my daughter knew at seminary in Jerusalem who died of anorexia. The seminary denied it was the cause and cited some other illness, even though the girls at the seminary watched her wasting away with the administration seemingly oblivious.

The tragedy is not only the danger posed to religious girls with eating disorders but rather the growth of corrupt values in the orthodox community. The New York Times highlighted how matchmakers are calling about girls and asking what dress size they and their mothers are. What does this have to do with Jewish values? Sure, a man has to be attracted to a woman. But the narrow definition of the body as the only ingredient of attraction is a betrayal of the traditional Jewish definition of feminine beauty.
Time was when a Jewish woman’s comeliness was determined holistically and was based on five key components: her body, her mind, her heart, her piety, and her personality. Now, it’s been reduced to her dress size. Stick-thin scarecrow-like features are the foremost determinant of attractiveness.
To be sure, being overweight is not healthy. But women who focus only on their bodies to the exclusion of their souls are equally unhealthy. And religious men who have practiced Judaism their whole lives but are blind to a woman’s righteousness and virtue, focusing exclusively on her form to the exclusion of her substance, are even more unhealthy.
The crisis in orthodoxy today is the practice of Jewish ritual to the exclusion of Jewish values. And in no area is this more evident then in the increasingly shallow dating values that are betraying our community. King Solomon’s ode to the ‘Eishes Chayil -Wife of Excellence’ that we chant every Friday night risks becoming an empty refrain, with men paying lip service to its central proclamation that ‘physical beauty is misleading, but a woman who fears G-d is truly to be praised.’
I would never have thought we orthodox Jews would arrive at a stage where our young men of marriageable have become so one-dimensional that their superficiality and pickiness would begin to literally kill our young women. That their mothers – women themselves – are colluding in this corruption by calling up to ask a girl’s dress size in the same breath as asking what her level of Torah observance is doubly tragic.
The New York Times article also cited the immense pressure that orthodox women feel to marry at a very young age and how they feel themselves to be failures if they are in their mid-twenties and not yet married with a few children.
I have long advocated marrying young – for orthodox and secular alike – because it allows a couple to grow up together and solidify their union with life’s formative experiences. But this has to be balanced against the desire of the orthodox community to see their young women educated and using their minds and not just their wombs. It’s a beautiful thing to see orthodox Jewish seminaries for women bursting at the seams. Jewish women today are being exposed to the great texts of Judaism, from Talmud and Midrash to Halakha and Chassidus. Stern and Touro are graduating orthodox girls with degrees in international relations and public relations, proficient in the sciences and mathematics.
Secular Jews have long dismissed the orthodox attitude toward women as demeaning and misogynistic. They argue that we treat our girls as baby-making machines who belong in the kitchen. But the highly educated orthodox Jewish woman gives the lie to these malicious accusations. Should we be so stupid as to prove them right by making women feel so much pressure to be married by the age of twenty that failure to do itself constitutes failure? Is it not our responsibility to demonstrate that a woman can maximize her fullest intellectual potential alongside having a family and that she need not choose between them.
I am, thank G-d, the proud father of nine children. People often ask me how I have time to do my professional work with a large family. I answer them that only in the modern world have we created this false notion that family is an impediment to achievement. Queen Victoria had nine children but ruled the largest land empire in the history of the world. Rose Kennedy, an accomplished woman in her own right, had nine children and is the matriarch of the greatest political dynasty in American history. The list goes on.
I want my daughters to marry young and to marry virtuous men. I shudder at the idea that after raising them to embody the virtue of the Jewish matriarchs they should meet orthodox Jewish suitors obsessed with their external beauty to the exclusion of their inner G-dly commitment. And if that’s the case, could I not have found that in the secular world?
I have spent my life critiquing the secular culture’s attitudes toward the feminine, especially in my book ‘Hating Women,’ where I decry a culture that has reduced women to the libidinous man’s plaything. But we in the orthodox community dare not make our own mistake of reducing our women to pretty baby-making mannequins. Our women must possess, and be appreciated for, intellectual and spiritual substance.
Sure, family in Jewish life is the most important thing. And dating recreationally for ten years – as is common in secular society – is scant preparation for the life-long commitment of marriage. I am a counselor to secular singles who suffer the effects of the recreational dating culture. They often experience the pain and heartache of going in and out of relationships.
Orthodox Jewish life is meant to offer a radical alternative, one where romance is valued and intimacy, reserved for the sanctity of marriage, is practiced as the highest expression of human intimacy. But viewing women as either the orthodox male’s frum Barbie, whose foremost  responsibility is not learning Torah and practicing mitzvos but going on the treadmill and pumping iron, or seeing a woman’s education as inconsequential and making her feel old and discarded if she is not married by twenty-three, is hardly an attractive alternative.
Shmuley Boteach, ‘America’s Rabbi,’ is one of the world’s leading relationship experts and the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. Among his 25 books are such classics as ‘Kosher Sex,’ ‘Judaism for Everyone,’ and, most recently, ‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.’ Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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  • Arnold Ziffle

    For the first time ever, I agree with you. However, it goes deeper. It starts with brand name Yeshivas like the Lakewood Swoosh. The whole evaluation of a person is not based upon who they are and what their Neshamah reflects but rather a series of brand names. It starts with the “Yechus” and trails to the high-end Yeshiva brands.There is even a formula for how much an MVP bochur at a top Yeshiva will get from a potential father-in-law. The system is corrupt and it is hurting our kids both mentally and physically. There truly isn’t any “Yiras Hashem Bamakon Hazeh”

  • Nechama

    I recommend reading:
    Help Your Teenager Beat an Eating Disorder
    by James Lock MD PhD, and Daniel Le Grange PhD
    AND good for parents of boys and girls
    Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle with Anorexia
    by Harriet Brown
    These are invaluable resources for parents.

  • Thank you for this. Perhaps this is one of our mitzrayim this year, our narrow places from where we are leaving.

    While I have always been naturally thin, the age situation is where I struggle. Being 30 and unmarried is incredibly hard, even for me with one foot in and one foot out of the Orthodox world… even harder for my friends who grew up as very observant Orthodox women. And you are right, we are brilliant and talented. I just completed some time at Mayanot in Jerusalem with immensely intelligent women who are thirsting for more knowledge. And yet… we aren’t good enough because there isn’t a tichel on our head or there isn’t a tichel on our heads because we are too old.

    I wish there was a clearer solution…

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