Forced Marriages are Against Jewish Law
Deborah Feldman, author of Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, and model mom, Pearl Perry Reich, have recently made national headlines with their stories of breaking free from arranged marriages in the Orthodox-Jewish community. The troubling irony: Coerced or arranged marriages are forbidden according to Jewish law.
The View featured Deborah Feldman’s gripping story of her challenges breaking free from her community and Dr. Phil featured Reich’s struggle breaking free from her forced marriage and battling to gain custody over her children. Both stories are a testament to the transcendent power and resolve of the human spirit. These brave women achieving self-actualization and freedom amid their community’s seemingly reprehensible misogynistic practices, is truly remarkable. Conflating authentic Jewish practices of dating and marriage with misogynistic practices of forcing young women into marriage is equally reprehensible.
There is no justification for forcing anyone into a marriage. Such practices have no place in a modern society. It is deeply troubling that the community’s Feldman and Reich were members of seemingly used Judaism as a pretext to justify forced, arranged, non-consenting marriages – especially considering that forced marriages are strictly forbidden according to Jewish law.
Not all arranged marriages are technically forced. In various Hindu, Muslim and select Orthodox-Jewish cultures the parents are directly involved in choosing spouses for their children. Often the line is unclear between what is truly voluntary and what is based on cultural compulsion. Technically one could say no to a proposed marriage but given age and familial pressures consent is the norm (which is why I use “arranged marriages” and “forced marriages” interchangeably). An arranged marriage based on some level of consent is certainly not morally equivalent with physically forcing someone to marry another person against their will – a clear human rights violation. For the purposes of Jewish law both arranged marriages and physically forced marriages are a violation since they both lack the required consent.
In Genesis 24: 57-8 when Abraham’s servant Eliezer suggests that Rebecca may be a good match for Isaac, Eliezer is told that he must first seek Rebecca’s consent. Rebecca is called and asked “will you go with this man?” to which she replies, “I will go.” From this account it is clearly learned that a marriage must be based on free will.
In emphasizing that arranged marriages are not the mainstream practice in the Orthodox Jewish community, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach pointed out on the Dr. Phil show that arranged marriage are “not only … against Jewish law because we live in a free society, but [because] the essence of the marital contract is someone feeling chosen, someone feeling unique, that their specialness is being corroborated by being chosen.”
Just as marital vows must be consensual, all sexual contact within a marriage must also be consensual and based on mutual desire. (See Maimonides, Mishna Torah Forbidden Intercourse 21:9, 12 and De’ot 5:4). While counterintuitive to those who assume Judaism is entirely patriarchal, it is the man, not the woman, who has the conjugal obligation to please his wife, refusal of which could be grounds for divorce. (See Exodus 21:10 “he may not withhold her conjugal rights” and commentary).
Arranged dating is a common practice in Orthodox-Jewish circles. This is not to be confused with arranged marriages, which are forbidden in Jewish law. Arranged dating is essentially a matchmaking system whereby blind dates are set up based on mutually compatible characteristic-algorithm determined by a matchmaker, known as a shadchan. This process is similar to the dating service eHarmony, which also matches people based on mutually compatible characteristics such as “beliefs, values, emotional health and skills.”
Once a prospective match is arranged, the decision to marry or to continue dating is solely left in the hands of those dating. Chaya Teldon, an Orthodox-Jewish mother explains to Oprah Winfrey on OWN’s network America’s Hidden Culture segment how she first checked out the girl that was going to be dating her son. She explains after that “he is on his own, so there is absolute free-choice.” The process of arranged dating is not compulsory, but is rather seen as an effective method to pre-screen dates for compatibility.
Anyone who has experienced an arranged marriage in the Orthodox-Jewish community has experienced a complete perversion and distortion of Jewish law and tradition.
The writer is vice president of 1saleaday.com. He graduated law school in New York, where he served as an executive editor of the law review. He has advocated for gender equality in voting rights, sexual abuse awareness and better police-community relations in the black and Jewish communities. He also regularly writes for The Huffington Post.
This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.