Live from the Lilith Blog

February 2, 2009 by

The Tehillim Tipping Point

In the latest attempt to resolve the ‘shidduch crisis,’ women across the religious globe have been scuttling to each other’s homes to huddle and recite Tehillim (Psalms), entreating God’s kindness for a good shidduch [match] for all the single people in their community. In London, one matchmaking organization, Made in Heaven, offers regular classes for women on Shmiras Ha Loshon [not speaking slander] as a means of mystically helping single people.

Women are the corrections of a community: when disasters strike, the rabbis often blame the women for gossiping or immodest dress (gossiping while dressed immodestly is a double whammy). As if women don’t have enough to do, now they are responsible for the marital and spiritual well-being of a whole community and have been instructed to say Tehillim to avert further disasters. What was the Tehillim tipping point? How did these verses come to substitute serious learning and empowerment for women? Isn’t it strange that while women’s voices are accorded tremendous power to change the divinely ordained course of events, they have virtually no voice in the decision-making process of a religious community?

However, when it comes to shidduchim, a person needs more than Tehillim – they need yichus [status] – about the only thing that e-Bay doesn’t sell. Yichus is the delicate tissue paper and silk bows used to wrap up a very ordinary gift. Once the fancy packaging is stripped away, all you’ve got is the very ordinary, and often very disappointing, gift. A distinguished lineage and respectable breeding can make a difference to one’s social standing, and so yichus is touted by the matchmakers when the boy or girl in question doesn’t have very much to offer themselves. For example, the son of well-known Rosh Yeshiva has excellent yichus while the daughter of a Latvian convert to Judaism would have very little yichus.

Where serious yichus is at stake, marriages are often about forging dynasties, establishing power bases and consolidating the number of loyal followers. While many parents regard good yichus of their prospective son or daughter-in-law as a drawcard, it hides the very real failings of some people. Paralysed by their yichus, a young person living in the shadow of their ancestors’ achievements may never amount to much. While they may get the proverbial ‘foot through the front door,’ their accomplishments are often mimized precisely because of the head start granted by their yichus.

Occasionally, a lack of yichus can be compensated by other factors. For example, potential brides are also gauged by their beauty and despite all exhortations that a girl’s kindness, modest demeanour and homemaking skills are highly valued, the fact is that unless she is pretty and skinny, her chances of finding a ‘good boy’ are severely curtailed. Unless, of course, she has a rich father – in which case, she can eat as much as she wants.

Traditionally, young men were measured according to their learning prowess. I have always found it strange that the young women only willing to go out with boys who excel ‘in learning’ are actually unable to understand what these potential husbands are actually learning because the women are barred from Talmud study. They can of course continue to say Tehillim, but how sad that they must rely on other men for an evaluation of their potential spouse’s intellectual capacities.

The contemporary Ba’al Teshuvah [return to (religious) Judaism] movement has impacted on the traditional notions of yichus, given that many young Jews who become observant have actively chosen a life path that is radically different from their parents. The family reputation and lineage of a ba’al teshuvah, although there may have a smattering of rabbis from the shetetls of Eastern Europe, has been ravaged by assimilation and mothers who probably did not attend the mikvah. These blemishes continue to punish the struggling ba’alei teshuvah and often hinder their ability to marry into some of the most prestigious religious families.

However, one constant remains – the young pretty woman who becomes religious, and has a wealthy father, will always have less trouble finding a husband than her poorer, plumper sister.

–Modesty Blasé

Cross-posted to the Jerusalem Post blog.