I once spoke to a group of high school students about the stresses produced by the social life of most teenagers, and suggested an experiment: a moratorium on coed partying and dating for a month. Their response was immediate: "No way, forget it!" and there was a lot of laughter.
When the class was over, some students spoke to me privately. Away from their peers, they admitted, "I think it's a good idea, and I'd be willing to try it, but I don't think anyone else is going to."
They wouldn't say it in public, but privately they agreed that teenage dating is a stressful, unnecessary burden. The competition, they said, is not fair to the kids who aren't popular; and the kids who are popular become cruel about it. It doesn't do anyone any good.
I wasn't surprised, then, that many of the kids in the class told me they would be more cautious in their relationships and wait for marriage.
It is sometimes argued that dating results in better marriages. The rationale is that exposure to a variety of experiences enables a young person to make a more thoughtful choice of marriage partner.
Few people make that argument anymore, however, because it clearly isn't true. Teenagers have been dating now for several decades. In that time, marriages haven't gotten any better; they've become a lot worse.
The high school students had heard stories of arranged marriages, and were curious about the traditional Jewish way of courtship.
This is what it's like:
Traditional Jews lead a modest social life. Teenagers don't date or go to parties, and boys and girls don't spend time with each other socially. While we're growing up, we don't get into emotional entanglements worrying about how popular we are, or who is more popular, or who we're going to go out with.
None of that happens at all in our community because we think it's unfair. It's not nice, and it doesn't do any good. The result is that when we're ready to get married, we're not playing any games. It's not a popularity contest and we're not trying to impress anyone.
When we're ready to get married, we go about it honestly and sincerely. We don't marry the wrong person because we might have been trying to impress somebody or compete with someone. All that is eliminated. We find somebody to marry, we get married, and the marriages last. Divorces happen, but rarely.
We start to date when we're old enough and serious enough to think about being married. When we do go out, it's with someone who has the same values we do. Usually, we come from families who know each other, or we have a mutual friend who thinks we're compatible and introduces us.
Someone once said, "If you want to marry somebody, and you want to find out what he's really like, what better way than by asking his friends?" The best way to find out what a guy is like, is to find out if he's popular with the guys. To find out how popular he is with the girls doesn't tell you anything. It doesn't tell you what kind of a man he is, or what kind of a husband he's going to be. If you want to find out what kind of a person a woman is, you find out how popular she is with her friends. What matters is what people of the same sex think. That will give you a much better idea of what kind of person she is or he is.
After we are introduced, we spend time together, and we consider marriage. We want to get to know what's on the other person's mind, what kind of life they want to live, what kind of life they have lived, things that have to do with being married. We wouldn't go to a movie because we want to get to know each other, not a movie. We don't want to waste time doing a lot of activities; we prefer to spend the time talking. We're not looking for a thrill; we're looking to get married.
We're not teenagers, so we know much more clearly what kind of person we want to marry. After three or four months, we know if this is the right person or not. If not, there are no hard feelings because we haven't become best friends. If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. There's a little disappointment, but no great heartache.
It's a good system, and a considerate system. It takes into account that people have feelings.
For example, in our tradition, while a man and woman are dating and thinking about marriage, the dating is kept completely secret. They don't talk about it and they don't go where people are going to see them. If it doesn't work out, nobody knows.
If it were public, people would wonder, "Why didn't you marry him? Is something wrong with him?" Or, "How come he didn't marry you? Is something wrong with you?" This way is more discreet.
If it works out, everyone is thrilled. If it doesn't work out, no one knows and no one gets hurt.
Men and women who are dating don't touch each other. You would never see a man and a woman kissing or hugging casually. It doesn't happen because this tradition takes male-female relationships seriously. All signs of physical affection take place in private, and are reserved for the person to whom we're married.
In a traditional Jewish home, husbands and wives only touch each other in privacy. Children raised in such a home never see their parents hugging or expressing any kind of physical affection, even playfully.
From this, children learn that family love is structured in two ways: the love between man and woman, and the love between parents and child. That's a healthy message. A hug and a kiss is childish; it's what you do with children. A peck on the cheek is for a baby. Adults have more serious, more responsible, more adult forms of affection.
We're not talking about depriving a child of seeing a happy, healthy relationship between two parents who love one another. We're not talking about any coldness; on the contrary, we're talking about the healthiest and warmest kind of relationship.
A friend once told me about a powerful memory that he had of his parents' affection for one another. The story took place shortly after his family had arrived in America, when he was seven years old.
They were poor, recent immigrants, and they lived in a cellar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. One night he woke up and heard someone crying. He tiptoed out of his room and looked down the corridor where the dining room was. His mother and father were sitting at the table.
His mother was crying. She was holding a piece of blue paper. His father was across the table from his mother.
He didn't know what the blue paper was, and he didn't know why his mother was crying. At first he was very frightened. But the empathy and closeness between his parents reassured him, and he was able to go back to sleep.
My friend's family had been separated by the war. He and his parents had come to America, but his grandfather, his mother's father, had gone to Israel. The piece of blue paper in his mother's hand that night was an airmail letter notifying her that her father had passed away.
He says he can still picture his parents sitting there, without any physical contact at all. Yet the empathy and the closeness was so real, so palpable, that it could reassure a seven-year-old. He knew it was okay to go back to sleep. That was a very powerful message.
Children who know that their parents care about each other, are there for each other, do what is needed for each other, and respect each other, don't have to see physical affection to know what caring and warmth are.
In a traditional home, parents express a great deal of physical affection toward their children, and privately to each other. But by not displaying their affection for one another in front of their children, they communicate that their husband/wife relationship is different from the relationship between mother and daughter, father and son, brother and sister.
Among traditional Jews, our husband or wife really is the first person and the only person we've ever been this close to, this physical with, and this intimate with, and that's the way it's going to remain. Our husband or wife will always be the only person.
It's a sensitive, considerate, modest, and healthy way to live.