Parshas Ki Tavo (5774)
Mr. Gross and his 17-year-old son Yanky were walking down the street in the heavily Chasidic section of Brooklyn, New York, known as Borough Park. Every few seconds someone would stop Mr. Gross and wish him a hearty Mazel Tov. After a few blocks like this, Yanky said to his father, “Tatty (father), why is everyone wishing you Mazel Tov?” “Oy, Vay!” said Mr. Gross to Yanky, “I forgot to tell you! Last night you became a 'chassan' (engaged)!” Yanky started yelling at his father, “Tatty, I told you a hundred times that I didn’t want to get engaged this way, without my consent. This whole arranged marriage business is just ridiculous!! How could you do this to me? I am so upset!!” Mr. Gross answered his son, “Yanky, I am warning you! If you don’t behave, I am not going to let you come to the wedding!”
This may be a cute joke, but to many people the idea of making someone marry a person they have never met and may not like is quite a serious matter.
It is important, however, to distinguish between forced marriage and arranged marriage. Forced marriage is where parents decide on a spouse for a child with no input from the child himself, and is actually illegal in many Westernized countries. In an arranged marriage, while the meeting of the spouses is arranged by family members, relatives or friends – often with the help of a matchmaker - the spouses are consenting adults who agree of their own free will to marry.
These two types of marriages differ from autonomous marriage - called love marriage in some parts of the world - where the individuals find and select their own spouses. Autonomous marriage is by far the most common form of marriage practiced today around the world.
These days in most Orthodox Jewish communities, the traditional definition of arranged marriages is blurred into a hybrid of sorts between arranged and love marriages. The parents or matchmaker suggest a date, and the young couple then go on several dates to decide themselves whether to marry or not. These are called “shidduch (match) dates”, and the assumption is that after ten, sometimes less dates, the two will be ready to decide to marry or not. The parents and the son or daughter make the decision together; everyone is interested in everyone else’s benefit.
Now you may not be into this whole “arranged marriage” thing. You might think that it’s politically incorrect and a throwback to a time of barbarians. And you’re certainly entitled to your opinion.
You might be surprised though to find out who’s pushing arranged marriage these days … none other than "Mr. Wonderful" himself - Kevin O’Leary from Shark Tank and Dragon’s Den fame.
Yes, you heard that correctly! In his new book, Cold Hard Truth on Family, Kids & Money (published by Doubleday Canada 2013), O’Leary writes the following in a chapter titled: Arranged Marriage: Why It Can Sometimes Work:
“I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I think arranged marriage can often work. I’m not talking about forced marriage, where one or both partners are unduly or totally coerced. I’m talking about consenting adults who’ve met through familial arrangements where the best interests of all parties factor into the relationship. It may sound crazy, but often your parents and relatives are the people who are best equipped to help you make this all-important decision…. I’m not going to say that I think arranged marriages are the only way to go. They’re not. I’m just saying that at least when an entire family is vetting your potential partner, there’s a better chance that a tragic oversight isn’t made.”
What Kevin O’Leary writes about the benefits of arranged marriage echoes a fundamental truth of Judaism and simple human nature: We are often prejudiced by temptations and desires that blind us to the truth and therefore need the advice of an unbiased person.
This idea is reflected in the Hebrew language. Our tradition teaches that the Hebrew language (I refer here to Biblical Hebrew, known as Lashon HaKodesh, lit. the “Holy Tongue”) was created by G-d Himself, and that any two different Hebrew words which share the exact same letters didn’t just “happen” to be that way but are in some way connected to each other.
The Mystics teach us an amazing thing: The Hebrew word for a blind person, eevair, and the Hebrew word for skin, orr, are both spelled ayin-vuv-reish. The powerful lesson here is that “skin”, or the external appearance of a person or thing, often “blinds” us to its real inner essence. How many times do we make important life decisions based on how someone looks, falling in love with their “skin”, without seeing who they really are inside.
This is why is the Torah deems it so critical to seek out the advice of a relatively unbiased person - especially when it involves major life decisions like whom to marry or which community to live in or what job to choose etc. – to ensure that we aren’t blinded to the inner essence of that which are pursuing by all the glitz and bling.
For this exact reason, arranged marriage makes so much sense. After all, as Kevin O’Leary puts it: “It is so much better to have your Mom, Grandma or Auntie find you a marriage partner who is worth your while instead of you, all hopped up on hormones, making stupid decisions that will cost you for the rest of your life. We’re talking about the person with whom you’re going to share the rest of your life. You can’t afford to screw that up.”
So as crazy as it sounds, arranged marriage seems to make sense. But does it work?
Let’s look at the statistics, because statistics don’t lie.
Research has shown that divorce rates have climbed in Europe and North America with the increase in autonomous marriage rates. The lowest divorce rates in the world are in cultures with high rates of arranged marriages such as the Amish culture of United States (1%), Hindus of India (3%), and Orthodox Jews (7%). In contrast, over 50% of self-arranged marriages in many parts of Europe and the United States end up in divorce.
So what have we learned today, kids? We learned that even supposedly “outdated” and “politically incorrect” and “barbaric” ideas like arranged marriage may not be as stupid as we think they are. And that should be a humbling lesson for all of us!