A Pew Research study released just two months ago makes quite disturbing reading.
The study has crystallized with facts and figures what all of us have been observing for years.
Apparently, but of course we all knew this already, the share of American adults who have never been married is higher than it has ever been.
In 2012 – and one can surmise that things have not improved in the past 2 years – 1-in-5 adults over the age of 25 (approximately 42 million people!!) have never been married.
In 1960, the same statistic was under 1-in-10.
This worrying trend is the result of a variety of factors. First of all, people are marrying later in life. The average age for women getting married today is 27 years old, while for men it is 29. In addition to this, the number of people who cohabit and have children outside of marriage has increased sharply.
But the harsh reality emanating from the report is this – the western world no longer recognizes marriage as a compulsory aspiration. It is as simple as that.
You may think that this trend is confined to those outside of a religious faith. One would assume that the imperative importance, even urgency, of marriage, and the value of producing a family in the traditional way, is something that is ingrained in everyone born into a religious home.
Unfortunately, this is not the case at all. It is not the case in every faith, and our own co-religionists are not immune to this escalating trend.
Even in the ‘charedi’ community, where marriage is trumpeted as the only valid life choice from the youngest age, the documented number of unmarried girls over the age of 30 is as high as 15-18% in some American cities.
This number is not very far behind the national trend, and should shock us all to our core. Firstly, because the future of Jewish life as we know it is under threat if the normative paradigm of a family unit is in decline, and secondly, because there is clearly a fundamental flaw in our system if we are so vulnerable to the prevalent trends of society at large, particularly such damaging trends.
In the Torah portion of Chayei Sarah we are given front row seats to observe the drama that was the first ever “shidduch”.
Abraham, the concerned father, instructs his trusted aide, Eliezer, to go abroad in pursuit of a suitable match for his son, Isaac. Eliezer embarks on this curious quest, accompanied by a caravan of camels laden with treasures and gifts. The objective was to entice an appropriate bride to return with him to Canaan and marry Isaac – a man she had never met.
It is an extraordinary tale of optimism and Divine guidance, but it seems that the expedition itself was utterly pointless.
With twenty-twenty hindsight we may compliment Abraham and Eliezer for their decision to reject the daughters of Canaan, but that is only because Rebecca turned out to be the perfect wife for Isaac.
But if one disregards the outcome, and simply consider the ridiculous prospect of the plan and the unlikeliness of its success, it seems incredible that Abraham was so utterly inflexible in his refusal to look at local girls.
He tells Eliezer (Gen 24:4): כִּי אֶל אַרְצִי וְאֶל מוֹלַדְתִּי תֵּלֵךְ וְלָקַחְתָּ אִשָּׁה לִבְנִי לְיִצְחָק – ‘the only option is for you to go to my land and to the place of my birth, and there you will find a wife for my son Yitzchak.’
Why was it not possible to find a girl closer to home? Why did the bride have to come from Haran? In fact, if suitability was contingent on pedigree, and Canaanite pedigree was inappropriate – with Bethuel as a father, and Laban as a brother, it hardly seems that Rebecca was perfect wife material either. But if pedigree cannot have been the motivator, what message was Abraham imparting?
The answer is uncomfortable, but self-evident. There is no doubt that Isaac could have married a local Canaanite girl. His bride-to-be could surely have been groomed especially for him, to ensure their mutual suitability. In fact, the Midrash suggests – citing Eliezer’s recorded reluctance to embark on the mission to Haran – that Eliezer was eager for Isaac to marry his own daughter. Indeed, there is no way Eliezer would have seriously considered his daughter as wife material for Isaac had she not been suitable.
But Abraham understood that getting married is not just about suitability, it is also about effort and compromise.
Finding a husband or wife means being willing to make extraordinary efforts to look for that husband or wife.
Finding a husband or wife means leaving your comfort zone and taking the risk to be married, rather than remaining alone.
Right here, in the first recorded story of a match that endured, we have the ingredients that are missing from so many modern attempts to find the right spouse.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if wives or husbands would drop down from heaven, just when we are ready for them, and without the need to compromise any aspect of ones life in order to marry them?
Wonderful? I think not! It is exactly this fantasy that is destroying marriage in our society. Loving, giving relationships are forged in effort and determination, and in the willingness to forgo one’s own needs or comforts to make them work.
Our society celebrates self-indulgence and personal needs to such an extent, that many people – who truly believe they want to get married – don’t come to the table with a list of what they can give and do for their spouse, but instead they have a list of what they want and need from their spouse.
It is this societal influence that is eroding our Jewish value system, and no amount of Pew studies will resolve it.