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Dec 22, 2011

What To Do, What To Do... (Part 2)

I left off previously by presenting and sarcastically mocking the plan for life development and marriage stages that seems both an ideal and simply inapplicable nowadays... 

So then, what was the idea behind "Shmoneh Estreh L'chupah"? How did it work way back when? What does it mean today?

The most common answer I find is the cultural one. It states that back in their day and age education ended at the age of twelve or so, and while children began to learn a trade be beginning an apprenticeship at that age, they also continued learning Judaic texts. By the age of seventeen the man had learned a trade, probably acquired some sort of dwelling and/or shop and thus (as per the Rambam) was ready to seek a marriage partner. Nowadays, we just can't do that because of the culture and our maturity level.

While that's all nice and dandy, there's one piece that is abundantly clear to me, but I see is missing in the explanation.

But before I get started on that... Seriously, Chazal didn't recognize that the world changes? Do we give "the cultural answer" for other Halachot, saying they're outdated? I mean, really?!?! I give Chazal more credit than to simply state that in this day and age it's impractical.

The age guidelines didn't just account for maturity in terms of intellect, emotions and adulthood. It accounted very strongly for sexual maturity. Thus the harsh language in the Talmud and the developmental timelines indicate something very clear to me -that we have a very real and very important desire to consider as well.

Think about it -marriage comes last in the stages of life development laid out. So then why put a number on it? Why set these limits with harsh language, making reference to violating the commandments, living in sin, exploding/rotting bones?

There is a recognition that marriage is important, and perhaps that there are reasonable limits to how long humans can handle not being married -and for the purposes of this post, I'm considering the aspects of touch, desire and procreation within marriage (though there's a whole lot more to talk about). There are consequences and repercussions for not having those desires, including physical intimacy and marriage established by a certain age. Serious enough to merit very abrasive language.

Clearly the sources map out an ideal situation which now clashes with our reality. The Rav writes that Halachah is an ideal world, which our reality does not conform to. At its best, Halachah tells us how to respond to the world we live in. I think this conundrum presents a frustratingly clear example of that stark contrast. Which leads to the core question how do we respond to the realities, given Halachic imperatives?

Compounding the question is the recognition of how jarring the reality is. The fields of medicine/biology, psychology and law all recognize that there are serious limits and consequences in attempting to squelch or delay physical intimacy beyond the late teens (~18). Concerns for having children before being able to support them (both in the secular world and within the sources quoted above) convolute the issue as well.

In that sense, so many of us are stuck in "no man's land" while every available source indicates we're not in the ideal situation.  And that's putting it mildly. Trying so hard to consolidate what everyone knows and agrees on without knowing when -or even if -there will be a reprieve. Trying to uphold the values while enduring the struggle and frustration, often without even having a place to voice our pain, a forum to discuss the consequences and/or a way to negotiate how we can best handle where we are in life.

It is, by so many accounts, the challenge and test of our time. (Just as a quick note, there are some communities that take these Halachot as a guide and marry at a younger age, perhaps because of these concerns.) 

Western society chose to address the individual's concerns, pain and well being based on the available information, eschewing all other concerns for their fundamental precept: preserving an individual's right to pursue their happiness as they see fit. Halachah and the Orthodox community places the values of family, marriage and preserving the family unit above all else by creating safeguards for upholding the sanctity of marriage -literally Taharat Hamishpachah -through laws built to create and maintain a unique, reserved and holy connection forged through physical intimacy exclusively within the context of marriage.

A large part of me sees significant agreement among Jewish sources and the fields of science and law regarding our human needs and limits. The fact that circumstances have changed so that when we do reach and pass the red-line we cannot follow the guidelines, warnings and advice of all these source means that we're the ones left alone to deal with it.

As for my own thoughts and conclusions, I see and experience the pain and I admire the values on both sides. I recognize that my struggle and the challenge(s) I experience puts me in a place of partial blindness. I cannot always see clearly through the pain to the Halachic values that I hold dear. But I am resolved and decide every day that I am determined to maintain those values.

Trying to walk a Halachic path in life blinded by pain with my hands tied behind my back means that I may very well stumble, fall and get hurt. I may perhaps even take a step off the road. But those are not intentional steps off the path, nor do I say to myself it is okay to walk away. My resolve and determination are the hardest but most important virtues to uphold -they are the compass that keep me pointed in the right direction.


  1. While I think that you raise an interesting point regarding Chazal being aware of times changing, I still think that we can't take that quote literally. I know what 18 year old guys are like, and there is no way that I would want to marry any of them. They're far too immature. So is being shomer negiyah hard? Yes, excruciatingly so for you. Ultimately, though, it will be well worth the sacrifice--you'll marry someone who you can build a marriage with, not just someone you'd like to be with.

  2. Keep in mind that not only do we mature much later (no 18 year old nowadays is ready for marriage), the concept of marriage is changed.

    Once, if a couple got relatively well along, they were okay. They didn't have to share hobbies, because no one had time for hobbies; they didn't spend hours talking (again, who had time); they didn't plan their vacations (no such thing as vacation).

    We want more in a marriage than once upon a time. If it was standard practice to marry off 18-year-old boys nowadays, none of whom have livings or houses prepared for a spouse, I think I can safely say it is the end of civilization as we know it.

    And as for Chazal, it was not their concern what the future may bring, especially since current reality is not even a century old - no slaving away in fields; we want Hallmark romance.

    Chazal commented on the world they knew; the world of 2,000+ in the future was not their concern. They made rulings based on the Greek science of the time that wasn't exactly accurate, even though science would change.

    You think they had time to consider us kvetches in the future?

  3. These perspectives assume that Chazal either could not have known or did not bother considering future generations, that they were not meticulous in placing a valuable message in the oral traditions that would be passed down for all future generations.

    In thinking that way we choose to confine their words to the past, not to consider their message for the present. Or at least, we become picky about which of their words we choose to learn from nowadays and which we do not.

    So then I ask you: how do we choose to say that these words are for the past, but not others?

    I do not simply refer to numbers and ages, but to the messages; not even the words of the Torah are all taken literally, but we work extremely hard to understand their meaning and message, to extract the understanding, value and the truth.

    That struggle of learning is meant to be applied to our lives (which is what Chazal refer to when they say the purpose of learning is to do); we struggle to learn and understand, and we struggle with these lived and experienced aspects in our own lives.

    Which, ultimately, is my conclusion and my own understanding. Dedication with an acknowledgement of my own shortcomings, working through and struggling with both my own shortcomings and reality.

  4. I understand your question, but the fact remains that we aren't supposed to understand everything in the Torah literally. Midrashim, for example, aren't always meant to be understood literally. So too here--I think that Chazal chose 18 because that was what was appropriate for the times. I also think that they knew that times would change and that the Rabbunim of those times would apply their sayings as was appropriate to the times.
    You're very clearly in pain, and I feel terrible for you. Loneliness is one of the most anguishing experiences out there, and I hope that you find your bashert very soon. Hashem only gives people tests that they can pass, though, so know that you can pass this one as well.