The New York Times article last week about the explosion of anorexia and eating disorders in the Orthodox community highlights a tragedy that has long been buried. About four years ago I published a column about an 18-year-old girl my daughter knew at a seminary in Jerusalem who died because of anorexia. The seminary denied it was the cause and cited some other illness, even though the girls at the seminary watched her wasting away, with the administration seemingly oblivious.
The tragedy is not only the danger posed to religious girls with eating disorders but rather the growth of corrupt values in the Orthodox community. The New York Times highlighted how matchmakers are calling about girls and asking what dress size they and their mothers wear. What does this have to do with Jewish values? Sure, a man has to be attracted to a woman. But the narrow definition of the body as the only ingredient of attraction is a betrayal of the traditional Jewish definition of feminine beauty.
Time was when a Jewish woman’s comeliness was determined holistically and was based on five key components: her body, her mind, her heart, her piety, and her personality. Now, it’s been reduced to her dress size. Stick-thin scarecrow-like features are the foremost determinant of attractiveness.
To be sure, being overweight is not healthy. But women who focus only on their bodies to the exclusion of their souls are equally unhealthy. And religious men who have practiced Judaism their whole lives but are blind to a woman’s righteousness and virtue, focusing exclusively on her form to the exclusion of her substance, are even more unhealthy.
The crisis in Orthodoxy today is the practice of Jewish ritual to the exclusion of Jewish values. And in no area is this more evident then in the increasingly shallow dating values that are betraying our community. King Solomon’s ode to the “Eishes Chayil – Wife of Excellence” that we chant every Friday night risks becoming an empty refrain, with men paying lip service to its central proclamation that “physical beauty is misleading, but a woman who fears God is truly to be praised.”
I would never have thought we Orthodox Jews would arrive at a stage where our young men of marriageable age have become so one-dimensional that their superficiality and pickiness would begin to literally kill our young women. That their mothers – women themselves – are colluding in this corruption by calling up to ask a girl’s dress size in the same breath as asking what her level of Torah observance is is doubly tragic.
The New York Times article also cited the immense pressure that Orthodox women feel to marry at a very young age and how they feel themselves to be failures if they are in their mid-20s and not yet married with a few children.
I have long advocated marrying young – for Orthodox and secular alike – because it allows a couple to grow up together and solidify their union with life’s formative experiences. But this has to be balanced against the desire of the Orthodox community to see their young women educated and using their minds and not just their wombs. It’s a beautiful thing to see Orthodox Jewish seminaries for women bursting at the seams. Jewish women today are being exposed to the great texts of Judaism, from Talmud and Midrash to halacha and chassidus. Stern and Touro are graduating Orthodox girls with degrees in international relations and public relations, proficient in the sciences and mathematics.
Secular Jews have long dismissed the Orthodox attitude toward women as demeaning and misogynistic. They argue that we treat our girls as baby-making machines who belong in the kitchen. But the highly educated Orthodox Jewish woman gives the lie to these malicious accusations. Should we be so stupid as to prove them right by making women feel so much pressure to be married by the age of 20 that failure to do so constitutes failure? Is it not our responsibility to demonstrate that a woman can maximize her fullest intellectual potential alongside having a family and that she need not choose between them?
I am, thank God, the proud father of nine children. People often ask me how I have time to do my professional work with a large family. I answer them that only in the modern world have we created this false notion that family is an impediment to achievement. Queen Victoria had nine children but ruled the largest land empire in the history of the world. Rose Kennedy, an accomplished woman in her own right, had nine children and is the matriarch of the greatest political dynasty in American history. The list goes on.
I want my daughters to marry young and to marry virtuous men. I shudder at the idea that after raising them to embody the virtue of the Jewish matriarchs they should meet Orthodox Jewish suitors obsessed with their external beauty to the exclusion of their inner godly commitment. And if that’s the case, could I not have found that in the secular world?
I have spent my life critiquing the secular culture’s attitudes toward the feminine, especially in my book “Hating Women,” where I decry a culture that has reduced women to the libidinous man’s plaything. But we in the Orthodox community dare not make our own mistake of reducing our women to pretty baby-making mannequins. Our women must possess, and be appreciated for, intellectual and spiritual substance.
Sure, family in Jewish life is the most important thing. And dating recreationally for 10 years – as is common in secular society – is scant preparation for the life-long commitment of marriage. I am a counselor to secular singles who suffer the effects of the recreational dating culture. They often experience the pain and heartache of going in and out of relationships and the numbing affects of sexuality practiced as a hookup.
Orthodox Jewish life is meant to offer a radical alternative, one where romance is valued and sexuality, reserved for the sanctity of marriage, is practiced as the highest expression of human intimacy. But viewing women as either the Orthodox male’s frum Barbie, whose foremost responsibility is not learning Torah and practicing mitzvot but going on the treadmill and pumping iron, or seeing a woman’s education as inconsequential and making her feel old and discarded if she is not married by 23, is hardly an attractive alternative.