The hagim are always a wonderful season filled with reflection, prayer, food, community, and new beginnings. However, as a 31-year-old single woman who identifies with the Modern Orthodox Jewish community (on the very liberal-progressive end of that spectrum), this year’s holidays also presented the same old story of feeling totally out of place in my religio-social milieu.
Visit any Orthodox shul this season and you will immediately perceive the hierarchy between “the singles” and “the marrieds.” (No doubt there is also differentiation between the childless and the fruitful, the young and the old, the gay and the straight, the single parent, the divorced, and the widowed, but let’s put those issues behind the proverbial mehitza for the purposes of this discussion.) In fact, shuls are often veritable caste societies of the hatted and bare-headed, the tallis-wearers and the shirt-sleeved, the ringed and the bare-knuckled, those who come in twos and those who come in ones.
These distinctions are made not only in form such as dress, but also in ritual content, as mitzvot often seem geared for the family unit. Even in synagogues experimenting with more liberal standards such as women’s Torah processionals, the custom is often that the scroll may only be passed from husband to wife. Mostly, the differentiation is cultural: marriage, children, and family life are celebrated, while little attention (except, perhaps, pity) is paid to those who don’t fit within mainstream social categories after a certain age.
For all the talk about the so-called “shidduch crisis,” no one is talking about the single-person opportunity in the Modern Orthodox Jewish community. It is not just a matter of helping us find the right partners with whom to share our lives (can I use this column as my own personal dating profile?) and trying to facilitate opportunities to meet our besherts. Rather, more importantly, it is an issue of respecting individuals as we are, treating singles with dignity, and giving us a meaningful place in the community if/until we do marry.
Besides our internal feelings, one of the most difficult aspects of being single is the attitude of the Modern Orthodox community toward our professional and personal achievements. When my parents sponsored a special kiddish upon my receiving a PhD — a wonderful celebration I was especially grateful for in making the positive statement that engagement in not the only accomplishment in the young adult life-cycle — I was a bit chagrined to have several people shake my hand but then examine my fingers to comment, “Nu, so you’ve earned your doctorate, but when are you going to get a ring?”
(This could only be topped by a dati-leumi troglodyte in Jerusalem, who told me that I was forsaking God as a pious Jewish woman in diverting so much blood flow from my ovaries to my brain with my academic pursuits!)
There is also the issue of our living arrangements, where, in addition to practical economic dimensions, there is also distinct cultural pressure toward having roommates and a lack of “nice things” as a symbolic statement that our houses (or apartments) are not really homes until we have a partner. I often encounter resistance to the idea that I don’t live with a veritable matriarchy labeled on my mailbox and have a real adult apartment (even a queen-size bed!) as a single woman. At times, it feels like the Orthodox community would have singles stay in suspended adolescence until we stand under the huppah.
Instead of treating Modern Orthodox singles like incipient human beings only awakened by a kiss from our bride or groom, it is long overdue to provide us with meaningful standing in our community. For women, this means making bold halachic interpretations and compromises with tradition more universal (and not just limited to a handful of progressive congregations in major urban communities), so that all females have the opportunity for real participation and serious engagement with ritual practice.
Of course, it will be incumbent upon women to assume responsibility for the learning, training, and just-showing-up involved in this richer Jewish experience. While I don’t mean to suggest that Modern Orthodox single men feel entirely satisfied by their ability to take part — and I’d love to hear their views of the issue — the by-stander status of women in shul performance only seems to heighten our sense that we have little role other than as spouses and incubators. Otherwise, while each locality has its own dynamics and customs, communities must make a greater effort to create more well-defined and significant social functions for singles that celebrate their independence and the contributions they can make as unique — in every sense of the word — individuals.
In the new year, may we all be blessed with communities that rise to the opportunity and challenge of inclusivity and pluralism for all.