Denial & Balance in Dating & Beyond

I remember laughing at a cartoon (New Yorker magazine?) years ago of a yuppie-looking man and woman meeting at a party, both with expressions of obvious excitement on their faces. The thought-bubble above the man read: “Sex object.” The thought-bubble above the woman read: “Meal ticket.”

Obviously, a match made in heaven.

While that image was intended to poke fun at modern romance and mores, I want to use it here in just the opposite way.

If you’re immersed in a yeshiva or an intense Torah environment for any length of time you are constantly hearing, correctly so, that there is more to life than the physical. By the time it comes to dating there can be pressure, internal as well as external, to downplay your physical needs.

I’ve had more than one person ask me: “Is it really important to be attracted to her?”

This may have been more true years ago, but there are those whom BTs put their trust into who might answer, “No,” or, “As long as s/he’s not repulsive,” or not answer at all.

My typical answer is: “If you’re asking, it probably is.”

Years ago I heard the story of a sincere baales teshuva who declared, “I need a guy who’s earning at least $70,000 per year.” Some disparaged her, but her best advisor said: “If that’s what you really need, it would be wrong and dangerous to deny it.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating viewing your spouse as a sex object or a meal ticket. However, if you come from certain level of comfort, then chances are you will not be able to hack the lifestyle of the Chofetz Chaim.

I’m talking about balance. Listen to your rabbis and rebbetzins about the value of living a materially modest lifestyle. Listen to them when they emphasize the importance of middos and character in choosing a mate. They’re right. Just don’t forget, material boys and girls born and bred in the material world will typically have needs for material comforts no matter how much they deny it.

And baalei teshuva are prime candidates for such denial. We make so many spiritual strides so quickly that in our enthusiasm we can easily forget or deny that we are physical beings too.

The Rambam had adversaries in the Sultan’s court who argued that animal nature could be changed. The Ramban insisted it couldn’t, so his adversaries persuaded the Sultan to banish the Rambam if they could prove it. After weeks of training cats to serve meals like human waiters, the adversaries smugly led their cats into the Sultan’s chambers on their hind legs carrying trays of food just like waiters. The Rambam watched stoically nearby with a sack in his hands. When the Sultan asked him if he could refute the visual evidence, the Rambam calmly opened the sack and let some mice inside free. The cats immediately scattered, dropping their trays all over the Sultan’s nice table and zooming off in hot pursuit of the mice.

Don’t deny human nature. Control it. Manipulate it. Minimize it. Harness it. Suppress it, if need be. But don’t deny it. It’s not a healthy thing. For your body or your soul.

22 comments on “Denial & Balance in Dating & Beyond

  1. In response to your last paragraph ” Don’t deny human nature. Control it. Manipulate it. Minimize it. Harness it. Suppress it, if need be. But don’t deny it. It’s not a healthy thing. For your body or your soul”.

    Just as a side note on human nature in general …….Attaining/experiencing the inner equilibrium associated with tweaking the 50/50 balance between the spiritual and the physical is about as simple as exploring the relationship between Love /antidepressants ie: prozac and the dopamine hijacking phenomenon recently discovered .It’s way more difficult for some to /manipulate/control/harness and whip themselves into spiritual shape ……if G-d created a person with poor impulse control issues or high energy drives or any other spiritual imbalance it would not be fair to expect the discipline required from a torah observant person.I dont think there was any Adderall,Ritalin,Concerta or Prozac back in the biblical times when the torah was given over with commandments included .

  2. Once, a woman broke it off with me because she said that she needed to be with someone who was at least white collar in professional title, and at the time, I was not. Again, at the time. She did not look beyond the point where I was — of course she couldn’t be asked to be a Profetss and forecast my future earnings, but still she could of cut me some slack. I moved on and when I met the woman who became my wife, I was actually poorer than when I met the one who dumped me over my lack of title. What did my future wife want out of me? That I daven three times a day. That was her measure of sucess. When she married me I still wasn’t there yet (davening three times a day) yet she still married me. Why? According to her, “it is your attitude that I married.”
    What she further explains is that she was looking to a particular approach to life/Judaism et. al., not a firm must be doing or earnings list. Attitude to my wife (fortunately for me) was her measuring rod.
    Many long time singles that I try to set up ask me “what does X look like” or “what do they do for a living” I never get asked “what is their outlook on life.”

    I was learning the Slominer Rebbe with a small group and in last weeks parsha the Slominer points out that the signs that Hashem gave to Moshe were tests for Moshe. The first one when G-d asked, “what is that in your hand?” and Moshe responded “A staff.” seems a bit odd question and answer. Wasn’t it obvious what was in Moshe’s hand? But the Slominer explains that it could be viewed as a stick or a staff. A staff comes from the world of building, and a stick comes from the world of destruction.

    This is just a brief summary of the idea we learned, but I feel that this could be applied to singles in the Jewish world today. How are they viewing their dates, or prospects for dates? What questions are they asking? That says alot more than what’s in one’s wallet.

    Maybe singles by re-evualating the questions they are asking and proposing to the potential spouses and they might end up under the chuppah.

  3. Michoel,

    No, that point was not mentioned explicitly, so thanks for bringing it up. Denying one’s true needs — even if they seem physical and base — is extremely dangerous not only to the spouse who denies them, but to the spouse whom that person is marrying. Good point.

  4. Yakov,
    Great post. I didn’t read all the comments so excuse me if the following thought was mentioned already. I think it is very important. Women (quite possibly without exception) need to feel that their husband finds them attractive. They will intuit whether or not his expressions of feeling attracted are %100 percent sincere or not. Even if a man is totally confident in his ability to love and care for a woman who he is not particuallarly attracted too, such a marriage can easily have problems becuase SHE feels that he doesn’t find her to be beautiful.

  5. Mordechai,

    OTOH (on the one hand), when the young women went out into the vineyards of Shilo, they said ‘look not to beauty’.

    On the last page of the Gemara there (31a) a Braisa says:

    Our Rabbis have taught: The beautiful amongst them called out, Set your eyes on beauty for the quality most to be prized in woman is beauty…

    Surely after they’ve been married a while, the (true) bonds of (true) love will make such a consideration unnecessarry. But now, right after the chuppah, the Torah recognizes that ideal or not, this plays a role. When Goldie and Tevye have been married 25 years, they won’t need this. But before the marriage is solidified, certainly before the shidduch is made, appearance just may be important to some folks.

    I’m not so sure I agree that after 25 years a couple won’t need this. In fact, I disagree. Some couples definitely will. Generally, people aren’t as physically attractive in their 40s+ as they were in their 20s, but attraction is likely to remain important to a person 25 years later if it was important to begin with. That may not be true for everyone, but if it is true for someone then it would be dangerous to deny that.

    A practical application might be: You’re dating someone. One person feels physical attractiveness is important, and not just necessarily for the wedding night and sheva brachos. They suspect it is something they may need for the duration of their married life. They like the other person; they find them attractive — but in addition this other person has mentioned that they work out or generally keep in shape and believe they will do so the rest of their life. That could be an important difference than someone who is cute now but who has terrible eating habits, hates the thought of exercise and whose parents are grossly overweight.

    Again, I’m not advocating hedonistic values. I’m just trying to create a balance that idealistic BTs sometimes need to hear.

    Don’t deny the physical. Gauge yourself and be painfully honest who exactly you are. If you gauge you need a certain level of physical attractiveness, then don’t be afraid or embarrassed to admit it. Same with a lifestyle.

    Is that ideal? No. It may even reveal a character flaw. But it’s real, and moreso, the Torah recognizes that it is real. So if one party gives this importance that the other wouldn’t; that may be flawed, but more to the point it’s just a sign that they may not be a good match-certainly not if they can’t get past that point.

    Actually, there’s a letter of the Chazon Ish where he answers a bachur who is dating and finds the girl attractive but is concerned perhaps it’s yetzer hara motivating him. The Chazon basically answers that the natural attractiveness he feels is by no means necessarily bad, but could be the very thing Hashem created to make the shidduch happen.

  6. TantaMylanta,

    and G-d didn’t create me an angel, wonder why.

    After a lecture to a secular audience I delivered, a father brought his daughter who asked me how should she become an angel. (There’s a show apparently becoming angels or being touched by them; whatever.)

    I was a bit taken aback for a moment. What does she want? What do they teacher on this TV show, that people can turn into angels?)

    In any event, an answer quickly popped into my mind (b’siyata dishmaya). I said to be human is greater than being an angel. An angel has no temptation to do bad, for instance to be disrespectful to a parent (I looked at the father as I said that). A person does, however. Therefore, when we show respect for our parents we are doing something no angel could do.

    I think the father liked my answer better than his child, but the point is that, yeah, we’re not born angels. And especially BTs raised without any barriers, or certainly with substantially less barriers than the ideal Torah-observant home. However, our humanity sets us up for greatness.

    The point of my blog, though, was that too much idealism can backfire. We have to respect our humanity, our human nature, even as we strive for the heavens. And, in my experience, a lot of BTs can forget that — or get very confused and filled with self-doubt by losing sight of the forest in the trees — and this is especially dangerous when choosing a mate for life and/or a career path.

  7. Thank you, Rav Goldson, for your well-thought-out response. (Not that you need my approbation, but) I believe you’ve clarified the issue well.

  8. Mordechai —

    You’re right, of course. Chazal take the trouble to tell us that Sara, Avigayil, Rachav, and Esther were the most beautiful women in history. The novi tells us that Shaul was exceptionally handsome. Yosef’s beauty is legend.

    But it’s worth asking why. Even according to your (correct) observation that physical attraction is a reality that must not be ignored, the context of these reports of physical beauty don’t seem to address relationships but appear somewhat gratutitous.

    I don’t have a source for this (perhaps someone else does) but I believe that in the era of Tanach there was a much closer connection between the physical and the spiritual. A person of exceptional spiritual beauty projected their inner self through their physical appearance, just as today we may describe someone as possessing chein, charm, that intangible attractiveness that often has nothing to do with bone structure, complexion, or pouty lips. We learn that certain individuals possessed great beauty to appreciate that their inner beauty was so profound that it could not be contained within their physical selves.

    Having posited that, however, it is clear that their are plenty of exceptions. Dovid was suspected, in part, because of his physical similiarity to Eisav. Avshalom was a remarkable looking person despite his catastophic character flaws.

    When are charm false and beauty vain, as Shlomo teaches? When that’s all there is. “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman with no sense,” he tells us in Mishlei. The external enhances the internal, but means nothing by itself.

    Let’s come back to our point. Consider that Avrohom lived married to Sara for decades without noticing her physical beauty. THAT is the ideal. However, it is an ideal unrealistic for most of us. We need some measure of physical attraction to form the initial bond of an intimate relationship until time forms the deeper and more meaningful bond of love that only develops in marriage. Some may never require that initial physical attraction, but to deny it where it exists can prevent the solid foundations of a relationship from ever forming. That’s the importance of being “real” — not assuming that my aspiration to be like Avrohom enables me to negate the reality that I am not Avrohom.

    The same point applies to lifestyle. A woman who commits herself to life as a kollel wife while harboring (conscious or unconscious) dreams of a comfortable ba’al habatish existence is setting her marriage up for failure. It’s okay to try, as long as the couple have a backup plan and they’re both up front about where they’re headed.

  9. Heaven forbid, I don’t want to contradict the fine ideal (that I share) stated here that physical appearance/attractiveness (is that a word?) should not be the determining factor in a shidduch. And I don’t have the chutzpah to feign knowing what Rav Goldson’s rav meant about being real…

    Now, after that disclaimer, I ask why aren’t we looking directly at the mix and complexity that Hashem Himself sets before us re: this very issue. It seems to me that some of us tend to single-mindedly philosophize/idealize this issue in a manner that the Torah does not.

    OTOH (on the one hand), when the young women went out into the vineyards of Shilo, they said ‘look not to beauty’. Sh’lomo Hamelech taught us ‘sheker hachen v’hevel hayofi’, that grace and beauty are decptive; and yet OTOH (on the other hand) the halacha and the accepted manners of our holy communities squarely tell us that physical appearance is to be given consideration, at least where it is important to those involved.

    The mishnah at the beginning of Chapt. 8 of Yoma (and the relevant g’marah and Rambam) says that a new bride may wash her face on Yom Kippur ‘shelo titganeh al baalah’, in order to not find disfavor in her new husband’s eyes.

    Surely after they’ve been married a while, the (true) bonds of (true) love will make such a consideration unnecessarry. But now, right after the chuppah, the Torah recognizes that ideal or not, this plays a role. When Goldie and Tevye have been married 25 years, they won’t need this. But before the marriage is solidified, certainly before the shidduch is made, appearance just may be important to some folks.

    Is that ideal? No. It may even reveal a character flaw. But it’s real, and moreso, the Torah recognizes that it is real. So if one party gives this importance that the other wouldn’t; that may be flawed, but more to the point it’s just a sign that they may not be a good match-certainly not if they can’t get past that point.

  10. I absolutely am so glad to see in print what i have been feeling for so long.
    i must admit, i have yet to hear humanity as a goal to strive towards. ie. idealism vs. humanity.
    sometimes we (I atleast) get so caught up in being a tzadekkes (why thank you, autographs can be mailed ;) that one forgets about the virtue of being human. for why else have we been created humans. gosh, and G-d didn’t create me an angel, wonder why.

  11. To Sarah: You’re probably right about other issues playing a role in both women’s decisions.

    To Josey and the person who quoted Pirkei Avos: As we know, in Hebrew the word “to love” shares its root in the word “to give.” One would hope that a marriage which began because of a superficial reason would deepen over time as life forces the couple to give to one another.

  12. Josey,

    Good question. There’s a difference, though — I think both theologically and psychologically — between making an effort doing something and having those efforts thwarted by reasons beyond one’s control and not making the effort due to misinformation, deception, naivete, laziness, distraction or something similar.

    It’s a load to deal with in either case. But I think it’s easier to say this is what God’s will is when the situation comes about despite our best efforts. And I think that makes a difference in one’s psychology.

  13. “Any love that depends on a specific cause, when that cause is gone the love is gone; but if it does not depend on a specific cause, it will never cease.”

  14. It is nice to hear that on one’s spiritual journey being ‘real'(human) and acknowledging one’s real needs doesn’t have to be discounted or viewed only as selfish.

    I have a question though: if someone finds their match with the $70,000/year job and that person is also physically very attractive and then life intervenes and the job is lost, the person has a life-changing illness and his/her physical attractiveness is gone… what happens to real, human needs? This kind of life twist happens all the time.

  15. That’s too bad about those women. I find it hard to believe though that is all there is to it. There are so many people happily married at greatly varying levels of “physical attractiveness”, it’s such an individual thing anyhow. Maybe they weren’t making the most of their appearance, leading people to believe they had an “I don’t care attitude”? I doubt they will fare better in the secular world anyhow in that regard. The bottom line is, we live a Torah life because it is Emes, so we can get closer to H”, it is the perfect blueprint for a completely fulfilling life, encompassing all of our needs if led properly. It is not dependent on how people behave or don’t behave, who follows rules or not, what righteous FFB’s do or don’t do or the bad apples in the bunch represent or don’t represent. Nobody is perfect or we wouldn’t be here. We need to focus more on ourselves and water our own gardens accordingly. And if we must look outside the window, there is so much more good all around than bad anyhow, so much chesed, so much mesiras nefesh, unbelievably high levels of spirituality, thankfully.

  16. I agree with you, but unfortunately, I can think of two ex-baalos teshuva I know who left frumkeit because in the shidduchim process, they were still being judged for physical attractiveness.

  17. It is truly a delicate balance to strike as you describe. It is so much easier to feel that we have reached a great level and therefore no need to keep striving, that we are “good enough”, whatever that means. However, to be true to ourselves and our potential, one may feel driven to grow continuously. Surrounding ourselves with both peers and role models is effective, giving to others makes us grow further as well. Some people are driven to make more and more money, acquire more and more things. Those people would never “settle” in that area and feel they have achieved enough. Motivating people are contagious, seek them out and absorb.

  18. Well, let’s see.

    I suppose I’m understanding Yaakov Astor’s observations as another angle on the conformity issue. There are many character traits and practices that we point to as the ideals of Torah Judaism. But we have to remember that they are IDEALS, and that even if we spend the entirety of our lives striving for them (as we should) we will rarely, if ever, attain 100% of the ideal.

    When Chazal tell us that no one should be satisfied until he has reached the level of Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov, they mean that just as our patriarchs never slackened in their avodas HaShem, similarly should we push ourselves to achieve 100% of our potential. But, for example, if I’m a B student, then 100% of my potential will remian B work. I strive for the A, but if I do my best and earn a B, then I have nothing to regret in my performance.

    Similarly, if we set unreasonable expectations and goals for ourselves, we cause ourselves (and often those around us) endless frustration and emotional or psychological harm. Being “real” means to gauge what level of spiritual achievement is within our reach and exert ourselves to reach it, constantly reassessing and recalibrating, never remaining satisfied with our previous accomplishments, always aspiring for higher and higher goals.

    It’s easy to set the bar for ourselves too low so that we don’t have to exert ourselves, to compare ourselves to those who are less than we are so that we are comfortable with the statuse quo. It is tempting, however, to compare ourselves with those who are so much greater than ourselves that we stand no chance — in the short term — of succeeding in our emulation of them.

    The key to being “real” is to cultivate within ourselves the spiritual honesty to evaluate accurately what we CAN do and what we SHOULD do, to strike a balance between long-term ideals and practical short-term goals. The successful implementation of this approach (admittedly easier said than done) may enable us to achieve spiritual heights otherwise unimaginable.

  19. Again and again I heard my rebbe say, “You have to be real.” It took me years to begin to understand what he meant. This essay is a perfect example of the potential danger of superficiality.

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