Monday, July 02, 2007

Dating In Context

A lot of dating takes place out of context. The courting pair visits restaurants, hotel lobbies, theatres, parks and museums in their efforts to decide whether they are suited. This is vital: quality time spent together discussing serious issues and simply ‘hanging out’ in each other’s company are key ways of assessing long-term suitability and compatibility of aims. Yet this is all insufficient unless what we might term ‘context’ is added to the equation. If two people don’t see each other in the context of their existing lives, do they really have any chance of properly assessing the other? This concern seems especially germane in younger, very religious circles, where the prevalent mode of dating allows hardly any time for getting to know one another, let alone seeing each other in context. It also features as a key issue with ‘international dating’, in which one party pays the other a short and very intense visit, making it difficult to gain any real insight into each other’s lives.

The Mishnah in Avot says:

Al tadin et haverkha ad shetagia limkomo - don't judge your fellow until you reach his place. (Avot 2:4)

The usual understanding of this is that one shouldn’t judge another until one has experienced the same set of circumstances in which a particular event occurred. One simply cannot understand another person’s behaviour and motivation unless one has been in the same ‘place’.

The Me’iri (ad loc.) offers an alternative, more literal reading in the name of ‘a few of his teachers’. He suggests that the correct understanding of the Mishnah is that one can’t properly judge someone until one has visited their place – i.e. seen them in their home environment, and, as he puts it, ‘seen their behaviour in their place’. Everyone behaves differently at home from when they are elsewhere; the former is a much more accurate indicator of their true character and behaviour than the latter.

This is very important advice for those involved in the shidduch scene. Shouldn’t proper dating afford each discreet opportunities to see the other on his or her home turf? If the two people live in different cities, that will certainly involve visiting each other at home; irrespective, it must always include some exposure to family members, friends, favourite haunts, trusted advisers, and perhaps even Shul and community life. Of course, this exposure needs to happen gradually and organically as part of the development of the relationship, at a stage and in a way that is comfortable for both parties. It is clearly not without its risks, yet it is essential. So essential, in fact, that I am sceptical about the depth of any relationship from which it has been absent.

This is much easier said than done. In many parts of the observant world, dating is conducted away from the public gaze exposure and even from friends, partly for reasons of modesty and partly because people ‘might talk’. While the former is valid and must be taken into consideration, the second is a regrettable feature of a Jewish world that can’t quite take the laws of lashon hara (forbidden gossip) sufficiently seriously. At least among some younger people, this may rule out introducing context to the relationship as simply too risky.

Admittedly, properly contextualised dating is more likely to happen among older singles who date for longer and are less inhibited about exposing their relationship to others. Would it take a huge culture change to allow religious dating for younger, very religious Jews in this way? Perhaps, but with what at least seems to be a substantial increase in the number of failing relationships, one I’m not sure we should dismiss without serious consideration.

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