During my college days, I became friends with a girl who was valedictorian of her high school class. She sometimes annoyed me with her intellect. After a test in our art history class, she and I milled about and fretted over how our individual results would rank on the class curve. She worried and said, “I think I failed.” Only later, we found out that she scored the highest in the class. This routine repeated on several occasions and I learned pretty quickly that her failing just wasn’t possible.
Besides being very smart, she was tall and beautiful. Guys noticed her and liked talking to her; however, I can’t remember her dating any of them. Devoted to her faith, she wasn’t allowed to drink alcohol and I never saw her break that rule. She and I didn’t have deep discussions about our beliefs, but I knew that she wasn’t Catholic like I was, at the time.
At some point during our undergraduate years, she confided that she was going to be introduced to a man whom her parents had arranged for her to marry. That revelation seemed preposterous to me. We were ambitious young women with career objectives! We were close to breaking free from dependence upon our parents—close to being able to support ourselves. An arranged marriage seemed like a step backwards in time. I couldn’t imagine marrying someone I didn’t choose myself; someone I didn’t know and love.
She began regularly meeting with the man and eventually said she had grown to love him. They married and I hoped her love for him was true. I wanted her to be happy.
When I knew little about arranged marriages, I viewed them as oppressive, stifling, controlling. During my recent attendance at an Orthodox Jewish wedding ceremony, my opinion changed. I saw great beauty in symbolism and tradition and in genuine expressions of love. This particular arranged marriage showed me that helping sons and daughters select a spouse is one of the most precious gifts parents can bestow upon their children.
The parents of the bride and groom had prepared and shared family résumés with one another. Then, their children exchanged personal résumés and became interested in going on a first date. But it wasn’t a typical dinner and movie; instead, it was a sit-down, serious discussion about hopes and dreams, faith, family, goals for the future. The children got to know one another through subsequent meetings and eventually decided that they wanted to wed one another.
Those steps, starting with the exchanging of résumés, may seem too calculating and business-like for our modern, American society—secular or not, conservative or liberal. Culturally we’re accustomed to finding a mate through spontaneity, chance encounters, being in the right place at the right time. We trust in love at first sight—we like what we see, then we take time to evaluate whether or not our love interest has the other qualities we’re looking for in a spouse.
If those measures don’t work, we embrace well-intended efforts by friends who play match-makers and we turn to online dating services. Why not consider the opinions of the two people—mother and father—who love their child most?
My seventeen year-old son recently told me that he was going to go out on a date, that evening, with a girl who I had never heard him mention. I asked him to show me a picture of her because I wanted to see how she represented herself to others. There was something revealing in that picture: pursed lips and a flirtatious, seductive tilt of the head. My son had shared that image from the girl’s Twitter profile. So, I had to wonder what he really knew about her, beyond finding her physically attractive. He admitted that he didn’t really know anything more, except that she attended the same high school.
Aha. Time for a little parental guidance. I told him that, before dating any girl who expresses her interest in him, I’d like him to know what qualities he’s looking for in a future wife. I reminded him that a common faith is very important; at least it was for his dad and me. Customs, habits, traditions, morals are influenced, in our case, by our faith in Christ. My son will have to decide for himself what is important, but I made it clear that my hopes for him are that he’ll consciously look for specific, admirable attributes in the girls he chooses to spend his time with.
With similar aspirations for their children, the Orthodox Jewish parents sought out a family that complemented their own. I’m sure they considered faith, first and foremost, as well as community involvement, personal education, and reputation. I’m not sure if finances were specifically disclosed, but the families’ respective priorities could be determined by the way they spent their time and money. The parents were responsible for helping their children find their intended spouses. But the young couple wasn’t forced to marry. Their opinions mattered.
The groom knew he didn’t have to marry the first woman his parents approved. His older brother had gone on dates with twenty-five different ladies before finding his own bride. The repetitive and time-consuming search may have been slightly frustrating to the parents, who were increasingly unsure of whether or not they would ever marry the elder son off. But they valued his input and supported him throughout the sensitive process.
When my son announced that he had cancelled his date with Twitter Girl, I was relieved and proud. He had taken what I said and thought about it. Then he had the good sense to call one of his female friends from our church’s youth group for additional advice. He described her as having “the best judgement of anyone I know.” She told him Twitter Girl wasn’t the kind of girl he should be going out with. I happen to love this girl from church and used to have her in mind when I would confide in my friends, “If I could only choose who my children marry…”
Now, more than ever, I admire the practice of a closely-knit community of Orthodox Jews who arrange marriages for their children. I respect the groom’s father, who I know as a kind and generous man.
During the wedding reception, I was blessed to see deeper into his heart.
“Your new daughter-in-law is stunningly beautiful,” I commented.
He was well-acquainted with her, smiled at me, and simply replied, “Yes, she is. Inside and out.”