By Yochanan Gordon
A “Headlines” episode hosted by businessman and author David Lichtenstein recently raised some eyebrows. The show’s title was “Marrying for Money in Halachah and Hashkafah” and it involved discussions with Rabbi Aharon Sorcher Detroit, Maggid Shiur, Shas Illuminated; Shadchan Miriam Levitin; Rabbi Manis Friedman, dean of Bais Chana School in Crown Heights, and best selling author; and Michal Friedman, LCSW/Psychotherapist with OKClarity.
While the program ran almost two hours, the most controversial part was Lichtenstein’s 20-minute conversation with Miriam Levitin which focused on shidduchim in Eretz Yisrael, particularly the huge sums of money in play.
Mrs. Levitin stated that money is perhaps the most important factor in the shidduchim she is facilitating. In her own words, “Money for shidduchim is discussed in two parts: namely, money for a dirah and money for the wedding ceremony.”
“For less than 400,000 shekel, a boy from a regular, run-of-the-mill yeshiva will not even entertain the possibility of going out with an enquiring girl.” She continued: If a family is seeking a boy from an exclusive list of select “Ivy League yeshivos,” which she named as Chevron, Tifrach, Ponovezh, Kaplan, and Wolfson, they would have to come to the table with anywhere between 800,000 to 1 million shekel for the shidduch to even get off the ground.
Mrs. Levitin specified that these monetary demands do not necessarily originate with the parents of these boys. Rather, it is done at the behest of the roshei yeshiva, a notion hard to reconcile, considering that we are discussing people whose lives are dedicated to sole preoccupation in Torah and are presumably looking to become selfless and devoted husbands.
In wanting to understand the process of negotiations and what would occur if a parent of a girl was seeking a boy from a top yeshiva but did not have the money necessary to satisfy the asking price, the conversation took the form of role play. Lichtenstein said, “Suppose I’m the parent of a girl looking for a boy in a top yeshiva, but I only had $50,000 or 175,000 shekel and I came to you to facilitate the shidduch. What would the typical response be?” Mrs. Levitin replied, “Unless you settle for an American boy, who’s not asking for that much money, or a boy from a family with no money, yichus, or who is not playing the game due to the number of children they have to marry off, you would have to reevaluate your priorities based on the money that is available since that is, unfortunately, what the shidduchim are based on these days.”
Rabbi Lichtenstein then followed up, “So if I come to you seeking a shidduch for my exceedingly good daughter, specifically a boy who is a gaon and a masmid, but I just don’t have the money, I’m going to have to settle for a tier-two boy?” Mrs. Levitin then interjected, “What makes a boy tier one or tier two anyway?” That piqued Rabbi Lichtenstein’s curiosity; indeed, what are the characteristics and qualifications of a boy with an asking price of a million shekels? Before describing the qualities of such a boy, Mrs. Levitin said once again, “The game is not true to real life.” To me, she said, “a tier-one boy is someone with good middos and who is right for one’s specific daughter.” She then continued with what we could term the colloquial description of the million dollar masmid, which, in her words is “A boy who has made a name for himself, is a masmid, is smart, probably comes from a family of rich pedigree, and either he or his parents have a smidgen of ga’avah.”
The qualifications set forth for the million dollar masmid are extremely eye-opening. A smidgen of ga’avah? I should say, it didn’t seem as if she was referring to the “Shemini she’bishminis shel gasus ha’ruach” that the Gemara in Sotah prescribes for a talmid chacham. The Gemara says regarding someone who is arrogant: “[Hashem says] He and I cannot coexist.” This begs the question: how can these two realities exist side by side?
Forgetting for a moment the ideological issues with these qualifications, there is a very practical question that needs to be resolved. According an article in the Jerusalem Post a year ago, fully 45 percent of Haredim in Israel, or close to 500,000 people, live under the poverty line.
How does a family of eight, subsisting on less than 90,000 NIS per year, come up with the money required to marry off even one daughter? If I didn’t know any better, I’d say we just figured out the problem of the shidduch crisis. But, no, it’s not so simple.
Parents, especially those with children of marriageable age, know that they would do anything to get their children married, and it seems that the parents in Israel are the same in that regard. But before we continue, if you think about it, the numbers just don’t add up. At one point in the interview, Lichtenstein facetiously inquired of Mrs. Levitin if she would say that the average family in Israel from the yeshiva community had two children, which elicited a chuckle from Mrs. Levitin and a correction that the average family had around ten children. It’s staggering if you think about it. Based on the numbers set out for a premium boy, it would take ten years or more for an average family to come up with the money necessary to buy their new couple a dirah, and that’s if they spent no money on anything else and didn’t pay taxes.
Which led Lichtenstein to the next pressing question, “If the roshei yeshiva are the ones, for the most part, responsible for these tragic circumstances, how do they live with themselves? One does not have to be a Torah scholar to know that this flies in the face of Torah from every possible angle. Rebbe Akiva himself, the progenitor of Torah She’ba’al Peh, of whom Moshe Rabbeinu himself was jealous when he went up to receive the Torah and encountered the soul of Rebbe Akiva giving shiur in heaven, summed up the entire Torah based on the verse, “V’ahavta l’reia’cha kamocha.” And “Mah d’sanei aloch l’chavruch lo sa’aved.” What is the justification for this type of conduct?
Ultimately, not everyone brings all their children to the chuppah. And while that is, in some cases, inevitable, in others it would seem completely avoidable. In one case, regarding a shidduch that Mrs. Levitin herself had facilitated and a wedding that she attended, the father of the kallah suffered a heart attack during the first dance of the wedding and had to be whisked away by Hatzalah. Thankfully, it was a mild heart attack and he was an overall healthy person, but, in her words, having been involved in the negotiation, she could attest with complete certainty that his health was depleted due to the extraordinary financial burden he put on himself so that his daughter could marry this boy.
Lichtenstein pressed on: What were the negotiations? To which Mrs. Levitin replied, “He had promised the other side all sorts of money that he had no idea how he would come up with, just not to interfere with the shidduch.” Furthermore, she said, stories of this nature appear in the news on a regular basis. This was just one incident that she had seen with her own eyes.
This led Mr. Lichtenstein to the next question: How could a “good boy” sit at the Shabbos table in his in-laws’ house knowing that he was almost responsible for the premature passing of his father-in-law? And in what world is a boy who can bring about such a tragic eventuality considered a “good boy?” In other words, he followed up, what kind of gadlus can come out of cannibalism?
Mrs. Levitin generally concurred with Lichtenstein. She said she understands the system is deeply flawed and, as she stated a number of times, much of it is reflective of a game and doesn’t represent real life or the interests of normal, healthy people. In fact, she said she confronted a rosh yeshiva and challenged him to respond to the situation that had gotten way out of hand. He looked at her and forthrightly declared, “I want these boys to remain in learning, and without the means to sit comfortably they will be running around to free-loan societies, developing large, burdensome debts and would be unable to sit and learn with a clear conscience and presence of mind.”
In another shidduch orchestrated by Mrs. Levitin, a boy and girl had dated and were ready to get married. Mrs. Levitin had assured the boy’s parents that the girl’s side had the resources to facilitate the shidduch. It was their third or fourth time marrying off a child and everything had previously run seamlessly. One day, she got a call from the boy’s father, who furiously exclaimed that the shidduch is off. He said: You told us that the girl’s side would have no issues footing the bulk of the bill, and it’s just not the case. She called the prospective kallah’s father to find out from his side what the situation was and he told her that he had planned to give 600,000 shekel. She called the boy’s father again, and he said to her, “You think 600,000 shekel is a lot? A dirah these days goes for 1.2 million shekel. We are short 400,000 shekel and so the shidduch is off. She concluded the story by saying that it’s been about six years and the boy remains single. He could have been married with a family if it weren’t for his father’s unreasonable demands.
Shidduchim in general is an engaging topic, with people on all sides possessing strong opinions. And while this particular story seems relevant to the culture in Israel, and less relevant to the situation here in America, we need to ask ourselves how different it really is.