Mesorah DC is back!

Mesorah's new logo

On Friday, Mesorah DC celebrated its first Shabbat service and dinner of the season with over 150 young professionals.  Rabbi Teitelbaum led services, but he had the whole Mesorah team back for the season opener – Rabbis Lefkowitz, Berkman, and Motzen.

The dinner also looked much the same as the Mesorah of last year – chicken stuffed with spinach, salad, rice, deliciously soft challah, cake, and lots of caffeine free diet sodas (which makes me very happy).

But not all is the same at Mesorah.  The group has a new logo, a new website, and a new online presence.  The website in particular merits mentioning.   It features Rabbi Berkman’s “A Pondering Jew’s Blog;” Rabbi Teitelbaum’s new weekly parsha video, the “Mesorah Minute;” descriptions of all Mesorah classes; and a link to Kosher Express.

As for the actual evening.  Two thumbs up.  Per usual.  That being said, I’m going to allow myself a few remarks on the content of the keynote speech.

Mort Fertel, a relationships expert who has appeared on NBC, CBS, PBS, and Fox News,  offered a few broad remarks on dating and relationships, but then he opened the floor to questions, stating that “you all would probably rather discuss what’s on your mind than hear me say what’s on my mind.”

Experience. Fertel counseled against “dating just to gain experience.”  He reasoned that experience does not always help – consider, for instance, the experience of taking drugs or shooting ourselves in the foot.   But this analogy is flawed.  We want to become good at dating; we don’t (presumably) want to become good at taking drugs or shooting ourselves in the foot, and that’s why those experiences aren’t positive things.  If, however, we wanted to become experts in drug-taking or foot-shooting, then I would imagine they would work like anything else: Practice makes perfect.  So if you want to become a more apt dater, in my opinion, date away.

Physical and emotional commitment. Fertel reasonably counseled that it’s difficult to be an objective assessor of a prospective partner if you are already physically or emotionally entangled.  The audience picked up on a particular aspect of this point:  that sex before marriage can be detrimental to marriage success.  Maybe he’s right.  I don’t have the statistics.  But the problem with this approach is it’s a bit akin to saying “Americans would lose weight if they just stopped eating fatty foods.  No fries, no donuts, no cookies, no cake.”   Technically, that’s right, of course.  But taking these foods away from America is very unrealistic.  Similarly, pretending that we can address relationships by saying “don’t have pre-marital sex” is absurd.  According to this USA Today article, 95 percent of Americans have pre-marital sex. So while Fertel might be right, he’s not doing us much help by speaking to a world that the vast majority of us aren’t in.

Things have gotten worse? Fertel also criticized today’s dating and relationship world by pointing to the increasing rates of divorce, despite the increased “experience” Americans are building by postponing marriage (In 2005, the average American male married at 27, females at 25).  According to Fertel, 50 percent of marriages now end in divorce.  This number – 50 percent – is accurate, but it obscures the fact that many of these divorces are from second and third marriages.  Most studies estimate the divorce rate is about 41 percent for first marriages.  The type of statistical bait-and-switch used by Fertel has raised the ire of more than one social scientist as evidenced by this column in The New York Times.

So Fertel’s witnessed phenomenon is this: people are marrying later in life and divorce rates are rising.  He admitted that correlation does not equal causation, but then proceeded to speak as if he had established a causal relationship.  There are of course many potential causes of higher divorce rates.  One of them is simply free choice.   Women in particular were often without easy legal recourse in the 1950s for failed relationships, and even if they had the option, society treated victims of failed relationships as social pariahs.  Is it really bad that we have expanded free choice in relationships?

Instead of judging marriage success by divorce rates, we should judge them by happiness statistics.  After all, a miserable couple that stays married hardly seems like something to celebrate.  And on happiness statistics, the country has remained fairly consistent since the 1950s (prior to the recent economic downturn).

Another phenomenon that Fertel overlooked in his haste to condemn experience as the cause of divorce is this:  Divorce rates have been dropping noticeably since the late 1970s (See this chart).  So now we have another phenomenon:  divorce rates are going down as the average age of marriage continues to rise.  Reconcile that with Fertel’s thesis…

So what does lead to marital success?

If you buy my counter-arguments above, then you’re left without some sign posts to successful relationships.

I’m not so audacious as to suggest I know more about relationships than the next man.  But I do read a lot of statistical studies on marriage (it’s a hobby I developed when my sister got engaged), and here’s my synthesis of this material into a formula for success:  Succeed in life and marry somebody who is very similar to you.

By succeed, I mean make more money, get more degrees, and raise your IQ – all of these measurements strongly correlate with marriage success.

By similar, I mean ignored the statement “opposites attract.” It’s the canard that has set marriage back many hundreds of years.  Every study I’ve seen has suggested that the fewer differences, the better the chance for marriage success.  This includes: level of educational attainment, race, religion, religious observance, socio-economic background, political beliefs, and general values.  The weight of each of these can be disputed, but the more the couple shares, the better the chance of marital success.

As is perhaps evident now, I like this subject, and for this reason, I got a kick of Fertel’s speech despite disagreeing with parts of it.  All in all, a fun Mesorah night.