In the fiction of my favorite frum novelist, Dov Haller, there are no real villains: No one is judged without the omniscient author explaining everything that brought him to his present situation (l'm'komo). Nevertheless, if one had to pick out the least sympathetic character in Haller's recent novella, "Whispers in the Wind," it would surely be Nochum Levine, the father of a prized bochur in Lakewood. The mere hint from Yosef Hoffer, the father of the girl whose shidduch with Nochum's son has gotten off to a promising start, that the family business is not as rock solid as everyone thinks is sufficient for Nochum to immediately put a stop to the shidduch.
In the end, Nochum too has his day in court, as Haller valiantly tries to humanize him: Twenty-five years earlier Nochum too had been widely viewed as a future rosh yeshiva. But those were the days before people spoke of "money and support," and after marriage, he found himself struggling to make ends meet, and barely able to keep his head upright when he has a few hours to learn Gemara at night. All he wants is to protect his son from the same fate.
I suspect that many of us with children in shidduchim found ourselves squirming uncomfortably when reading about Nochum Levine, and wondering whether there is not a little of him in us.
In Torah society, particularly in Israel, the size of one's bank account confers little social status. Those who engage in conspicuous consumption are more likely to invite ridicule than admiration or even jealousy. Yet when it comes to shidduchim, we suddenly find ourselves discussing the financial status of complete strangers and having our own investigated, as if by Dun and Bradstreet. Suddenly, a bas Yisrael is evaluated not just by her yiras Shomayim, her simchas chaim, her chochma, but also in terms of her earning capacity. All in the name of ensuring the Torah learning of future generations.
Both Chazal and later authorities are filled with adjurations against marrying for money. At the same time, it is a reality that few young kollel couples will be able to make ends meet on their own, during the time that the husband is learning full-time, without either an apartment (until now the Israeli norm) or parental help with the rent (the American norm).
Nor was there ever a pristine past when financial considerations were totally absent from shidduchim. In Eastern Europe, a few scholars of outstanding promise were furnished with kest, which usually meant living with the wife's parents for many years. Only the richest members of society could generally afford such an arrangement. The difference today is only in the numbers of those receiving the modern equivalent of kest.
So the question becomes: How can we talk about money, without becoming corrupt ourselves and completely inverting the Torah's hierarchy of values for choosing a spouse? I have directed this question of late to some of the wisest people I know, and none of them claimed complete clarity.
The only sure way to rise above the challenge is to not let money play any role at all. I have heard of a number examples of parents of excellent bochurim who let shidduchim proceed to the end without any financial discussion for the simple reason that they were determined not to let it affect their son's judgment of whom would be the most suitable partner for life. When the families met for the first time, they simply said, "Here is how much we have to give each of our children, and whatever else you can contribute will be fine with us." Other parents of excellent boys readily agreed that the couple would live in towns on the periphery, where apartment prices may be a fourth of what they are in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak, because they were most interested in a bas talmid chacham for their son. (American readers will have to substitute their own equivalents.)
But these examples are far from the norm today, and they reflect a high level of bitachon that is likely beyond where most of us are holding. What can those who are not at that level, but who nevertheless cringe at evaluating another Jew in terms of their financial wherewithal do?
LET'S START WITH some clear-cut don't's. Don't use money as a status symbol. The daughter of someone I know was told by her chassan that he had made the best shidduch of anyone in his vaad. His kallah modestly replied that each bochur finds the best shidduch for him, but was flattered nevertheless -- at least until he clarified that he had been promised the most money of anyone in his vaad. Hopefully, that chassan was uniquely dense, but, in any event, he is no longer engaged.
Don't let money be the first or second thing discussed with respect to a shidduch. One friend told me that whenever a shadchan calls up and asks first, "How much are you offering?" he responds, "To you [or your client] nothing. A gutten tag." Those who speak first of money betray a complete misunderstanding of what marriage is about, and should be avoided. Overwhelming financial pressure can surely exact a toll on shalom bayis, but no amount of money can guarantee it.
A third rule of special importance to parents of girls: If the "best boy" has a price tag of $200,000, and you lack that kind of money, don't think about it any more than you would think about purchasing a Masserati. It is not worth endangering one's health and the ability to marry off subsequent children. A friend who has successfully married all his children told me that he realized early on that he was not in the class to afford the "best boy from the best yeshiva," and had given the matter no more thought than the peasant does to the king's daughter. Each one of his daughters is happily married to a serious ben Torah, who is a good father and husband.
PERHAPS ONE REASON that money is so much discussed in the context of shidduchim is that it provides the illusion of being something tangible, objective and measurable. Discussing a girl's profession or her parent's financial status helps bochurim or their parents feel that they have some control over the future. Even when they know that there is no profession that does not have its share of rich and poor, that no one can foretell the future or know what will be sought after in the employment market five or ten years down the line – in short, that hakol b'dei Shomayim – they desperately grasp on to that which has the air of being capable of objective measurement.
Bochurim who may never have talked to a girl other than their sisters or mother may hesitate to rely on their judgment of intangibles. But there is no way around it. One doesn't have to be married many years to know that the qualities that most determine the success of a marriage are rarely capable of being easily measured. Nor are they the same for everyone. When the bas kol declares bas ploni l'ploni, it is in terms of the specific needs of each one to fulfill their tachlis in the world. And that requires every young man and woman in shidduchim to make their own evaluation – hopefully in consultation with someone of experience who knows them well – based on their unique character.
Even with respect to those matters to which money is most relevant – i.e., the nearly inevitable financial pressures that most adults experience sometime in their married life -- intangible personal qualities, such as histapkus b'muat, will often be more determinative than the size of the girl's dowry, in determining the toll those pressures take. More money often goes with greater expectations, and creates more tensions than it removes.
Long-range predictions, whether about a young woman's earning capacity or a young man's future in learning, are so often wrong precisely because they rely too much on that which is measurable. A gannenet (nursery school teacher) with drive, initiative and energy will often end up earning more than a computer programmer, and be less subject to the vagaries of the market.
And the same is true with predictions of long-term success in Torah learning. IQ results, even if we possessed them, would not do the trick, and even early hasmada does not always last. A bochur who makes do with an apartment in a smaller community may end up growing far more in his learning because of the greater opportunities to give shiurim. And the most important determinant of long-term growth in Torah learning is often the happiness of one's marriage.
ADULTS GENERALLY SPEND a great deal more time worrying about money than their children ever suspect. Young people on the verge of marriage should know this. But it is even more important that they learn in their homes that such qualities as commitment, mutual respect, and consideration are the strongest foundation of a happy marriage.
The way that we as parents conduct financial discussions in shidduchim is one way to convey that message. The less obsessed we are about money, the less obsessed our children will be (though one can never underestimate the influence of friends.)
Perhaps the best advice I received is to approach financial discussions with no other agenda than the desire to give one's children the best chance of building a stable home and on the assumption that one's mechutanim want the same and will also do everything they reasonably can to help. No one should be expected to rob a bank.
I think that is ultimately the meaning of the repeated calls of the leading gedolim of Eretz Yisroel for the two sets of parents to divide the costs of an apartment between them. (At the rate that apartment prices are escalating, few families will be able to purchase even half of an apartment for numerous children, anyway.) There can, of course, be no absolute rule of equality between both sides since families will vary widely in their capacity to help. Rather the gedolim are saying that bochurim should not be treated as prizes to be sold to the highest bidder – an attitude that benefits neither the bochurim themselves nor the bayis ne'eman b'Yisroel that they hope to build nor the Torah to which they are dedicating their lives.