Late Singlehood In Religious Zionism

SOLO | Ari Engelberg | Religious Zionism


Peter McGraw speaks to Ari Engelberg about the growing number of singles (i.e., “late singlehood”) in Religious Zionism. Ari shares insights from his new book, Singlehood and Religion: The Case of Israeli Religious Zionist Singles.

Listen to Episode #208 here


Late Singlehood In Religious Zionism


Welcome back. The Solo Movement puts a lot of things on my to-do list. Besides the show, the book, and the community, I have a background project that I call Single Insights: The Science of SOLOs. In it, I have been writing about singles in the marketplace. For example, I have a forthcoming Harvard Business Review article about the opportunities that singles present companies that are paying attention to the global rise of single living and this is the historically high rate of people living alone.

One insight that became clear early on was the friction that was occurring in religious organizations which tend to be very family-focused, yet have an increasing number of single members. This raises the question, how do you accommodate this change within these long-standing traditional organizations that typically encourage people to get married and have families? They’ve also been important for supporting the community more generally.

My guest, too, is interested in this topic, albeit examining it from a different perspective. He is a Sociologist and Anthropologist holding positions as a senior lecturer in the Behavioral Science Department at Hadassah Academic College, Jerusalem, and lectures also at the Religious Studies Program at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of the published Singlehood and Religion: The Case of Israeli Religious Zionist Singles. That’s a very long lead-up to welcome Ari Engelberg.


Thank you so much for having me.

Religious Zionism

Many readers are going to be familiar, perhaps with what’s happening in religious organizations in the United States. As I said, this friction between these very family-oriented organizations then the rise of singles, and how do you make these singles feel welcome within a congregation, let’s say. I was very eager to talk to you because you’re examining something a little bit different and I found it quite fascinating. In order to bring the average reader up to speed, we need to step back and have a tiny bit of a history lesson and address what is Zionism in general and what is religious Zionism in particular.

These are the types of subjects one could speak about for a year-long course but I’ll be very brief just to give the background. Many of your readers will be familiar with Orthodox Judaism. There will be less who will know that there’s the ultra-orthodox, the well-known, very visibly identifiable Jews with their black hats. There’s also the modern Orthodox, which are usually only wearing a kippah or yamaka or various names for that.

SOLO | Ari Engelberg | Religious Zionism
Singlehood and Religion: The Case of Israeli Religious Zionist Singles

In Israel, there is also this division between Jews who are religious, usually that means Orthodox. There are also reforms and conservatives in Israel. There are other denominations, other Jewish denominations but they’re rather small. In Israel, most Jews who identify as religious identify as Orthodox. Zionism is the movement that led to the establishment of the state of Israel. While many of the ultra-orthodox historically rejected Zionism because they seemed like a new thing establishing a state and they weren’t a large part of ultra-orthodoxy.

It’s about rejecting anything you knew anything that mattered. Religious Zionism was a group within Orthodoxy that said, “We are both religious but also favor having a state.” This has been around for over a hundred years. This political movement group of people. As Israel came to being, they also formed a community. It wasn’t just an idea but it was a community.

Within Israel, there’s this distinction which is stronger that exists in the US between ultra-orthodox Jews who among other things in Israel, mostly don’t serve in the military. The draft in Israel is universal. The religious Zionists do serve in the military and are in general more involved in everyday secular life, go to universities, and get jobs. In many ways, they are parallel to the American Jewish modern Orthodox community.

If I understand this correctly, you have Zionists who are seeking this independent state. This goes back a long time now. They tend to be secular but they can also be these religious Zionists. The religious Zionists have in common with the secular Israelis, this notion of Zionism. They have this religious connection similarity to the ultra-Orthodox community.

There’s that but it should also be stated that, at least within the religious Zionism, there are some who integrated these two and view the modern state in religious terms as the beginning of a redemption. It’s more than having in common with the secular, this nationalist agenda. Some of them at least even give it a religious twist or more than a twist. They view it in religious terms.

Nationalism itself is viewed in religious terms. Hence, also the settlement moves into the territories. I don’t know how deep we want to get into this, but it should be mentioned that there’s this amalgamation of the two of nationalism and religion. In a way, those who object to religious Zionism see as dangerous even.

Rise Of Singles

This is obviously a complex topic and there are different groups of people involved. You’re interested though specifically in religious Zionism. You’ve come to study this rise of singlehood within this group and how this group is responding to it. That’s what your book and your research are about, correct?

I should also add a disclaimer that I myself grew up in this as a religious Zionist. Now I don’t identify. I identify as traditional but, in many ways, I still am part of this group, socially and culturally.

You have friends and family who are part of this group. I have to ask, why this topic? You’re an academic, study very broadly, and have a great skillset. Where did your interest in this particular bit of friction, which is the rise of singles within a group where traditionally everybody marries?

It was the fact that this was changing at a certain stage. As around the millennium time, there was more awareness all of a sudden of a growing number of singles. In many ways, this is similar to other traditional societies. We’re seeing this in other traditional societies as well. As soon as people become less religious and move to the cities, romantic love becomes an issue. People aren’t being set up by their families anymore.

That had been the case for religious Zionists a while ago. In the 1950s and 1960s, they weren’t being set up by the parents. Somehow, they still maintained this maybe Jane Austen. I heard you mentioned it in the previous episode, an atmosphere in which everybody does get married, and usually without to draw out a courtship or too long, you get to know each other for a few months. It was an interesting state of affairs where people were no longer being set up by their parents but romantic love was a thing.

People were still mostly marrying in their early twenties. In fact, most religious Zionists marry by the time they’re 25. They managed to have this certain level of separation from a completely liberal secular society and at the same time, do pursue a marriage that’s based at least theoretically or officially on romantic love, whether everybody is in love before marrying. That we don’t know.

If I hear you correctly, you noticed this puzzle and because you’re close to the puzzle, you said, “Let me try to understand what’s happening.”

I was also studying about myself. I was in the sociology and anthropology departments. I noticed over the years that some anthropologists like going to very different cultures. I have a friend who was in the Himalayan mountains with the guru. Some like studying their own communities and maybe less adventurous but I belong to the latter type, I suppose. I was basically to some extent studying the community, which I am a part of. I also felt this was a lacuna. There weren’t any other studies on this subject.

A lacuna, is that an opportunity?

It’s like a certain area that has been understudied and there seemed to call for.

As a fellow academic, I’ve spent my entire career playing in those spaces. I certainly understand the motivation. I have to ask this before we get into your techniques. Were you drawn to it in part because of your own singlehood, marriage, or relationship status? Was this something that felt personally connected?

I’m never married and I was never married when I conducted the study. I was part of this. It was like a community also. We hang out, especially on Saturdays on Shabbat, what Jews call Shabbat weekend. We don’t use electric devices and we don’t drive. We were hanging out, this group of singles. When it was like a thing that I became aware of myself after graduating college. We do that after the army, so it’s already a little older. You’re like in your late twenties.

I became part of this community and I was interested in what’s going on. I was part of it. Even though at some point I personally thought I might become secular. In the end, I stayed somewhere in between. I use the word traditional now, but if people seem to need to label somebody. I use that word. It was also about myself, what I’m feeling and what I’m experiencing. I didn’t study myself, I got to say that. There’s this concept of auto-ethnography within anthropological studies. There are such studies. I interviewed and I did a participant observation. I didn’t officially study myself.

Research And Interview Techniques

Tell me a little bit more about your technique. How did you go about doing this research? You saw this puzzle. With this rise of singles, people weren’t marrying or delaying marriage and you want to investigate it. How does one do this?

I basically used standard anthropological qualitative research techniques. Mostly, my main way of doing it was through in-depth interviews. It was helpful that I was part of this community. I had an easier time finding people. I would be eating at a Shabbat meal, that’s a Saturday festive meal. I’d be telling people, “I’m doing this. This is my doctorate. This is my PhD.” People say, “You have to interview me. You have to interview me.” It was easy at the time. For the book, I did a follow-up fifteen years later, and that was a little more difficult because I wanted people the same age and most of my friends are closer to my age but I managed to find any out. There was a lot of that.

When you do these interviews, I assume you’re looking for a broad swath of people with diverse experiences and perspectives. When you sit down with someone, how long do you interview them?

Qualitative in-depth interviews don’t have usually any specific time slot. The average was an hour and a half, but it depended on the interaction. Sometimes I could sit with somebody for 45 minutes and I ended up using a lot of that stuff later like it’d be very good. People who are more expressive might take longer. It varied. I did try to get a varied group also.

Let’s say, I spent weekends in places that I knew were popular among more devout religious Zionists or because that was less in my friend groups and I wanted to meet people from there or I looked for people from different parts of the country. I made an effort to make a more varied sample. I would say in quantitative research.

About how many people did you talk to?


Do you follow a structured interview? Do you prepare questions then you have informal or improvisational questions to follow up? How does that work?

It’s called a semi-structured interview. It’s a methodology that’s well-known in sociology and anthropology. Also, psychological research uses qualitative methods. We have a questionnaire but it’s like an open conversation. You start off with questions. You start off with questions then you let the conversation go. After a while, you look back at your questionnaire and say, “Have I covered all the topics?”

It’s a lot to make me do this show. Are you recording this and having it transcribed or you’re taking handouts?

It’s recorded then it’s typed up. There’s methods for doing the analysis, which you mark-up different subjects, compare, look for words that repeat them, and for themes that repeat themselves. This is a well-established methodology. I was just following.

That’s important. I wanted to say that because sometimes savvy people are concerned that there’s an interviewer bias. They just see what they want to see in there and yet there are these standard methodological approaches that are designed to reveal insights to a thoughtful interviewer.

There’s always bias no matter what. Even if you have a questionnaire and you’re doing statistics. There’s always some bias because it’s a human being who’s writing the questions. He has his world and his context. As a scientist, social scientist tries to not eliminate bias completely but to try to be aware of it to the extent possible and to try to get different input. We’re all contextualized humans and localized in a certain culture. It’s not bias clean, but hopefully, good work makes you feel that you understand something new about the world. You’ve learned something about something as Clifford Geertz would have put it, the famous anthropologist.

Prior to starting these interviews, did you have a bias that you could identify?

I’m sure I had many biases. As I said, I have my background. I’m somebody who grew up in this society. I’m somebody who, at one point, thought of leaving this society. There are many types of biases but I can’t put my finger now on a specific one that had its direct effect. I’ll add also that besides the interviews, I also participated in workshops and various events that were four singles. It’s known as participant observation in anthropology.

I also analyzed texts written also by educational figures and by Rabbis. In the first round of my research, there wasn’t that much writing yet on the internet but I did an analysis of that as well. There were some groups. I got this from different directions. Also, the analysis of written material online, interviewing people in person, and participating in events.

Speed Dating Events

What would be an example? Would you go to a speed dating event?

I felt speed dating would be a little immoral because people come there. I have been to speed dating events, but I didn’t come there as a researcher because I don’t think it would be fair for the person who was sitting opposite me. She’s there to meet somebody and not to be interviewed. In these situations, ethics require that you have to say. For example, there was a group of singles in this Jerusalem neighborhood, which is a very popular, singles haunt.

They tend to congregate, I should add. Religious singles tend to congregate in certain neighborhoods. This is true in the US, too, like in America and New York City and the Upper West Side and various other places. One of the reasons being that religious orthodox singles don’t drive on the Sabbath, and that’s when most of the social activity is going on. People want to be within walking distance from each other and from a synagogue.

There was a group here in Jerusalem in this specific neighborhood that got together and said, “We have to solve the singles. It’s such a problem. What are we going to do about it? Let’s have these meetings.” I introduced myself there. Some of them knew me, but I introduced myself as a researcher. I asked permission to participate that. That was perceived. There were a few meetings. I don’t think this didn’t go that far, this group. They didn’t solve the singles issue but it was interesting material for me.

What I thought was very interesting about what you discovered was these are not people and organizations that are trying to adapt to the change in single living. Rather, how can we better get single people to match up and get married?

One interesting point is that the religious Zionist society like Orthodox Jewish or Orthodox society, maybe like some other groups in the Christian groups in the US, possibly like Mormons maybe or Evangelicals. They see it as a problem. They see the fact that there are singles and growing numbers of singles as a problem that needs to be dealt with.

The singles themselves, and here I have to be honest and say, they also see it as a problem. They also want to get married. All these organizations and there are a bunch of religious Zionist organizations that were established in order to assist singles. Their assistance is in terms of helping them find a marriage partner. Usually, that’s the main effort. Not helping them live better as singles.

That’s my job.

That’s why I found yours so fascinating. Some people I spoke to had a hard time imagining even that somebody could be happy, not want to marry and establish a family.

Single Problem

The singles problem is stated simply, we have too many single people. They’re not getting married young enough. They’re not on this path early enough or they’re struggling to do this. Why? Why this change? You were talking about the ‘50s and ‘60s when people were opting into love marriages pretty quickly at a pretty young age. Now that’s not happening as much and that’s being seen as a problem, both by the religious leaders and by some of the people who aren’t opting in.

In order to answer that question, I looked into research on relationships. I found that one of the interesting things, even in American society and secular American society. In the ‘50s, most people were still marrying during college or shortly after.

The average age of first marriage in 1960 in the United States was age 21.

That exactly fits. What happened, and this is from my reading on various subjects, is that the idea of a relationship has become much more dominant. Marriage as the researcher Shirlena explains, has been deinstitutionalized. It used to be more of a societal institution and it became more focused on having a relationship.

You have concepts such as intimacy, which Jameson explains “In its current form, the word prior to the ‘60s wasn’t used that way to express emotional intimacy.” That, for example, has become a prerequisite for many also religious people. Even devout religious people who very much want to marry young. Nevertheless, I expect their relationships to have emotional intimacy even prior to marriage and after marriage.

You’ll see that in the very devout circles like the ultra-orthodox Jews, some of the more devout sex don’t consider this. They don’t take this into consideration or don’t expect necessarily to have intimacy or don’t use a term at least. The more the group is modern, you see this transformation. It can also be, let’s say, among guys. I read a book about Muslim singles in the US.

When you’re in a society that values relationships and intimacy, it can become an issue finding the person who you can share this with. In the past, even after arranged marriage was no law a thing. People weren’t expecting that much of relationships in marriage. As the expectations go up, it becomes a problem for some people. Some people are less so, but for some people, it’s more of an issue.

I find that fascinating. I had as a guest on solo, Eli Finkel, who is the author of the book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage. He’s a behavioral scientist who’s been looking into this too. This rise since the 1960s in the United States of people wanting their partner to be everything. They have to be an activity partner and share the same lifestyle. They have to help make me a better person, both personally and professionally. You’re supposed to keep the same schedules.

SOLO | Ari Engelberg | Religious Zionism
The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work

Suddenly, it becomes this interview checklist. They’re supposed to be your best friend and a great lover to you. You’re supposed to want exactly the same things out of life. As you know, as a behavioral scientist, the more we expect of this thing, the harder it is for this thing to give us all those things. Thus, people are less satisfied with their marriages, or as you’re pointing out, are more reluctant to otherwise marry someone who’s like a good person, fun, and treats them well but doesn’t check every single box.

Interestingly, this is like the silent killer, meaning a lot of these religious groups wage war against secular lifestyles and values against LGBT. I’m not saying that within a religious scientist there are different voices. There are also some LGBT members but there’s also this ideology, this family values ideology that other groups have as well, Muslim, Evangelical, and Mormon, and the wage war against issues such as premarital sex.

What you just mentioned like that type of thinking that, “This other person has to be my everything,” or this idea of a relationship. It’s like a silent killer. What I mean by that, is there isn’t this awareness of it. People who are religious have grown to view the world this way also. They also want their part to have all these things. If and when they fail, they remain single.

Even though they might believe in family values and try to uphold them, they end up living a life in which they remain single and are unable. By the way, also the rate of divorce has risen for the same reason meaning people expect more out of relationships. There’s this gap between the ideology that people believe in family, religious family values, and marriage above all. The reality in which more people are unable to live up to those standards, to these official standards because they accept these ideas that they’re not so much aware of. It’s like a subconscious thing. People aren’t aware that in the past, people didn’t expect everything from their partners like you said and now they do.

Liquid Modernity

I find it fascinating. I wanted to ask you, this is a bit of a digression, so if it doesn’t fit, no problem. I’ve been reading about this topic called Liquid Modernity. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this.

Zygmunt Bauman.

I’ve been relating it a lot to the rise of singlehood and how these longstanding institutions aren’t able to keep up with the cultural changes that are happening in part because technology is changing so fast. People’s attitudes are changing so fast. I feel like this might be a case where marriage is the same in many ways as it used to be. Now there are all these other expectations about what a partner should be in terms of individual fulfillment and personal growth. He talks a lot about not getting left behind and about reinvention. I’m curious what your thoughts are about that because I find his writing to be compelling and interesting.

I agree. Also, sex, by the way. Sex in the past wasn’t even a thing in the 1920s. 1920s or 19th Century in a married couple. It wasn’t something that was considered an issue that one divorces or one looks for. This is a late matter. It could be described as liquid. In my book, I refer a lot to Anthony Giddens to the sociologist. He has terms that are a little different. He talks about a different type of relationship that has emerged. He calls it the pure relationship in which people want to stay in a relationship only if the relationship works, meaning that the relationship is the reason for the relationship as opposed to all the infrastructure.

That dovetails with what I mentioned before, this idea of deinstitutionalization of marriage. At the same time, marriage continues to exist and it still has value. It has capital. That’s why the LGBT community fought for marriage to be recognized. They didn’t say, “We’re just chucking this institution.” They said, “No, we want it for ourselves.”

Marriage continues to be valued even if it’s become more liquid. I was watching Love is Blind, a reality show in which people marry in the end. Marriage is still a thing. Some people will say they’re being frivolous in marrying after only knowing the other for 30 days and it’s on a reality show. It still has capital. It still is worth marriage. It’s still a thing.

You mentioned the rise of divorce. When you move from arranged marriages to love marriages, when the love goes away, what’s the use of the marriage? Divorce goes up. When you move to these all-or-nothing marriages, this is a fascinating phenomenon that you may still love your partner but you don’t feel like you’re growing. You feel like you’re drifting apart in these important ways. Thus, Finkel quipped. He’s like, “I’m not going to suffer that anymore. I’m not going to go on 30 years feeling this way.” It makes the standard by which you marry go way up but then it makes the standard by which you do divorce goes way down in a sense. Thus, you’re getting this phenomenon.

Even though I didn’t research this directly, that in religious communities are more conservative with this. There are other barriers.

Addressing The Problem

There’s more stigma. That’s right. I agree with you. This is fascinating to me. Both at the organizational level and also among the singles, they recognize this problem, the singles problem. There’s been this push, this rush of resources to try to solve this problem. How are they trying to solve this problem?

There have been various projects in various ways. Sometimes it was just telling people, “Get together with friends and have evenings,” in which everybody thinks brainstorms who can we get to know? I participated in a few of those, setting people up. You meet five people and everybody brings their details about different people. You have to figure out who can go out with whom. There was that.

They even made it competitive. That is, if you manage to set up more couples, you get cited or win some prize or something on a date. There are various organizations and every now and then they have new ideas. Sometimes, I’m called the local expert. They’ve called me over to consult with me about what about it. I don’t usually have that much helpful info on that because I’m usually more encouraging them to say, “The singles are here to stay. Learn to live with them as people who are single.” I’m not against people being set up and I got to be also okay with my community.

The singles themselves, especially the women I meet but not only. They say they want the community to make efforts for them to be set up to help them get married or to assist them. They also want to be respected as singles. There is also that. There is this way that changes can be made also giving more respect to singles because the communities are very based on marriage, couples, and family participation. This is true by the way also for churches in the US but also for synagogues in Israel and the US.

The synagogue participation and involvement is very much a couple and family thing. This isn’t official policy. It’s something that’s created partially because the singles themselves will also tend to drift away to some extent from a strictly religious life cycle but also the communities. What’s valued in a family values community is having a family. In synagogues, for example, the singles will often be less called upon to perform various honors of certain types.

There is that effort that communities can make to draw them in more to religious participation. That’s something that communities in the US, too, by the way, synagogues and churches have also been mindful of and various throughout the world. I’ve read it in South Africa even. For example, Christian communities. That’s like to what extent singles are involved. It’s a thing because these communities raise the banner of family values, that leads to certain inherent tension. If haven’t lived up to that value, which is so much part of this moral community.

At various times in my life have felt pressure or felt guilt or shame about being single because of the nature of marriage is a high-status endeavor. It’s rewarded socially and financially. What you’re describing, is very interesting which is these single people are feeling the pressure internally. They want marriage.

They’re having trouble finding a suitable partner but then when they go to synagogue or when they are with their family or with the community, they are also feeling less than. They’re getting this pressure both inside and outside. At least, they have some support. It’s being recognized and being talked about so they can feel validated in that way. Still, if you’re looking for an all-or-nothing marriage, it’s going to be hard to find that person who can provide it all.

Gender Aspect

I feel that I should also add that there is a gender aspect there. That is women are more pressured to marry by their surroundings and by themselves also because of the famous biological clock. These are communities that want or encourage large families. Also, some men at least have an easier time partaking in the more liberal secular society. Put more directly or simply having premarital sex to some extent or more extent.

This isn’t an all-or-nothing thing. There are some women who do as well but it seems from what I’ve heard over the years and in my own research that there are more men who are okay, let’s say, whether 26, 27, or 28 partying, meeting partying, and meeting women even in these religious communities. Sometimes having partial sexual relations or sometimes more than that. While as women are sometimes maybe more devout. Maybe there’s more to lose. Maybe it’s the disabled traditional patterns in which a woman and man who sleep around are judged differently by society.

These are conservative societies that judge differently. The bottom line is women are pressured much harder and much earlier than men. It’s not great to be a single male who’s over 30 or 40 or over 50 in his community either. In fact, at some stage, it evens out. Where the large numbers are, it’s the women who feel. The gender aspect has to be mentioned. I wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t.

You mentioned too that there’s this countervailing rise of feminism. You’re getting all this pressure and if you’re a young woman recognizing that these tend to be patriarchal societies and organizations and this tension that’s created with regard to having feminist attitudes.

Feminism is rising. There are activist religious feminists. The society has been through changes. Some would say too slowly, but there are certain fields that have changed dramatically. There are some women who are Rabbis now in this community. Even in many other ways, it’s much more awareness. The sexual abuse over the last 10 or 20 years, there’s been a few scandals but also growing awareness. It is happening. At the same time, though, and this may be a little surprising for secular liberal readers, there is still a lot of value.

People value marriage at a fairly young age, meaning most men and women want to marry when they’re 21 or 22 or 23. Women who are 23 often already feel that they’re a little past the right age. In Israel, you see a lot of religious Zionist couples. The women have this especially, this head covering goes especially high. That’s like the style now. It’s an Israeli style. Maybe in the States, Jews maybe try to put themselves down, maybe less to stand out less for whatever reason. Whether it’s anti-Semitism or other reasons and here, there’s a lot of pride.

You see a lot of very young women who consider a cultural goal, which a lot of people are happy to achieve. They want to have kids at a young age. They want to have large families and this continuity. It’s a society. I was thinking about it as I noticed weddings. You see weddings in the States. I was just watching, as I said, this reality show.

You have 30 or 50 guests or 60 guests. Here, we have 600 guests at a regular wedding. It’s not unusual at all. It’s much more communal and community. Getting married young isn’t seen by a lot of these people as something that’s stopping their success. The families put a lot of effort and capital into helping them go to college and finish their studies.

In a way, it seemed like they had a certain advantage. It’s still, even for young feminist religious women, there will be this feeling that “All my friends are married and she’s like 25 only, or a lot of my friends are married.” This is something that people want. In a way, it’s a little surprising. You can say, “wouldn’t people want more of this,” whatever secular liberal society has to offer. Some do but the majority still want to marry fairly young.

Big Zionist Families

I wanted to ask this question and forgive me if it’s naive. I’ve always thought that part of the reason to have these big families, if you’re a Zionist, is because of the importance of keeping the Jewish race going, to have people who are part of this community.

First of all, it’s not just Zionists. In fact, the ultra-Orthodox who also have very large families, and at least officially, they’re not Zionists. Though, by the way, more of them are identifying with the state of Israel. That is a thing. In research on this subject, for example, researchers, David Lehmann and Bhatia Zipsner claimed in an article that post-Holocaust, part of the thing was making up for all the Jews killed in the Holocaust.

You’ll see it in an Israeli newspaper. Every now and then, the backfold, you’ll see a woman, this grandmother with 100 or ultra-orthodox, usually, with 100 descendants. She was a survivor and this is her answer to the Nazis who wanted to kill out all the Jews. There is this idea but it’s not just that. It’s also this idea that it’s a blessing. Children are a blessing.

You have this in a lot of traditional societies. In Islam, it’s also very common. There’s a saying in Islam, “He who gives birth to a child doesn’t die.” Meaning that he goes on after him. It can be seen that the Jewish people continue. It’s also just considered a blessing. Officially, you’re supposed to have two children. Once you have those two children, by religious law, you’re done. You don’t have to have more. Nevertheless, all these communities often seek larger families.

Zionists Vs. Other Traditional Religious Groups

You’ve mentioned some other traditional religious groups Mormonism and some Islam. In the book, you mentioned the Malayan Muslim society. Is there anything unique about the way that religious Zionists are approaching this or the problems they’re facing compared to these other groups or is it a problem by a different name?

First, I’ll just say that I read everything I found in any research I found on religious singles anywhere. There aren’t that many. I summarized what I got from all the knowledge I gleaned from all of them. I found that there are a lot of patterns that are similar, especially in groups that are living in a Western liberal society in which they want to maintain their unique belief and systems. There are a lot of similarities in that way between Mormons and religious Zionists or even devout Protestant Germans and other groups that I mentioned.

There are also differences. Research hasn’t been conducted yet, but I noticed that a lot of these groups are groups in which you don’t have monasticism. Interestingly, I didn’t see around Catholics and Buddhists where you have this idea of a person living a holy person remaining celibate. It could be a coincidence but I didn’t see research in the same way. One thing they have in common is this pushing this idea of family values and believing that family is so central.

It’s like an ideology that to some extent was formed in opposition to liberal secularism throughout the 20th Century. Family values as a concept. It didn’t exist in the 19th and 18th Century. It formed as an opposition. There are things in common. This pressure to marry is quite similar. I read about an org in Muslims or American Evangelicals or Mormons, I found a lot of similarities. There are certain unique aspects.

As mentioned in the book, I discussed this idea of this time out like some of the religious Zionists. Judaism is a very time-minded religion. By the way, we put a lot of effort into the year cycle and this idea of continuation. Some of them view the singlehood as a timeout. You call it the escalator in some of your other shows. They have this idea that they should be on the escalator. I usually use the metaphor of a train. It’s coming from mine. It’s coming from some of the respondents. They hop off the train or the carriage and they’re hanging out and living a Western lifestyle to an extent, going to single events and parties.

It’s like a rum springer for the Amish.

That’s more extreme because the rum spring of the Amish are like sixteen and they can do hard drugs and I don’t know what. This is a little more moderate. People who are in their twenties and aren’t following the escalator or train or carriage. They’re living a life which is not a crazy alternative. It’s like what they see or their secular friends doing.

Mind you, I have to mention this. my colleague, Kinneret Lahad, and others mentioned. Also, Israeli secular society is more family-oriented than your average European society. Even secular people, secular women especially. When they’re around 30, people will start getting nosy about it. What’s happening? Are you thinking of the future? It’s not only just them but they are stronger in these communities, this feeling.

It is interesting to think about this at the individual level. You were talking about the challenges that women have, both the internal and external conversation to do this thing and facing the challenge of it. In the book, you talk about one of the problems that these religious singles face, the dual challenge of on one hand feeling very lonely and wanting this one style of relationship and not being able to have it. Even though you’re part of an urban tribe, you have friends, involved in the community, close with your family, and this sense of longing, loneliness, and the waiting that Kinneret Lahad talks about and how agonizing that waiting can be.

Also, there’s this, and it sounds like maybe this is a little bit more on the men’s side of things, this appeal of Western culture. The appeal of a secular life, where the rules aren’t quite as strict. You can have sex, party and do all these other things. I have to imagine, it came up in your interviews as something that people were tussling with.

There is that tension because they grow up and watch the same television. It’s not like an extreme ultra-orthodox community. They have a TV at home. They take part in society. There is that aspect. Some people managed at a young age feel that they’ve been there and done that I suppose and are ready to move on. There are issues. People have issues. It’s also wanting all these different things. I heard your episode on the attachment theory. Whether we use attachment or anything else, some people have issues making intimate connections for various reasons.

It’s a thing. As I said, many years ago, people didn’t think they needed this intimacy in order to marry. It’s easier. Before that, you had arranged marriage but were at now even the ultra-Orthodox society is getting more influenced by these things. There are more singles even who are ultra-Orthodox, which is something that didn’t exist at all in the past. This tension is very much there.

Adapting In The Modern World

I want to ask this question and it goes a little bit back to this notion of liquid modernity. Forgive me because I’m obsessed with it and I’m doing a little bit of writing around this. I feel like this is a losing battle. I don’t see a path where we’re going to go back to the way things were. If anything, the rise of the individual and these cultural shifts are going to propel more people into singlehood. Whether it be single by choice or in the case that you’re often describing, single by chance. As a result, society is going to need to adapt. These institutions are going to need to adapt.

My question is twofold for you. One, how do you see them adapting to the fact that the fraying, someone’s pulling on the thread and it’s starting to disentangle? More generally, do you agree with that perspective that you and I are going to talk about 25 years from now? You’re going to be retiring and reflecting back on your career. What is it that you’re going to see? Can you predict? What do you suspect is going to happen with regard to these long-standing institutions in this liquid world that we’re living in?

I already see some adaptations. For example, there are women who are having children on their own through some medical intervention with a sperm donor or some other way. There’s more of them. They’re getting more accepted by the community. Initially, there was a lot of kickback and people who were unsure about it. Now, there’s more acceptance of this.

The divorce rates, as I said, are going up and communities have to adapt. What do you do in a gender-separate situation in a synagogue where the kids are by their mother for the weekend? A kid can go under a certain age, he’s not going to be on his own in a synagogue. I see that there is change the same way there’s a feminist change that is occurring.

I’m not sure, though. I have a hard time prophesizing the future. I 100 % see what you’re saying about the society becoming more individualized. I used the term processes of individualization. At the same time, there are movements in the other direction. The question is, is this a clear direction or is it a pendulum?

Bowman himself, for example. He discusses fundamentalists and he doesn’t quite do them justice. He describes them as people who simply have a hard time handling the freedom that society offers. They escape to someplace where somebody tells them what to do. There are some extreme groups that are more cults where people don’t make their own decisions. Usually, that’s not what it’s about. I’ve seen also movements in the other direction.

Even now, religion has a lot of appeal whether it’s Islam, in Europe or elsewhere. Why do young people in France have the option? Why do they choose to be devout Muslims or devout Jews in New York or Muslims in New York for that matter? My point is that there is an appeal. I’m basing myself partially also on Professor Lynn Davidman, what she wrote. There is an appeal. People are attracted to family and community in the traditional ways.

She claims as a feminist, sometimes this open liberal dating market is bad for women but also, some men, see for various reasons, want what these communities have to offer. Whether it’s Hasida communities, the warmth, the belief, or the belonging. I’m not sure that we’re going in the direction of a completely individualized society. It might be so. As you say, those forces might be stronger. I’m not sure.

I appreciate your intellectual humility. I probably should revise my prediction. It’s a soft prediction, which is that our equilibrium probably lies somewhere in between. A world where everybody gets married and has children is probably not the ideal world given that people have different values, desires, and abilities to do this in the same way as a world where everybody is living highly individualistic and going solo. Remaining single is also not likely the case for the reasons that you described and where we’re headed is some equilibrium or some steady state.

This is the world I want to live in. I always joke, “I want to live in a world that’s half engineers and half artists.” I don’t want to live in a world that’s all engineers because I’m bored. I don’t want to live in a world where there are all artists because I don’t want to drive over the bridges. We might end up somewhere in that thing where people move in and out of relationships. It’s not seen as too celebratory or too much of a tragedy when you do that.

That could well be but I can imagine that knowing humans as I know them, they will continue having struggles, and certain groups that claim that society is evil and you should join us. I don’t see that going away.

The tribalism.

The culture wars and the culture clash change shapes, but humans have always had movements that were struggling against each other at least since whatever, even antiquity before modernity. I don’t see that going away. There’s always going to be certain groups that say, “No, you have to join us and be in this completely married society.” You’ll be those who call them out for whatever. I don’t see it disappearing.

It’s true. This is happening now. At the same time, my book is coming out. There’s a book coming out called Get Married. That’s a version of this tribalism.

I agree with your point that it makes sense that individualization is rising because we see it in so many ways. We see people are more concerned about their feelings and their history. There’s more sensitivity to that. People consider happiness a goal. If we look at the middle-ages, you ask people what their life goals are. It was to be married after life, momentum, or remember your day of death and live a life in which you do justice. People weren’t concerned about being happy. Now, even religious people and in religious movements we’ll usually say, “Join our religious movement because you’ll be happier.”

I agree with you, there is this definite move which is focused on individual and individual happiness on this self-actualization that humanistic psychology introduced to the world. It’s become so swept up the world. I agree with you about the direction. I think that there will be people who manage to formulate even within that given situation. Their own idea of a group that objects to mainstream society.

I don’t see that going away but I agree with you, the direction is an even more devout religious group. As they become modern, they more focus on the individual on his knees and look at self-actualization. Rabbis use that term and they don’t even know where it’s from. They don’t know that it’s from Abraham Aslan. They say, “If you live a religious Jewish life the way we believe in. You will have self-actualization in your marriage, work, and profession.”

Dating For Religious Singles

That’s great. I love talking about these things like this and I appreciate you humoring my predictions. I want to do two things. We’ve been talking a little bit about strategy here. I want to talk about tactics and what it’s like to date within this group then we’re going to bring this to a close. You and I are going to tape a little bonus material about what’s happening in Israel now with the war and its implications for this topic. People who are interested in learning about this, they can come to the Solo Community via PeterMcGraw.org/solo, sign up and you can get access to this bonus material as well as bonus material from dozens of other episodes. Before we tape that, I want to ask you. On the cover of your book is a couple sitting at dinner.

I thought it was a date.

Two people, a man and a woman, a heterosexual couple. On the cover of your book, you portray a date, a man and a woman sitting at dinner talking. That got me thinking as someone who’s been out on a lot of dates for various reasons, what is dating like for these religious singles?

A lot of other things we spoke about, it’s like Western dating but there are some different focuses. First of all, they have the concept of a date. They just call it a date, even in Hebrew, which is a different language. They say date. They use that term. There’s this history of the date to developed in the early 20th Century. After the model T became popular and the man would pick up the woman and take her to the new downtown locations that were formed then bring her back not too late so her dad wouldn’t get upset.

That basic format is adapted even to these religious groups. Even the ultra-Orthodox, by the way, have dates. It’s a little different but also with a religious Zionist. There is dating. Sometimes, people meet like other people. Sometimes it’s through apps or different other possibilities. Sometimes they’re set up. It could be by a friend or an aunt or by anybody.

By matchmakers even. You talk about matchmakers.

There are also matchmakers which is something that maybe less common in a secular world. There are some people who go to matchmakers who take pride in having led to the marriage of such and such many couples. Presumably, they know people but also, maybe they have a special touch. They know who goes with whom. People go out and what’s mainly different is that that it’s very marriage-focused. You do expect to fall in love with the person you’re going to marry but you want it to happen fairly quickly.

People usually go out for 2 or 3 months, and you’re focused on saying, “Does this work?” If it doesn’t work for marriage, you’re not going to hang out for fun. Officially, according to religious law, you’re not supposed to have any physical contact during this time, any sexual contact. What people do varies greatly, but the more devout will avoid any contact. It’s also an age factor. Some people initially are avoided at some age. It just becomes too much for them and they cave in but some don’t, by the way. I’ve known men in their 40s who never touched a woman. One married and he obviously touched his wife, hopefully. He didn’t report back to me but I’m hoping.

It’s a fair guess.

Mostly, it’s the being marriage-oriented. That’s the focus. I could imagine, that might be similar in some of the other religious singles groups that I spoke about. People don’t move in together. That’s not done before marriage. In that way, it’s more like the situation was. In general society, in the 1930s or 1920s, you’d go out on dates, but at a certain point, you’re supposed to get serious. You didn’t move in together prior to deciding to marry. In a way, you still have that magic of marriage.

If you’re living together prior to marriage, it takes away a bit of the edge of it. You’re officially married but if you’re in a society in which you’re just dating until you marry then you move in together. That’s a big jump. In that way, it’s maintaining that magic. Max Weber has this idea of losing society and becoming disenchanted. There are a lot of people who spoke about people wanting to re-enchant society.

To some extent, maybe I’m wrong, you can direct me on that. Some of the magic, the enchantment of marriage is lost in the secular society in which people might even have children then decide to marry because it makes sense. The institution preserves some of its enchantment. Don’t forget, it also has religious meaning reddit. It’s considered holy matrimony as a real thing. It’s considered sacred. It maintains in society more of its magic. It makes sense to me. I haven’t put it in those terms until this episode just now, but it makes sense to me that it does.

I was struck by a story you mentioned. You talked to a young man who has a rule, which he’ll go out with a woman for two months, and if he doesn’t want to marry her, he will break up with her. Her wasn’t being ruthless about this. He thought that it was the fair thing to do for her to release her to find someone who would be a better match.

He was one of the guys who also observes nagyam, meaning he doesn’t touch. They have a term for this in the religious law. Not even touching your partner. Not having any physical contact. He was observant of that. He was very focused, very oriented, and marriage-focused. One of my critiques of this is that for some people that might work but for others, they don’t experience relationships. They only experience dating.

After a certain age, after your 30, let’s say. If you never had a relationship and you’re just dating. This is not only my critique, by the way. Especially some of my female interviewees made this critique that the men or themselves, not having experienced a relationship is something that they missed out on. Maybe if they had a better concept of what a relationship is, they might have an easier time partnering up. This is a critique they made and I gave it a voice in the book and also on the system.

One of the other potential critiques if you are going to remain celibate during this is that sex is a connector. It can be an accelerant to falling in love. Plus, you get to find out whether you’re compatible with someone. If you want to be in love with someone in order to marry them, one good way that facilitate falling in love with someone is that you start sleeping with them.

You’ll be interested to hear that a lot of what I hear about is from people who are concerned about it, especially women, I got to say. Sex blinds them to the flaws of their partner or they end up wasting time. They’re concerned that if they allow sex to happen, I’m not talking about more devout women or men who, in any case, don’t do it because it’s against the rules.

I’m talking about people who are usually older, in their 30s or even 40. They’re worried. They think that sex causes you to lose your senses and they’ll end up staying in a relationship longer than you should, like this guy you described before, he’s like very focused. He doesn’t lose it. The question is, can you fall romantically in love without losing your senses a little? That’s another question. This is what they say. I’ve heard this multiple times from people, even just in life. Even just as a person to himself who dated such women who said things like this, not only as a researcher but just as somebody who lives and pays women in society. That’s something that people say.

Closing Words

As we close here, what you have decided to study, happening in your own community and something that you’ve experienced yourself. It’s fascinating. What it highlights is something that I talk a lot about is to understand that someone single tells you almost nothing about them. That is, “Being single in my world is different than being single in your world.”

It doesn’t tell you what their goals are. It doesn’t tell you what their lifestyle’s like or how happy they are because there’s so much diversity in people’s desires and their ability to make change. What their lifestyle’s like and how accepted it is by their culture and not. It’s a very nice reminder about how we should be cautious about making assumptions and people based on their relationship status.

I also believe that in certain societies where there’s more pressure to marry, people have a harder time imagining themselves as happy when single. In certain societies, in our society, in the society I live in, at least past a certain age because if you’re in your twenties, it’s okay, but later, for men, let’s say a ten-year gap. Forty for men and thirty for women, people have a hard time imagining happiness. It hurts me.

I see women who feel that their life is wasted. That they have nothing. I’m exaggerating. Not everybody but I’ve also met people like that because they’re not married and don’t have children. In a way, by the way, it’s more about children in this society now than marriage. We’re very pro-family and pro-creative. Even by the way not in religious circles. People go around in a circle when you meet in some workshops and they say, “My name is this and this. This is my job but first and foremost, I’m father of this.” I don’t know if you have that in the States. In Israel, it’s a regular thing. People will say that.

That is formal, but it certainly comes up with a lot of people.

I talk about informal like you’re going to this workshop and people introduce themselves. I tell myself, “This guy’s son.” He never says, “My name is this and this but first and foremost, I’m the son of or the daughter of.” It’s always, “I’m the father of.” I don’t have any beef with that, but I’m saying it makes people who don’t have that feel like they’re missing out on something central in life. A lot of people here who aren’t married and don’t have children feel that.

What you’re suggesting is that being conditioned on someone’s culture, whether they’re single or not, does tell you a bit more about them.

It tells you something, maybe.

Ari, I appreciate your time. Congratulations on the book. We’re going to sign off here and do a little bonus material for people to find on the Solo Community. With that, I’ll say cheers.

Thank you so much, Peter. Cheers.


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About Dr. Ari Engelberg

SOLO | Ari Engelberg | Religious ZionismDr. Ari Engelberg is a sociologist and anthropologist. He is a senior lecturer in the Behavioral Sciences Department at Hadassah Academic College Jerusalem and lectures also at the Religious Studies graduate program at Tel Aviv University. His research fields include religion, nationalism, Israeli society, Orthodox Judaism, romantic love and singlehood. His book Singlehood and Religion: The case of Israeli Religious Zionist singles, was published two months ago by Lexington Books.