Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 28 January 2006 / 28 Tevet 5766

The Courtship Court

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman - www.rabbiullman.com
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

From: R. in San Diego, CA

Dear Rabbi,

I have become religious over the past year and a half or so, and feel that I am getting ready to start dating for marriage. The problem is that there are certain things that I did before becoming religious and in college that I am embarrassed about, and I’m also concerned that a prospective religious man would not want to continue a relationship with me if he knew about them. Since I don’t do those things any more, and since I don’t live that type of lifestyle anymore, nor do I have that type of friends anymore, do I have to talk about these things to religious men I hope to meet? Ultimately, what difference does it make, since I left all that behind and plan on starting my married life as a totally different person? Thanks for your guidance.

Dear R.,

Let me commend you on the significant changes you’ve made. May you continue to grow day by day, and may G-d send you your proper soul mate at the proper time.

Dating for marriage is an extremely important part of a person’s life. It is a very personal process as well, which has so many individual details that vary from person to person. For that reason, you absolutely must find a rabbi, rebbetzin or other stable person experienced in these matters who knows you well and who you can be in close personal contact with during the entire dating process, and ideally, beyond. Without knowing you and all the details, I can only give you general guidelines that I hope will be appropriate for you.

Generally speaking, honesty is the best policy. Any relationship can thrive only on honesty and mutual trust. A relationship that is built on cosmetics and cover-ups does not have a sound foundation. And given all the challenges that life normally offers a couple, this is not a safe way to ensure a resilient, enduring marriage. On the other hand, a couple that has endured the challenge of an honest dating period before marrying most certainly will have found a firm basis upon which to build their marriage, including a much richer mutual understanding of each other’s background and its effect on each partner’s personality, outlook and motivations.

True, this can be embarrassing, and also painful. But remember that just as you have difficult parts in your past, most people have one thing or another that they’re not particularly proud of. However, while these things may not be praiseworthy, what you learned from them and the way you ultimately dealt with them is extremely praiseworthy. Most truly good people would and should admire your fortitude and commitment.

While what you’ve done might include things that a man who was raised religious might have difficulty accepting, marrying such a person might not be right for you. There are enough differences between people as it is, that you should probably concentrate on men that have become religious later in life, as you did. You’ll probably understand each other a lot better and find more in common. It’s also important to remember that for better or worse, these things are a part of who you are, and hiding them from your spouse (and yourself) would only maintain a wedge between you. Incidentally, I’m not sure you should be taking these things so seriously. I once heard in the name of a very experienced rabbi of women ba’alot teshuva that a young woman who was brought up in modern secular society with all that entails, and who by college didn’t do certain things, is very likely not normal or is socially unstable.

That being said, there are guidelines for what, when and to what extent you have to talk about your past. While a prospective spouse must be told before marriage about any perpetual, ongoing or recurring situation or condition, things pertaining to the past that have no direct bearing on the future are generally different. First of all, in the course of a dating relationship, you can rely on a person’s asking you directly (or finding out in some other way) the things that are important to him to know. If you’re not asked, you don’t have to volunteer information.

Second, even if you are asked, you always have the right to say that while you’ve got nothing to hide, you’re not comfortable enough to talk about it yet. You also have the right to ask him if this issue is one that makes or breaks the relationship. If it’s not, you can say you’d rather talk about it after your relationship grows in marriage. Still, if it’s very important to the other person, he has a right to know about it when you feel close enough and confident enough about the prospects of marriage to share it with him. And if it’s something that for him the relationship is contingent upon, you must either eventually tell him, or accept his right to break the relationship.

If and when you tell him, you don’t have to go into great detail. Most of the things that most people have done are fairly common and the details are not important. Once he knows the general information that is important to him, pressing you for details would be insensitive and unadvisable for your relationship. Nevertheless, if, for whatever reason, he feels, or is advised, that he must know details that you don’t want to reveal, you’ll have to decide if you want to risk breaking the relationship over it. Every situation is different, and each side should have reliable guidance in working through all the details as they arise.

Ultimately, regarding relationships that didn’t work, you have the right to decide what things were said in confidence and which therefore may not be revealed to others. Every relationship should be started with a clean slate, based on the guidelines discussed above. This way, at your discretion a person will gradually come to know what is important to him, while giving him the right to discontinue if you choose not to tell him. Obviously, everything I’ve written applies both ways, and in any given relationship you may find yourself on the other side of the court. Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you.

You are about to embark on a wonderful, exciting and challenging journey. Be happy, be confident and be yourself. And most important, remember that G-d is with you: pray to Him, confide in Him, beseech Him, and trust in Him. He doesn’t hold what you’ve done against you; on the contrary, much as a bow must be pulled back to shoot an arrow, your past distance has propelled you that much higher and closer to G-d. May He bless you with success and joy!

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