Singlehood in the Life of a Rabbinical Student

As I walk into minyan, I put down my still-steaming coffee, roll up my sleeve, and start wrapping my tefillin.*Whack* — before tightening my tefillin, I feel the force of a newly-married friend’s tallis (prayer shawl often reserved for married men) strike me in the head. Still half asleep, I look up and see a room full of tallesim, married men underneath, with a couple of brave souls bare, tallis-less. Another subtle reminder of my singlehood. 

In a curious halakha, Rabbi Yosef Karo, in the Shulhan Arukh (OH 135:12), writes that when the Torah is being read in a city comprised of all kohanim and one yisrael, the single yisrael should receive the first aliyamipnei darkei shalom,” to maintain civility in the name of peace. Of course, I figured the reason was for the kohanim to accommodate and appreciate the lone, out-of-place yisrael. On the contrary, “for the sake of civility,” explains the Hafetz Hayyim (45), “so that each kohen doesn’t say to his fellow, ‘why should you read from the Torah before me?’” Sometimes, I feel like the lonely yisrael dropped into the city of kohanim.

Coping with Singlehood 

My path into the Rabbinate has not been easy. In my first year of semikha, I endured a painful broken engagement. Instead of entering married life, I entered therapy. Instead of Shabbos meals with other couples, I ate with other singles. Instead of embracing (and being embraced by) companionship, I felt utterly lonely, forlorn, and empty. Instead of donning a tallis, I picked up tissues.

It’s hard to ask for help when you feel all alone, when your friends slowly back away in an attempt to “give you space.” The wretched silence – the inability of friends and loved ones to verbally express what transpired –  only made me feel more isolated, more deviant, more abnormal, more lonely. We often feel awkward or uncomfortable when a friend experiences a loss. What are you supposed to say? How are you supposed to feel? Instead of embracing the discomfort, admittedly a difficult feat, many keep their distance.

For weeks, I was trapped inside my head, agonizing over what I had loved and lost, dreamed and departed. For the pain was irreducible, inexpressible, uncommunicable and the deafening social silence searing and soaring. But with time came healing; and with time came therapy. After suffering what felt like an eternity, I built up the courage to ask for help (And oh my, how difficult it is to ask for help!). In therapy, I explored what I was feeling and thinking; how I could manage those feelings and thoughts; and what my new life, my return to singlehood, would look like. It was this intervention that guided me back to myself.

A Single Man in a Married Man’s World 

In my second year of semikha, I studied hilkhot nidda (the laws of family purity). Most of my shiur was married, but I joined a sizable group of singles. At times, I felt clueless. I had entered – with non-member status – a “club” of married men speaking in enigmatic, bite-sized euphemisms and allusions.  “What does ____ mean? What does it actually look like?,” I would ask my married classmates. 

Radio silence. I struck a nerve.

While I was preparing for my journey as a rabbi, my classmates were working on concealing any and all intimate information from me. I often wondered how I could become the most helpful, supportive, and sensitive rabbi without exploring the real-world experience of hilkhot nidda. The role of family life in general and laws of nidda in particular are at the core of observant Jewish life and the rabbinic curriculum; I felt that my lack of familiarity with its real-world context would detract from my professional efficacy and would threaten my self-concept as a rabbi. I understood the challenge faced by my classmates in disclosing intimate details of their lives, the space of vulnerability they needed to enter, and even the ethical dimension of disclosure. Perhaps, however, the experience of married rabbinical students uncomfortably sharing the intimate details of their halakhic lives with their unmarried peers is necessary for them to empathize with and understand the experience of single (and married) individuals who will come to them to discuss their intimate lives. Adopting this mindset may be wishful thinking for the future, but I am optimistic. For now, I discovered that a yisrael in a city of kohanim –  no matter how desperate or deserving or dispirited – indeed does not receive the first aliya.

The Stigma

Now in my third year of semikha, I find myself in a wonderfully strange environment. I live in a predominately married community of rabbinical students. The community is warm, kind, and supportive. Yet, my singlehood is refracted and reflected, albeit differently than previous years, through every corner of campus. Whether I see a tallis, stroller, baby, ring, sheitel, or a couple out for a stroll, I am reminded that my relationship status is still single.

I thought I had left that stage of life. The stage of life when (married) people expected that I can’t cook, that I can’t understand couples dynamics, that I needed to take dating advice from (married) people with little dating experience. It was only two years prior that I was on the cusp of full adulthood, when I would no longer be viewed as a “single guy,” when my self-worth would no longer be contingent upon my relationship status (a silly expectation, in hindsight). As I gaze at my friends’ wedding bands and I rub my naked ring finger, I know that I have not moved on to the next stage. In the blink of an eye, I was back, firmly planted in the world of singlehood.

Taking Back Control of who I am

While the feelings (and culture) associated with singlehood are real, they are just that, feelings. Feelings, perceptions, interpretations — they are products of our own creation. We craft our own reality and sometimes, unfortunately, to our detriment. As difficult as it is to admit, I created my world of singlehood. It wasn’t the world or culture around me (although it certainly contributed to it), but it was my self-defeating belief that my life could not progress as a single. It was my inability to love myself irrespective of my relationship status; to practice self-compassion purely because I am human and every human deserves compassion. It was my fear that I could never be loved that inhibited me from finding it in myself, friends, and loved ones. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

We shape our narrative, and we get to tell it the way we want to. We choose how we want to view ourselves, interpret the meaning in our lives, and affirm and unconditionally accept the people that we are. We choose our beliefs – about ourselves and about the world – and we can believe that singlehood is not an identity or a socially-constructed liminal state of being. Singlehood simply is. We may not decide when or if we get married, but we do choose who we get to be.

I want to look past my relationship status. I am not single. I am a future rabbi and a future educator. I am a dedicated public servant of the Jewish community. I am a compassionate and caring friend, a loving son and brother, a life-long learner, an aspiring writer, a spiritual seeker, a passionate servant of God, a positive force for good, an authentic and empathic person, a persistent, patient, and present young adult.

I may not be a kohen, but I am a proud yisrael!

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Noah Marlowe
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