I have received several questions about arranged marriages in Jewish communities, so I decided to address the matter. I think it all begins with what you define as "arranged marriage". If you're thinking in terms of both families that decide everything in advance, and a groom who doesn't see his bride's face before the wedding, you can forget it. Yes, there might be advice, suggestions, even pressure. However, I have never yet heard about a marriage where parents dictated to their children that they will marry someone they don't want to marry. Not even in the strictest Orthodox Jewish communities.
Introductions can certainly be arranged - by the young people's parents, in-laws, friends, the matchmaker (or in our technological era, the virtual matchmaker on websites for religious Jewish singles). But from then on, the decision belongs with the young couple, and with them alone. After an introduction has been made, the man and woman must go on a date, start getting to know each other and see if they are compatible in their initial goals. Here's another confusion: when I mentioned "dates", I was asked if "dating" and not "courtship" is practised. I think we are dealing with a matter of purely linguistic confusion here. Yes, the man and woman certainly go on dates. But it has nothing to do with dating in the usual meaning of the word. The aim is marriage, and the young people attempt to evaluate each other as potential spouses, not partners for an unlimited period of fun and recreational sex. Call it dating for marriage, courtship, or anything you will - the point is that people are expected to remain marriage-minded.
The decision is supposed to be reached in a relatively short period of time. Here it often depends, I think, on the level of religious observance as well. Couples who don't touch each other at all typically decide sooner. Anyhow, I know people who decided to get married after a couple of dates, and others who decided after a couple of months. Still, it usually happens much sooner than with modern couples who take years to decide and then divorce on the grounds of "we didn't really get to know each other well enough" or "I suppose he wasn't the right person after all". Keep in mind: I'm not saying you should use a blindfold when making a decision. You can and should certainly make a thorough background check and pay attention to alarming signs and "red flags". But in my opinion, it's OK to discover things about each other after you are married. It's even OK if you don't like each and every thing you find out. That's precisely when compromise, open-mindedness and flexibility come into the picture.
Do you know each other perfectly well if you decide to get married after three dates? A month? Two months? Of course not. Does it necessarily mean your marriage will fail? Not at all. Life is a constant process of learning, growth and discovery. Why should it be so frightening to think of gradually discovering each other and growing alongside each other? Marriage, as I've heard from more experienced ladies, will be in a large part what we make of it. Even the most perfect match can result in heartbreak and divorce after long years of neglect, insensitivity, and excessive criticism.
"Why are you rushing into marriage?" - one middle-aged man asked me last week, - "My daughter had been together with her ex-husband for nine years before they decided to get married. They have lived together for years. Then after three months they got a divorce. Doesn't it teach you that you should be more careful in your approach?"
I did my best to bite my tongue then, but I thought to myself that it's highly unlikely that the divorce of this man's daughter was caused by not getting to know her husband well enough before marrying him. I might be wrong of course, but my estimation is that this couple's divorce was rooted in the same reasons that prevented them from getting married for nine whole years. The same reasons why so many marriages end in disaster these days: unwillingness to make a commitment, to compromise and give your all to your spouse; lack of willingness to change one's habits and make room for marriage; an unreasonably long list of requirements and seeing marriage as a ready-made, instant gratification product, rather than a lifelong project.
I believe that "arranged marriage" doesn't necessarily have to sound bad. A bit of involvement from more experienced people, when done gently and delicately, can actually work wonders. I think we should be more concerned with how marriages are neglected, often from the beginning. Why is it that young couples invest so much time, money and energy into planning the perfect wedding, but don't devote a moment to the thought that maybe they should study about married life before starting it? There is so much to learn before marriage, and it will be so much more crucial to your happiness in the future than how exactly your guests were seated at the wedding and how many sorts of snacks were served at the reception.