Dating for Dollars Are dating and matchmaking businesses ethical?

Q. I have many friends who are using dating services or marriage brokers to help find partners. Sometimes the cost is in the thousands of dollars. Is this practice ethical?

A. Helping someone find his or her life’s partner is one of the greatest acts of loving kindness we can perform. In fact, our tradition tells us that the Holy One blessed be He is Himself a marriage broker! The Midrash relates that thousands of years ago, a Roman noblewoman asked the sage Rebbe Yosi what occupies God in the generations since He created the world. The rabbi replied that He has been busy as a matchmaker.

The matron scoffed at the idea that the Master of the Universe would occupy Himself with such a trifle, and asserted that nothing was easier than making matches. To prove her point, in a single night she matched up scores of her slaves. However, the very next day she was besieged with complaints from her disappointed newlyweds, and conceded the great wisdom needed for making a match that leads to a happy marriage.

What about taking money for this wonderful kindness? We pointed out in a previous column that in the Jewish ethical approach, taking money for something doesn’t make it unethical as long as the financial motivation isn’t so great as to dominate the human element. [See: Is it ethical to sell blood plasma? ] And the professional marriage broker has been a respected figure in Jewish communities for centuries. Paying a fair price for matchmaking helps ensure that professionals and others are willing to invest efforts that are commensurate with the great importance of this activity.

However, this “business” does involve a number of ethical pitfalls. Practitioners should be careful to avoid these problems, and customers should be on the watch to avoid being victimized by them. There are a number of payment schemes, and each one has its own ethical challenges.

Some dating services require payment of a substantial up-front subscription fee, in return for which the service promises to supply a constant supply of suggestions for suitable matches. This payment scheme is not inherently unethical, and has the advantage that it encourages the customer to maintain on ongoing connection with the service to fine-tune the criteria.

Even so, this type of scheme can be problematic. Many clients of this kind of service complain that this structure encourages overly optimistic promises in advance yet gives the service no real incentive to invest effort in creating high-quality matches. Someone who runs this kind of service should be extra careful to avoid unreasonable expectations among customers, and to work hard to try and emulate the Creator in seeking the greatest degree of compatibility among clients. And customers should carefully check the reputation of such a service before paying significant sums.

Many Internet dating services provide profiles of potential matches free, but require payment when contact is actually made. Here the ethical problems are mostly on the side of the consumer. It’s wrong to try and mislead potential dates. Judaism disapproves of casual dating, but if for some reason a person is not looking for a permanent relationship he or she should at the very least be careful not to mislead a potential partner who is seeking something serious. The services themselves should not take a hands-off attitude to this problem; rather they should examine what steps they can take to make sure that their service is providing a valuable contact to the customer and not just another fee. (Another unfortunate problem with this approach is that customers sometimes fail to pay.)

The payment structure which is most sanctioned by Jewish tradition is where the marriage broker gets a fee only when there is an engagement. This arrangement guarantees that the matchmaker has the greatest incentive to find the most promising candidates.

However this arrangement also has pitfalls. Some individuals forget that they are occupied in a holy mitzvah and think only of the bottom line. This may lead them to pressure couples to get engaged before they are really ready or even if they are not really compatible. The gentle guidance of an experienced matchmaker can be valuable for the couple, but pressure tactics must be avoided. Ultimately it is the couple that must make their own independent decision.

One ethical challenge common to all matchmaking services is that many customers are in an emotionally vulnerable state. Some may face special handicaps in finding a match due to age, health, etc.; others may be recovering from a previous failed relationship. Matchmakers must avoid trying to take advantage of this situation to push services or to charge prices that would not interest the client if he or she were in a more balanced state of mind. In some cases Jewish law states that when an excessive charge is made the customer need only pay what is customary and reasonable.

Matchmaking is a valuable and respected profession, but precisely because of its immense importance it must be practiced with the highest level of integrity and sensitivity.

SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 7a