Gossip and knowledge are at the center of Bridgerton, Netflix’s successful period drama, which returns for Season 2 on March 25. Set in Regency-era London at the height of the marriage season, it follows the young women and men looking for romance and love as they become the talk of the town, whether they like it or not. Mothers and fathers spend hours discussing possible matches, putting together dossiers of intel about each individual single, leaving no stone unturned. Has he spent time traveling? What’s her father like? Do they come from a good family? Information that parents can’t find is provided by Lady Whistledown, an anonymous gossip columnist whose stroke of the quill can ruin a family’s reputation. Even the larger community gets involved, with everyone from the lowly cook to the queen herself desperate to hear the latest buzz regarding the city’s most eligible bachelors and debutantes.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is very reminiscent of the Jewish dating scene in the Orthodox world. Knowledge is also at the center of this community, taking the form of shidduch (matchmaking) resumes, documents that provide “basic information about a single,” to quote shidduchim101.com. Singles are presented with these resumes and, if they like what they see, they take a chance with a first date. If not, they move on to the next paper in the pile.
These resumes can sometimes serve more as intelligence briefings than quick profiles one would find on an online dating app. They are often multiple pages long and include age, height, educational background, parental information (occupations, education, etc.), sibling lists, hobbies and, in some cases, third-party references, among many other details. And with no Lady Whistledown to unearth the hidden secrets, fathers and mothers pressure shadchanim (matchmakers) and rabbis to give them the latest scoop so they can find the perfect match, no matter how uncomfortable the question.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to know a bit about a person before going on a date with them. However, the focus on long and detailed shidduch resumes risks turning dating into a hiring process, as singles wait for the perfect resume to drop into their laps. When they finally find one that pleases them, they risk placing too much emphasis on what was listed on the resume instead of actually getting to know the person. And since Orthodox Jews tend to get married at young ages and relatively early in the dating process, this means that some singles may be entering marriages with people they don’t actually know.
While not Jewish, Daphne Bridgerton suffers the consequences of such a relationship. After a whirlwind courtship with Simon, Duke of Hastings, that lasts no more than a few months, the two agree to marry. However, Simon informs her that were they to marry, he “can never give [her] children,” forcing Daphne to choose between the love of her life and her lifelong dream of raising a family. Daphne, believing the Duke to be infertile, agrees to marry him despite his supposed impediment, believing that true love will conquer all.
But there is much about Simon that she does not know. It is not, as she believes, that Simon cannot have children due to a biological issue. Born with a speaking impediment, Simon was a disappointment to his father, who only cared about having a perfect son as his successor. Therefore, Simon took an oath at his father’s deathbed that he would never sire a child to spite the man for his horrible behavior toward him. Daphne eventually discovers the truth, and their marriage almost collapses.
With divorce still a taboo subject in the Orthodox world and little data on the subject, it is impossible to determine how many Orthodox Jews entered into marriages too quickly without actually getting to know their partner. However, as any married couple knows, marriage is hard work, and if one does not understand the full world of their partner—their wants, fears, failures and dreams—the relationship will suffer. These intimate details of personhood cannot be found on a shidduch resume. They can only be discovered by connecting to someone on a deep and emotional level.
But successful marriages are not just built on emotional ties. They must also know each other physically, which means they must know themselves physically as well. Daphne, however, does not know either. The series goes out of its way to indicate that the 21-year-old woman knows nothing about sex in any form, including how a woman gets pregnant. She obviously learned nothing in school and, when she asks her mother on her wedding night, her mother responds uncomfortably with vague metaphors about how “rain soaks a field in autumn,” allowing flowers to grow in spring. It is only when Daphne starts to notice that Simon pulls away from her at the climax of their sexual encounters and witnesses him discharging a mysterious liquid that her curiosity peaks. Unable to rely on her family or her school, she turns to her maid Rose for answers.
When Daphne discovers the truth about Simon’s sexual status, she views it as the ultimate betrayal. From her perspective, he lied about his ability to have children, an existential dream of hers. However, had she known more about the emotional and physical intricacies of sex, she would have been better prepared to question the Duke’s vague statement that he “can never give [her] children,” and not felt betrayed by his misrepresentation of his sexual status. Instead, her naivete left her flying blind, creating an unhealthy sexual relationship and letting Simon’s secret about his father remain hidden.
The lack of sexual education is an issue the Orthodox world is still grappling with. While some schools are working to improve their programs, many Orthodox students leave high school with either no formal sexual education or only a basic anatomy class that fails to teach students about sexual communication, consent, emotional impact and other sexual activities such as masturbation. (Girls are, however, often taught the laws of Niddah, ritual purity rules relating to menstruation.) Parents are oftentimes not helpful either, as they assume the school will take care of sex educationor feel uncomfortable discussing the subject with their children. As a result, teenagers are forced to get their information from friends or the Internet.
Like divorce and general relationship statistics, it is difficult to find empirical research on how this educational weakness impacts married couples. However, a 2017 survey on Modern Orthodox Jewry included responses by some advocating for stronger sexual education, both for emotional and physical health. One person wrote that she “had no concept of [her] own sexuality” and “was very insecure about [her] own body and what it could do,” while another, who says she attended kallah (marriage) classes, discovered that she had a sexual pain disorder after her wedding that she “was totally unprepared for.”
One can only guess how many Orthodox relationships and marriages have suffered due to a lack of sexual education. However, it is no question that a proper sexual education—one that could be framed in Orthodox Jewish values and protect students from misleading information—could help young men and women fully understand their bodies and the bodies of their future partners to prepare them for married life. It could have spared the first woman the years of insecurities, while the second woman may have discovered her disorder at an earlier age.
In the Hebrew Bible, the word for sexual intercourse is “la-da’at,” which means “to know.” In her book Talking About Intimacy and Sexuality: A Guide for Orthodox Jewish Parents, Yocheved Debow writes,
This term reflects the idea that sexual relationships should emerge from a relationship in which the partners really know each other in the most profound sense of the word, on the level of the soul. Knowing of this sort usually stems from a willingness to completely reveal one’s shortcomings and weaknesses, as well as one’s aspirations and strengths. This kind of knowledge of the other can exist only in a relationship built on love and trust. Thus the Jewish view of sexuality requires that sexual relations stem from a relationship that is built on a deep level of commitment and connection, involving the heart and the mind as well as the body. [Emphasis is my own]
It is only when each individual truly knows their partner and themselves—emotionally and physically—that the relationship can succeed at its highest potential. This does not mean that couples who don’t share this knowledge are destined to fail—Daphne and the Duke end up working through their problems and even give birth to a healthy and beautiful child. Nor does it guarantee success to those who do. But it can prevent some of the inevitable pain that comes with engaging in a relationship with another person, bringing everyone one step closer to their happily ever after.
Sam Gelman is a news editor at CBR, where he covers comics, movies and TV. He is also the editorial and program officer at the Yeshiva University Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. You can follow him on Twitter @SamMgelman.
Top photo: Liam Daniel/Netflix