Much has been made recently of a young Jewish woman's attempt to make the big time by competing in the TV show America's Next Top Model. Although a Jewish woman competing on that program might be expected to garner some attention from the greater Jewish community, the "one of ours in on TV!" group, what really got Ms. Petrack a lot of attention was Tyra Banks asking her to confirm her self-identity as Modern Orthodox.
Initially there were two problems with this identification. One was the conflict between being a tznius woman and showing up on a television show where women were expected to act in a skanky fashion in order to win. The second was what was an apparently heavily edited segment in which Ms. Petrack was confronted with the incompatibility of being shomer Shabbos and competing on the show. The clip presented Ms. Petrack as being fully willing to dump Shabbos in order to be part of the ANTM experience, something that was later shown to be false. However, the other concern of public exhibitionism in a decidely unJewish fashion remained.
Now, at the start let us be clear. What Ms. Petrack chooses to do with her time is her own business and she answers for her activities directly to God, not a committee of folks who want to decide how others should live their lives. To criticize her in a "That's not how a Jew behaves!" fashion is not for any of us to do.
However, the challenge of Esther Petrack isn't over her personal behaviour but rather that she was under the impression that she could behave in a non-Orthodox fashion and still call herself Orthodox.
As one blog seems to have noted, Modern Orthodoxy is differentiated from Chareidism by a more inclusive attitude as well as more lenient standards of behaviour:
Modern Orthodox Jews are more inclusive. There is a broader range of activity and thought that is acceptable. But when someone so much as tiptoes over the line they are out. Rabbi Avi Weiss dared tread just across the line and everyone and their grandmother has “excluded” him or proclaimed him to be “beyond the pale”. The truth is that Modern Orthodoxy is more inclusive but only because they have a broader definition of what is acceptable thought and action. However, going outside that self-defined perimeter means you are outside Modern Orthodoxy. There is not more tolerance, just more tolerated activity.
The same thing drove the comments that ousted Esther Petrack from Modern Orthodoxy. Esther’s mother wrote that her family goes “mixed swimming” (and wear bathing suits in public). This is an accepted action within Modern Orthodoxy. (Forget halacha for a minute, this is a social issue, not a halachic issue.) Yet, Esther’s modeling was outside what some people want to define as Modern Orthodoxy so she is out. Esther self defines as Modern Orthodox. Somehow people think they have a right to tell others how they are to be defined.
What seems to be missing from this analysis is an understanding of the difference between official positions and common action. To use the recent Rubashkin debacle as an example, no self-respecting Chareidi will openly state that theft and lying are permitted. Sholom Rubashkin himself would probably insist on that as well. But there is a difference between what one says in public and the standards fallible Chareidim can find themselves living by.
The same is true for the Modern Orthodox community. Find me one reputable Modern Orthodox posek who says that mixed swimming or walking around in public clad only in bathing apparel is permitted Jewish behaviour. That many in the MO community have no problem doing this does not mean that the activity is permitted, only that many in the MO community have no problem doing forbidden activities without tying it into their Jewish practice. Rav Fink has created a false separation by talking about social issues vs halachic ones. For an observant Jew, everything has a relevant halacha. Some MO Jews may go mixed swimming but even if it is socially acceptable, it is not Jewishly acceptable.
And this, in the end, is the line that Esther Petrack crossed that got folks so upset. If she wanted to display her body for the American viewing public, that is her choice. It was her continuing insistence (and her mother's) that she is Orthodox that has upset people. Judaism is a package deal and while we are all guilty of picking and choosing our behaviours and mitzvos we can none of us ever justify that behaviour as being appropriate. Rather we must accept that we are, through our human fallibility, falling short of the ideal instead of dismissing it as being socially acceptable.