Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 31 October 2010

On Esther Petrack and Orthodoxy

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.


SJ said...

>> Judaism is a package deal and while we are all guilty of picking and choosing our behaviours and mitzvos

This is a borderline Christian view of halacha. The law is too much to ask so there's grace instead.

Michael Sedley said...

No, It's a fact - even Orthodox Jews who (by definition) accept that Halacha is 100% binding have areas in their personal life where they have room for improvement.

The difference between Judaism and Chrsitianity is that while both agree that it is impossible to be 100% perfect in our Mitzva Obersvance, Judaism says that we should aim for that 100%, even though we will never achieve it (that is why we have Tshuva), Christianty sys don't bother, someone else has fulfilled the obligations for you, and then died for it.

Garmel's comment is valid, we are all guilty of emphasizing some Mitvot over others, nothing Christian about that.

SJ said...

Seems to me as an admission that Orthodox Judaism is too damn hard. lol imagine that The Rent Is Too Damn High dude from New York sayin Orthodox Judaism, it's too daaaaamn hard! XD

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

The issue is the definition of the objective. Of course, within Torah, the objective is always beyond us. That is why Torah knowledge is infinite; there is always something to learn. Herein lies the inherent mistake of Christianity. They maintain that it impossible for anyone to follow the "law" completely thus everyone is blemished with sin -- and so they need to be saved because they are imperfect. We maintain that of course perfection is impossible. It is expected that we sin, that we will have some failures. But the objective is to grow, to improve, to strive for the goal and the greatness is in the movement forward. We are not evaluated on the standard of meeting perfection but on the fact that we moved forward, that we grew. So ultimately, of course everyone falls short. That is not the issue here. The issue is the definition of the goal and the lowering of the standards. Of course, we cannot judge any person in terms of their own personal battle(s). Only Hashem is the judge. But it is a completely different matter to give the impression that something which is not mutar is.

Sometime the rent is too ridiculously high and it needs to be challenged. Sometimes the rent is high for a very understandable reason and challenging it has no basis. Just because people can't pay the rent does not necessarily mean that it always falls into the first category and not the second. Sometimes there is a reason for it being high and the challenge is on the person to respond.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Mike S. said...

Actually you will find self-respecting and self-identifying Orthodox Jews saying (at least in private) that cheating and stealing (from the government, at least) are permissible, provided one doesn't create a chillul Hashem by getting caught. They are, of course, wrong. There is an important difference between rejecting the authority of the halacha, and being incorrect about what the halacha requires. The former might remove one from Orthodoxy; the latter does not.

Now, you might ask how can one be wrong about this? Surely everyone knows what the halacha says about appearing on TV in swimwear. I think the answer there is that many people believe that the rabbis are stricter than necessary, since they don't trust the lay people to stay within the bounds set. This would be a shortcoming in emunat Chachamim, but I am not sure it should put one outside the pale. Especially for a young girl. I am certainly less disturbed by this than by a rabbi who suggests that R"MA only wrote that it is forbidden to steal and cheat from the government for fear of the censor.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering whether mixed swimming puts the violation of tzniut as a side-effect of participating in another activity, but the distaste many find with posing as a model is because the essence of the activity is violating the halacha.

Though maybe one would need to ask an avid mixed swimming participant - Mike S you could very well be right that ignorance is more of a factor.

Dr Mike said...

Following on what Mike S wrote, one could further suggest that mixed swimming in its own way is a backlash against the recent trend of forbidden everything to be "machmir". After all, we are told daily that social activities and clothing items that are perfectly permissible by halacha are suddenly forbidden due to "Daas Torah". As Brooklyn Wolf once said on his blog, "if you make the derech 1 inch wide don't be surprised when more people fall off". It's not so hard to think "Well I know a woman going barefoot isn't always forbidden so they must be making up this rule too".

Chalom Jerusalem said...

Esther interviewed in Jerusalem by a modern-orthodox journalist: