Monday, September 20, 2010

Another Noah Feldman?

According to Tablet Magazine, eighteen year old Esther Petrack is on her way to becoming the next body blow to Modern Orthodoxy. Indeed, the writer notes that 'she dealt a blow much less eloquently, though no less severe, to the Modern Orthodox experiment as, say, Noah Feldman did in his New York Times Magazine essay, “Orthodox Paradox”' (about which I had a few things to say myself, some of which are pertinent in this case, as well).

What did she do? She appeared as a contestant on
America’s Next Top Model , and was asked by the host, Tyra Banks how she could remain Sabbath observant and keep up with the 24/7 demands of ANTM? She replied that she would be willing to forgo Shabbat in order to advance as a model, and win the ANTM competition.

I agree that Ms. Petrack's response really is a very sad moment for Orthodoxy. More than that, it's an indication of a serious malaise in Modern Orthodoxy, but not for the reasons noted by Dvora Myers in the Tablet piece. As deeply regrettable as Ms. Petrack's response was, it is light years better than Feldman's arrogant, narcissistic temper tantrum; his eloquently hysterical cry for validation and attempt at spiritual parricide. Esther Petrack, on the other hand, failed when tested. She was asked to choose between God and her own ambition, between the dazzling lights of the runway and the flickering lights of the Sabbath candles, between the glamor and fame of the super model and the lesser note of the less than super model. She chose the glamor, the fame, the money....basically she chose her own self-fulfillment. She made her personal choice, as misguided as I (and others) might think it to be. She wasn't the first and, unfortunately, she won't be the last.

Nevertheless, Petrack's case is indicative of deeper issues in the Modern Orthodox community (and, in not a few Israeli cases, the Haredi community, as well). We have accepted the the Western illusion that we can 'have it all'.

We have forgotten, perhaps because of the economic and social success of Orthodox men and women and the relative ease with which one can be observant today, that Judaism demands that man lead, as the Rav זצ"ל never tired of reminding us, a sacrificial and heroic existence. We have lost our nerve, our spiritual backbone. We cannot bring ourselves to say that there is something I desire with all my being, but the Torah says 'No.' The idea of depriving ourselves of anything is just too foreign, too horrifying, too traumatic. Most of us never have to make Esther Petrack's choice. We do have to make choices, though. So, we use our halakhic sophistication to cut corners, square the circle, and make ourselves feel good that we 'only' violated איסורים דרבנן with a שינוי, or walked to that important meeting, even though we know that other Jews might be made to violate Shabbat, as a result, or who knows what else. (And no, not everyone is entitled to the same leeway as Senator Joseph Lieberman.)

In the end, we all too often don't have the spiritual fortitude to take the high road, to stand on our principles and really sacrifice for God and for Torah. That's the message that doesn't get through.
And therein lies both tragedy and challenge.

[Afterward: I can't help thinking about Tyra Bank's reported comment: 'Tyra sternly informed her that
ANTM contestants work all the time, seven days a week....Would Esther, Tyra wanted to know, be able to adhere to the ANTM work schedule?' When you think about it, Tyra is advocating slavery. True, it's comfortable and incredibly remunerative. However, it remains a form of bondage; exactly the type of bondage that God sought to eradicate when he blessed us with Shabbat. As philosopher Eliezer Schweid once wrote, 'Unfettered freedom enslaves, submission to God through Shabbat, liberates.' ]

[Postscript: After reading, and receiving comments on this episode, it is clear that the issue is more basic and nuanced than I had previously thought. Ms.
Petrack's choice goes far beyond the question of Shabbat, and it is very surprising that the most vociferous Orthodox reactions on the Tablet article ignored that. Ms. Petrack's choice (and the focus on Shabbat) has everything to say about the internalization of contemporary attitudes towards women and their bodies, and all of my readers know that I am fiercely opposed to the radical obsession with צניעות in the Orthodox community. Still, at the end of the day Athens and Jerusalem really are in conflict. Apparently, Athens is winning, hands down.]


Dov said...

Thank you for your thoughtful post. You are spot on about the difficulty we face in practising self-denial. The question is, how does Modern Orthodoxy achieve this without becoming haredi? Having moved from the haredi world to the MO world, I sense this acutely. While I agree with you that the haredi obsession with tzniut has become just that, I am disturbed by the way it is treated in many parts of the MO world as an optional extra. I see no solution.

Nachum said...

"And no, not everyone is entitled to the same leeway as Senator Joseph Lieberman."

Nor is Senator Lieberman:

1. He can't honestly say that anything his does is for Pikuach Nefesh.

2. He didn't have to run for public office.

By the way, I've heard tell that the video was somewhat edited and the young lady said she *wouldn't* violate Shabbat. Regardless, there's no need to participate in reality shows, especially one of this nature.

Anonymous said...

Well said. When are you comming to US? We want you in Providence

esther said...

I just wanted to point out that the attitude you described is not only seen in the Halachic realm. People in my milieu (and I also live in Efrat) don't comprehend the idea of sacrifice or doing without anything that makes you less then perfectly happy. They don't understand that one can choose to buy less, have less, live without every mod. con. and still be happy. I think this idea is seen in life everywhere, not just where halacha is concerned.

Anonymous said...

Why is everyone taking a teenagers mere word at face value that she MO? 1)She is from Israel; great numbers of Israelis who are not secular who leave Israel are various degrees of 'Masorti' and send their kids to MO institutions, synagogues, etc - regardless of where they're actually "holding", this is not news and this is pretty clearly the case here.
2)She is a teenager trying to sell herself to a TV show, and must amp up what makes her 'unique', even if that means making SOUND clear something that is "in Jewish", much more complex and subtle than "I am modern orthodox", which might sound clear enough for goyim. I'm not sure given any of these things WHY Jews should be so concerned that she IS MO; aside from her word and the fact that she went to a MO school, what's to be brought to say she IS Modern Orthodox, given that there are SO many well-established exceptions to self-identification and school attendance?

Anonymous said...

Dov, Kashrut is also a divider between the MO and Haredi world. MO will happily buy in the supermarket relying on Tnuva to have taken trumot and maasrot. Haredi will not accept the Tnuva hafrasha. Unfortunately ignorance abounds in both the MO and Haredi camp but arrogance that one is right is more prevalent I think in the Haredi world. MO at least appreciate that they are trying to compromise "begeder hahalakha".

Anonymous said...

BTW, I agree with your postscript. I go with my family to mixed swimming pools and the beach. I would hope that my daughters follow the example of their mother and cover up a bit even at the pool and the beach. Yet, even were they to wear bikinis there is still a qualitative difference between sitting at the beach in a bikini and flashing oneself in their underwear on national TV and the internet. This was much more problematic than the disposal of shabbat.

Anonymous said...

Nothing new under the sun. Hazal noted that Jews engaged in idol worship in order to pursue forbidden sexual relations. Tanach is filled with complaints about Jewish infidelity to God caused by material wealth. We have never lacked justifications for compromising on our fidelity to the ways of our forefathers. Some of those justifications are self-serving (like wanting even more material wealth than one already has) and some of those justifications are difficult to argue with -- like anger and despair over seemingly endless Jewish suffering in galut. Some of those justifications are intellectually vapid, and some are serious reactions to the very serious challenges modernity has posed to religious faith.

I don't view this issue as a uniquely modern orthodox problem at all. It is a challenge for all segments of the religious community in all generations to identify what it is that Judaism demands (not as easy as it sounds) and then observe those demands despite the sacrifices that might be necessary, and despite the potential conflicts that will arise with other cultural influences in our lives.

It's easy to bash non-serious modern orthodox for treating observance as a lifestyle that must be convenient to work for them. But Jews of all sorts manipulate religious observance into what they want it to be, by ignoring the inconvenient parts.

I think a serious Modern Orthodox approach does to a certain extent exacerbate the problem. A serious encounter with modernity will result in exposure to viewpoints that are very hard to refute, and that make religious commitment harder to maintain, certainly on a communal level (if everyone were exposed to those ideas), and even on an individual level.

For example, it is easy but facile to pretend as if Biblical scholarship's claims over the past 150 years or so are spurious and meaningless. Breuer, Cassuto and Kugel are just three serious and observant thinkers who are brave enough to acknowledge that the claims are strong. Where do you go from there? Not easy.

Also, it is painful to realize that to the extent orthodoxy of any brand has made progress in the past 100 years in improving the status of women, it has been almost entirely in response to the broader culture, and not as a leader in that regard. Where are our leaders with vision who want to make orthodoxy into a leading ethical force, not merely a laggard? Having abandoned the leadership position, we then admit that other ethical systems are at least in some regards at least teaching us something, rather than vice versa. How do we retain our faith in Judaism if on critical ethical issues of the day we are leaders and not followers? I'm not saying that rejection is a necessary conclusion here, just that grappling with these issues makes observance harder -- it would be easier to take the view that Judaism in in all ways radically superior to all alternatives, at least in meaningful, ethical regards. But how does a Jew who interacts seriously with the modern world maintain such an untenable belief?

So, I view the reaction to this one young woman's comments as a tempest in a teapot. Of course it's sad, but when the compromise is driven by such superficial concerns, it fails to raise interesting questions.

Anonymous said...

My name is Marina Petrack and I am Esther Petrack's mother. Since her level of religious observance has attracted so much attention on the internet, I feel the need to clarify a few points.

The fateful 4 words "I will do it", in answer to a question about working on shabbat, were the result of EDITING. Esther never said, meant that she would give up shabbat for the sake of appearing on a tv show; qnd she did not give it up. These words were extracted from a long conversation that Esther had about the laws of shabbat and the principles governing them and how she was planning to keep them while on the show. The producers then cut out these 4 words to create a more scandalous storyline. Careful viewers can actually see and hear that the words are edited; and I would have hoped that non careful viewers would have given Esther the benefit of the doubt (kaf zechus)...

Another point: the blue top in which she was filmed is a bathing suit top. Yes, Esther wears bathing suits in mixed company and not everyone does that; I do not feel it justifies all the verbal onslaught against her, especially from people who have never met her – people who know Esther, her midot and commitment to Judaism have reacted quite differently.

I am proud of Esther's commitment to Jewish observance which she carried throughout the show. As a cute example, since everyone seems to watch this show, they know that the girls were hosted in a house overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Esther used the ocean to tovel (dunk in a mikve) a pot she bought for cooking for herself in the house...

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