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.]