Thursday, July 29, 2021

Is Orthodox Judaism Dysfunctional?

Screenshot of Allison Josephs' I24 interview on 'My Unorthodox Life'

Let me quickly answer the question asked in the title with a resounding NO! But one would be hard pressed to know that based on what one finds on the TV or movie screen these days.

One of the biggest complaints about the portrayal of Orthodox Jews is the negative spin it usually takes. In almost every case (there are exceptions – like Shitisel) Orthodox Jewry is made to look abnormal and even dysfunctional. Jews that abandon Orthodoxy are portrayed as near heroic – for having the courage to escape the fundamentalism that ‘strangled’ them. 

Most recently this is depicted in the Netflix series, My Unorthodox Life, the story of a formerly strictly religious Orthodox Jewish woman who did exactly that – and adopted a lifestyle that is the antithesis of her Orthodox past. I have discussed this series before, possible explanations for the OTD phenomenon it depicts, and what might be done to best deal with it. 

I suggested that the entertainment industry should present a truer picture of Orthodox Jewish life. One where the vast majority of us are quite happy with our lives. Most Orthodox Jews live meaningful and fulfilling lives. We are generally quite happy to live as observant Jews, despite the fact that following Halacha (which defines Orthodoxy) creates restrictions upon us that most of the rest of the civilized world does not have. But that is more than compensated for by the meaning it gives to our lives in serving our Creator as we believe He wishes us to. 

In an I24 broadcast dealing with the subject (viewable  below) two people were interviewed. One was one of my personal heroes, Allison Josephs, founder of Jew in the City  - a podcast that seeks to portray a positive, more accurate picture of what Orthodox Judaism is really like. Allison is also the founder of Project Makom, an organization that helps Charedi Jews that have gone – or seeks to go OTD by guiding them instead into a productive non Charedi Orthodox life. Where some of the issues they had with their former community do not exist. (The details of which are beyond the scope of this post.) 

The other person interviewed was a formerly Chasidic rabbi who is transgender and now lives as a woman. The interviewer wanted to know their take on the highly criticized (by Orthodox Jews - including me) ‘My Unorthdox Life’ series. 

Allison made reference to the same point I have made. Many times. Which is that it would be nice if Netflix and other entertainment media like them would present a series that is more positive and thereby more truthful about Orthodoxy. And not constantly portraying it as negative and  dysfunctional. Allison said that she tried to submit such material to Netflix  more than once but they were not interested. 

This is a problem. How we are perceived by the rest of the world is important. When Orthodox Judaism is constantly portrayed as dysfunctional - that is how the world will see us. The more religious we are, the more dysfunctional. That is very likely the take-away of most non Jews or secular Jews.  So that if a secular Jew  ever had a thought about becoming observant, these kinds of shows will disabuse them of that notion.

And yet I don’t see how we can effect change. I do not see the entertainment or news media having any interest in a series portraying us as normal. Because normal is boring. There is no drama to being normal. No family tension. No conflict – none of the ‘stuff of drama’ that will make anyone interested in watching it. A series about ‘going OTD’ in a fundamentalist community has all of those elements.  

Adding to the problem is that fact that almost always Orthodoxy is portrayed as fundamentalist. The more different a religious community is from the norms of society, the easier it is to ‘understand’ the story of someone that wants to escape that lifestyle. 

I cannot imagine any viewer interest in a mainstream Orthodox family that lives a typical middle class lifestyle. There is no drama in that. Even though there are plenty of Jews  raised that way that also go OTD, it would be a hard sell to explain why they left a community not all that dissimilar from the rest of the culture. Hard to generate sympathy for someone that abandons their religious lifestyle  for a non religious lifestyle when differences do not exist. Which is what they untrained eye will see. 

True there are many reasons for going OTD. Not all of which have to do with leaving a fundamentalist lifestyle. But those reasons to not transfer well to a plotline on a TV series.

After thinking about this problem for more than about 5 minutes, I thought of a way in which a more positive picture of Orthodox Jews can be portrayed. Instead of making an entire (boring) series about us, we need to convince the entertainment industry to occasionally incorporate us into the storylines of mainstream TV dramas. For example there ought to be an Orthodox Jewish doctor on a medical series that does not have any quirks. Just a normal doctor that happens to wear a Kipa - but otherwise on par with all the other characters on the series. If that is done often enough, Orthodox Jews will be seen as normal as anyone else, albeit religious. 

One might challenge the notion of a Jew being like anyone else. Am Levadod Yishkon. We are after all a nation apart, chosen by God as His treasured people. We are supposed to be separate nation that will be looked up to as wise followers of God’s law. 

This is true. It is what God wants of His people. Isn’t it folly, therefore  to try and look ‘normal’ by worldly standards? I think that is what the most fundamentalist Jews among us would say. Which is one reason they go out of their way to be as different as possible from the rest of the culture. 

But being respected as a wise people for serving God does not mean leading a lifestyle that is radically different from the norms of a civilized society. It means setting an example of how to be the best human beings we can be. Being scrupulously honest in all of our business dealings; making sure justice is always served; being charitable; having a pleasant disposition; having integrity...  Being scrupulous in all of these Bein Adam L’Chavero (between man and fellow man) Mitzvos while at the same time being scrupulous in the Bein Adam L’Makom (between man and God) Mitzvos is what will cause the nations of the world to declare about us ‘How wise is this people’!

This is the image we need to portray. Living a normal life will – in my view - enhance that message a lot more than living a fundamentalist life that is so far off  from the norms of the rest of society. 

This doesn’t mean that there can never be a portrayal of someone going OTD because of the hardships of a fundamentalist life. It does happen. A lot more than it should. But there needs to be balance. That is the only way you can get at the truth. 

Just my quick 2 cents. 

*Update A strikingly similar article can be found here.