In the comment threads that follow the two posts I wrote about Esther Petrack (who has been eliminated from ANTM) (Esther Petrack: Modern Orthodox Jewish Girl on America’s Next Top Model Drops Shabbos on Television and Esther Petrack’s Mother Speaks: Esther is observant, it was all editing) I noticed something that I feel needs to be discussed.
Much of the conversation was about whether Esther could be considered “Orthodox” or “Modern Orthodox” in light of her decision to model. The first comment thread assumed that she dropped Shabbos (even though we knew it could be editing and my post was not about her per se) and the second thread assumed that even if she kept Shabbos there was a problem with her modeling.
Quite a few commenters found the need to “draw a line” between what they do and what Esther did. Some said she desecrated God’s name. Others said that violated a law and not being ashamed is enough for them to be ousted from orthodoxy or modern orthodoxy. I debated the merits of those claims on the thread (and even received a number of emails thanking me) and I don’t care to debate them further.
What I find most interesting is this need that has been expressed to self define by whom we exclude.
This phenomena is part of what drove the “separate but equal” laws of the first half of the 20th century. Sure blacks couldn’t be used as slaves anymore, but by excluding them from social life, and certain privileges the white majority still felt superior.
In politics you’ll see the same kind of lines of demarcation drawn. Someone is only as right or left wing as they are compared to the next guy. So political groups find it necessary to define themselves by who and what they are not. The last two major election campaigns (’08, ’10) both focused on change. “We are not like them”.
In religions it is the same way. Folks want to feel superior or more authentic so they say “we are the REAL ____ [Jews / Christian / Muslims (/ Atheists)]. Huge sects of Christianity and Islam are built on this principle. Judaism is smaller and has been united by common persecution so these tendencies may have existed but it did not yield similar results.
Once Jews were freed from the ghetto this phenomena found its way into Judaism. Different sects within Judaism formed and people began to define themselves by whom they were not like. Most people do what their parents do. It wasn’t a conscious choice, yet they self define “real Judaism” as their version. And their version can be so narrowly construed that no one else can fit in to their little world. It’s isolationism at its best.
This is what many Modern Orthodox Jews find so disturbing about Charedi Judaism. The Charedi establishment excludes non-conformists. This includes in action and in thought. For example Rabbi Natan Slifkin performs the same actions / mitzvos as the Charedim. But he is excluded for his thoughts. On the other hand, those who look the part but don’t act like Charedi Jews are also excluded. For some (maybe most) this doesn’t affect them because they have self selected themselves out of the Charedi world. But for Rabbi Slifkin who self selected himself as a Charedi Jew, this created a personal conflict. Subsequent to the entire affair he self excluded himself. The merits of Rabbi Slifkin’s opinions and the merits of the Charedi criticisms are not relevant. The point is that he was excluded for his thoughts.
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.
How does it help Modern Orthodox Jew be a better person or a better Jew by excluding Esther? What is the motivation?
It’s the same phenomena. People need to feel better about themselves and they take the feel good shortcut by telling themselves and others that they are better / more important / more religious / more privileged than someone else.
Isolating others from the place that they define as their place is self serving. Further it can hurt others. Esther is 18 years old. If you care about her as your sister and you want her to be successful professionally and more importantly, spiritually then you would be best served offering her support and reminding her that we are her family no matter what.
Teens who are at-risk are the darlings of the Orthodox Jewish community. Money, time, resources, blog posts and magazine articles are dedicated to solving their problems. Do we hear anyone trying to exclude them from the places they want to be included? Of course not. I am not equating at risk teens and Esther. All I am saying is that even we have come to understand that inclusion is a much more powerful tool than exclusion.
This is not just about Esther. It is about being inclusive. Halacha tells us how to act. It doesn’t tell us to exclude those who may not follow halacha to the standards that we arbitrarily create.
Above all else: V’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha, zeh klal gadol baTorah.