Ben, Jerry, and Julia: The Last Sadductions

Maimonides once commented that the Sadducees’ ostensible professed commitment to the apparent literal directives of the Written Torah to the exclusion of any oral tradition was essentially a complete ruse: they didn’t actually believe in either Torah; it was just a convenient vehicle to express their opposition to any tradition.

Recent events have highlighted how certain Jews prominent in pop culture have adopted a version of this Sadducean option: professing a “commitment” to Judaism while publicly and shamelessly working to undermine authentic Jewish prerogatives.  The difference this time is that they are guilty of especially bad timing along with public perfidy, and the Jewish community at large has justifiably decided to make examples out of them as a warning to raise the price of all Jewish antisemitism.

Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield have long incorporated a strain of progressive activism into their iconic ice cream product; when their company was bought out by Unilever.  As with most contemporary progressivism, there has been a hostility to Zionism that was somewhat muted until recently likely due to corporate considerations, but became inevitably expressed following the recent conflagration with Hamas when their board decided to stop selling their product in the “occupied territories”.   

Disingenuous claims that this move was not technically “BDS” was belied at the very least by the company’s long history of hard left activism, including major support for the antiwar, terrorist-sympathizing collective ANSWER as far back as 2003; the fact that the current chairman of the board has written glowingly about Hamas and Hezbollah; and that the company would have pulled out of Israel entirely but was prevented from doing so by their corporate overlords at Unilever.  

Following an international backlash of unexpected intensity that galvanized most segments of the Jewish community save for the usual pockets of doctrinaire “Jewish” progressives, Messrs. Cohen and Greenfield took to the pages of the New York Times to proclaim their fealty to Israel whilst decrying the occupation, giving lip service to their record of activism while eliding the fact that they’ve partnered with antisemitic bigots both inside and outside their company.  

This time, fewer people are buying their explanations, just as fewer people are going to buying and stocking their ice cream.

In a similar vein, the designer Julia Haart—formerly known as Rebbetzin Talia Hendler, a popular Orthodox Jewish educator—recently came to pop culture prominence with her Netflix reality show “My Unorthodox Life”, essentially inexorably tying her branding efforts with her implacable opposition to what she perceives to be the “fundamentalist” form of Judaism.   In other words, her success and striving are all about her leaving Orthodoxy.

Like Ben and Jerry, who thought that their timing was propitious owing to progressive agitation following the most recent Hamas aggression only to find that the Jewish community finally had enough, “Rebbetzin” Haart incurred the wrath of a large segment of  Orthodox community for a multitude of offenses, also in part due to the fact that she seemed to be engaging in the crudest sort of ethnic stereotyping at a time when the targets off her ire have faced heightened mortal threats as their appearance makes them very easy targets; in fact, this possibility was acknowledged by a fashion writer from Glamour magazine with no otherwise obvious connection to Orthodox Judaism.

One could make a list of Haart’s offenses that would be long and still not exhaustive; in fact, while certainly the claims of her very public violations of Jewish law which she celebrates are certainly accurate from that point of view; they’re also somewhat tautological: it certainly wouldn’t be something she or her supporters care about.  And while those countering with #myorthodoxlife hashtags also provide at least a decent counterargument to Haart’s freikeit, they also only go so far: one can detect a slight element of defensiveness and/or an attempt to turn the fallout from the show into a “kiruv” moment.  Again, those are fine on their terms, but they do not deal with the main issue with a show like this, and why attempt should be made to make Netflix and the producers feel enough pain so that they reconsider trying to mount a similar production again.

The main thrust of attacking the show should be narrowed to three specific issues: false advertising regarding her background; group defamation using the distortion of insider knowledge from her time the community; and her concomitant  abandonment of almost any social boundaries to he point that she nearly forfeits her fitness as a parent.

It has been noticed Haart is seriously dissembling about her own former background and how that relates to how Orthodoxy really works, no matter how traumatic her experiences may have been; her own former students have remarked how “with it” she was for a Orthodox teacher, and even a few of her old lectures that still remain up on the web indicate her even-then easy familiarity with pop culture.  So, in this case, irrespective of what issues there might be with the treatment of women in Orthodoxy—and they certainly do exist—not only is Haart a poor messenger because of credibility issues, but she will make it more difficult for those working for change within the system who don’t consider leaving an option.

But it is not only her revisionist personal history that impact said credibility.  Even the title of the show gives the game away: Haart, a former educator, generalizes her pedagogical skills in a campaign of anti-kiruv; or, to steal back a term she uses, she engages in ardent counterfundamentalism.  She has made her media brand now about maligning anything that has to do with Orthodox Judaism as she has defined it, using enough of the insider knowledge to distort certain concepts/precepts beyond recognition and presenting them as the linchpins of all Orthodox life.  Essentially, she prosletyzes hard for freikeit as much as she might have done once upon a time for frumkeit: either they have to be right or she has to be, and to prove her own rectitude, she has to drag everyone else along.  Meanwhile, even other ex-Orthodox have noticed how her approach is more than misleading.

Especially since it becomes apparent in many scenes during the show that Haart’s parenting and mentoring style becomes more cringeworthy than her fashion.  It’s not only the recent 16 year old runaway from Orthodoxy who seek her out for advice and basically ends up getting something akin to training for sex work; it’s that Haart ends up intruding on her children’s social AND sex lives in a way that should incur interest from social workers and family service agencies.  Haart’s commitment to “freedom” at all costs places her somewhere between Alex Portnoy’s mother and Simone de Beauvoir, who essentially became Sartre’s procurer in their later years.

The reaction to these miscreants should be fierce and unyielding.  The opprobrium leveled at them should be withering to the point that ad hominem attacks are legitimate, as they have tied their personal brands with attacks on Jews and Judaism while maintaining that they are engaged in legitimate Jewish expressions.   One might claim that such a response is disproportionate to the actual offenses committed; while such an argument might be made on the direct merits, the timing of these events in the current zeitgeist of heightened antisemitism and media driven Judeomisia, those who cross over while pretending to communitarianism at such a time need to be made to pay an unpayable price.   

It is often asked why the pig comes in for such ignominy in classic Jewish literature; the most oft-given answer is given that the pig sticks out his cloven hooves in an attempt to appear kosher. This porcine paradigm provides a useful template for indelibly branding them as the modern Sadducees they are.

About the Author
Jon Taub is an ex-Upper West Sider, now-married Riverdalean who has two MA's, plays three instruments, and consults for biostartups.
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