In My Unorthodox Life (Netflix) we see a fascinating woman, who felt trapped in the Orthodox Jewish community, “kick ass” (as her daughter puts it) in the secular world of fashion, and feeling liberated to express herself and her sexuality. Needless to say that many parts of this “reality” show are clearly staged, and yet moments of authenticity shine through.
Julia Haart is clearly a fearless woman, but she is also a woman of contradictions, not least when in the name of freedom and choice she emotionally manipulates her son to abandon his religious beliefs and practices, which he claims to have chosen freely. She claims that he is being brainwashed by the religious, and yet there is more than a little hint of brainwashing in her imposing stance with her children.
The heroine of this show sees orthodox Judaism as inherently oppressive, especially towards women, which has sparked a response from many successful and happy orthodox women who don’t see themselves as oppressed. In turn, these women are called apologists by critics and leavers of orthodox Judaism. I must confess that when I first left orthodox Judaism some years ago I would also see things in this light.
Many years and a philosophy degree later I see a more relativist picture. I don’t think that orthodox communities, including strictly orthodox ones, are either better or worse than other communities, nor do I think that their flaws or attributes are overall more significant than those found in other communities. I have seen no research suggesting that people living an orthodox life are either more or less happy than people not living that life, or that life satisfaction is more or less than in other communities. This is the kind of research you would need to show me to change my mind.
Each and every community or society in the world has its own unique norms and values. These will affect people in the community in different ways, sometimes beneficially and sometimes harmfully. The same norms that can harm some can be beneficial to others. the same values that can produce negative effects can also produce positive effects.
Take for example the insularity and xenophobia that exists in many ultra-orthodox communities. I would argue that this is one side of a coin whose other side is unparalleled community support systems and safety nets. No other community I know of exhibits that level of concern and support for community members, which includes a private first resolve system, free AA service, interest-free loans, lending organisations for any and every need, volunteers to visit the sick, and try list goes in and on. Even since leaving the strictly-orthosox community and suffering quite a bit of pain through shunning and family cut-off, I have still found time and time again that in time of need it is more often than not orthodox Jews who stood by my side and offered a helping hand.
Just to be clear, I am not saying that the good excuses or cancels out the bad. But I am asking, what if they come as a package deal? What if those tremendous, unparalleled community support comes hand in hand with insularity? What if the reason we don’t see this level of communal support in wider society is because we are more individualistic, cosmopolitan and universal?
Every community has it’s own good and bad. Since leaving the community I am freer, but I am also less supported. I am less judged, but I am also less looked after. I can make more choices, but I am more lonely. In other words, I have gained the benefits of individualism and suffered its negative consequences too. That was my choice and I’d do it all over again, but I wouldn’t judge those who find the other option more appealing, nor would I claim that mine is the universally better choice.
I am no apologist for the charedi community and I have written and spoken a lot about its problems with regards to education, benefits and tax fraud, insularity and so on. But there’s a difference between pointing out individual shortcomings of a community and its wholesale demonisation. When you start seeing members of the charedi community as oppressed victims, rather than as ordinary folk going about their lives, trying to make a living and support their family, that’s when your criticism has gone into demonisation.
It is undeniable that the charedi community serves to us Jews in the wider community as this exotic “other”. I see this in the response to the talks I give about the charedi community, as well as in the paternalism with which some well-intentioned activists want to “save” those poor oppressed charedi Jews. But we need to learn to overcome our cultural supremacy – this implicit idea that our way of life is superior to others’ – and we can do with a bit more cultural relativism. This does not mean that anything goes and that the practices of other communities shouldn’t be put under scrutiny and called out when harmful. But it does mean understanding that while other ways of life might have harms that ours don’t, our way of life probably has harms that they don’t. And just like we’re not all victims of secular culture who need saving through the light of fundamentalist religion, neither do they need saving in the hands of our secular, liberal values.
When you look more closely you see that wider society has many ills that you wouldn’t find in charedi communities, such as homelessness, a culture that sexualises young girls and that puts tremendous sexual pressures on young boys, and the negative sides of individualism and atomism mentioned above. In turn, charedi society has its own unique harms and ills and, as I’ve argued, the good and the bad often come as a package deal: the grandma that gives you lots of sweets when you’re well behaved is more likely to tell you off when you’re bad than the indifferent grandma who doesn’t have a close relationship with you – to use a childhood example. The same community that will judge you more and expect you to conform will also be there for you in times of need and will provide you with the sense of support and warmth that you cannot get in a more individualistic society in which you enjoy more freedoms.
But no community works for everybody. The charedi community didn’t work for Julia Haart and it didn’t work for me. But let’s not pretend that our communities work for everybody. We also have plenty of people who fall through the cracks and we also have lots of people bitter with the system and feeling oppressed – as a year of riots, protest and unrest has shown very clearly.
If we want to help “oppressed charedim” there are plenty of people who need our help. Most Julia Haarts, who feel oppressed by the charedi system, don’t have her fearlessness, connections and money. I didn’t. Please do help people in that situation for whom the charedi system doesn’t work and who find themselves genuinely oppressed and helpless. But don’t assume that charedim in general are victims who just need to see the light of western liberalism. Let’s not forget that life is no party in any community and that we have enough problems and disillusionment in our own communities.
Julia Haart says that she felt oppressed in her charedi community. I believe her. So did I. But she also says that she sees charedim as victims. That’s where she’s wrong. My mother, a proud and happy house mother, is no victim, nor are thousands of happy men and women in the community, who live their best lives, with beautiful family values and profound meaning. Let’s put to rest this lazy trope of charedim as oppressed and miserable, shall we?