Last summer, I wrote in this blog about my disappointment with the first season of the reality television series, “My Unorthodox Life,” which follows Julia Haart after leaving her Orthodox community. I argued that Netflix had yet to showcase strong Orthodox women in positive and leadership roles.
Conversely, amidst all of the Haart family sensationalized Netflix-produced drama, the second season makes better use of its platform, by featuring Orthodox women advocating and working towards creating positive change for women who are struggling because of the halakhic (Jewish legal) system and social inequities that leave them trapped in lives not of their own choosing. These activists seek to do so by working within the Jewish legal system, rather than tearing it down.
As Julia explains during season one, she had rejected what she experienced as a “fundamentalist” lifestyle. After choosing to leave behind that insular life in Monsey, N.Y., for a secular and public life in Manhattan, Haart sees herself as fighting to free both herself, her children, and other women like her, from deeply rooted misogyny and exploitation that keeps them stuck in situations they desperately wish to escape.
Although during the first season, the show’s creators seemed content to lean on Haart’s background to simply gesture at these serious issues, the second season does better, featuring scenes that address these issues more directly – while also providing a relatively more balanced view of the many positive aspects of Orthodox life. As Executive Director of Jofa (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance), whose organizational mission is to build a vibrant Orthodox community by advocating for expanding women’s rights and opportunities within the framework of Jewish law, I was pleased to see this development… but also disappointed by many community members’ reactions.
For example: In the second episode, three Orthodox activists, Amber Adler, Adina Sash, and Hadassah, meet with Julia and her colleague Robert in Brooklyn, to discuss raising awareness about some of these inequities. They focus on the lack of education around healthy relationships, and the stories of women who are abused and trapped in marriages as agunot (translated as “chained women”) because their husbands will not give them a get, the Jewish legal writ of divorce. Julia pledges to partner with activists to support such women in need – both by continuing to raise awareness, and by committing her resources to provide them with safe haven housing so they can exit bad marriages. Although it’s not clear what will actually come of this, it does speak to the importance of women supporting each other as a step toward addressing these issues.
In another episode, a deeply troubling conversation takes place when Julia posits to her teenage son, Aron, that “a husband can slap [his wife], hang her off the apartment window, and she still cannot divorce him. Do you think a law where women cannot get divorced for any reason, but a man can divorce her without her permission, do you think that’s just?” Aron replies, “Yes.”
I paused the show to process this and scan the social media reactions. While many women who have had traumatic experiences shared that they were grateful for this conversation, I was stunned by the criticism that the activists received – both for appearing on the show, and for “airing the community’s dirty laundry,” in their efforts to raise awareness about issues that are too often swept under the rug.
If only those who expressed anger at Amber, Adina and Hadassah could channel that anger toward the men and systems that keep women trapped as agunot, they would also note that there are alternative Jewish legal solutions to end a marriage that go beyond a man giving a woman a get. If only these critics would put the same energy toward advocating for women and empowering them to mitigate such abuses. If only those same folks would take as much time to educate themselves about the issues raised on the show, as they do to deny that they exist – or worse, to justify their existence.
I shared with a friend and fellow activist for ending igun (the state of being an agunah) what I found even more troubling: that, while everyone is up in arms over a few women participating in this show, none of the social media chatter seemed bothered by the education that Aron received, that justifies the institutional sexism, and the ensuing and enduring harm that results from upholding such deeply rooted misogyny. Furthermore, unless there is some course correction, Aron, who aspires to become a rebbe (teacher), may well go on to teach the same fallacies and perpetuate harmful tropes to future generations.
To be sure, Jofa is among the many impactful organizations in North America and around the world providing resources for agunot, as well as working toward systemic change within a halakhic framework. But the social media backlash aimed at activism on behalf of these chained women demonstrates that too many in the Orthodox community “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” to take action to put an end to igun.
Regardless of one’s feelings about the show, the Haart family, the featured activists, or the portrayal of Aron, this case highlights the need for Orthodox institutions and organizations to prioritize implementing a culture backed by the resources necessary to ensure that systemic inequities finally cease to exist. After all, shouldn’t we be most upset that there are Jewish leaders who reinforce the views that Aron expressed? Women are held captive in marriages, an act of abuse in and of itself – and too many individuals, including rabbis, educators, and community leaders – stand silently by while women continue to be harmed.
Each of us – even those who disagree on other matters – are stakeholders with a role to play as responsible citizens standing up for the vulnerable women in our communities. Each of us needs to be in conversation with our schools, rabbis, youth groups, educators, and community leaders, about the implicit and explicit messages they transmit, so that together we can work constructively to build a vibrant and equitable Orthodox community.