A lot has been written about the Netflix show, “My Unorthodox Life,” which debuted on Netflix last week. At the outset, I will point out that I did not watch the show and my perspective on the show is based on the articles that I’ve read and many of the inspiring posts that I’ve seen written by orthodox women who presented a positive narrative of life as orthodox women.
It seems to me that the Netflix series was criticized for three reasons. First, many have claimed that the show does not portray an accurate picture of Orthodox Judaism, even within the Charedi community. The show conflates a Litvish and a Hasidic community and inaccurately conveys that women in the Charedi Orthodox Jewish community do not receive a secular education, are not exposed to secular culture, and cannot play sports or ride bikes. Second, the show conveys the perception that there is no way for women to be happy and fulfilled while maintaining an Orthodox Jewish life. To rebut that assertion, frum women have inspired us by posting their stories on social media showing how they engage with and embrace the world around them, and are still proud, inspired lovers of Orthodox Judaism.
I think that there is a third reason that the series has been criticized. That is for its portrayal of Judaism as sexist, as evidenced by its modesty laws and fewer opportunities for women. Even though the show targeted the Charedi community, I don’t think it presents much of a challenge to that community because by and large they are more accepting of these halachot and the differing roles for men and women in Orthodox Jewish life. If they happen to watch the show, then most of them will probably be upset only because they are being portrayed as unhappy, miserable deprived individuals when, in fact, they do not feel this way. However, I would imagine that the show forces some in the modern orthodox community to confront the assertion in the show that women feel like second-class citizens in Judaism with an emphasis on the halachot of tzeniut and the fact that Orthodox women have less opportunities than men do to engage in certain ritual practices. These limitations run counter to American liberal values which aim to provide equal opportunities to everyone regardless of gender. I would imagine that many women across the modern orthodox spectrum may feel this way irrespective of whether they are “right-wing,” “centrist” or “left-wing” Modern Orthodox Jews because there are limits to their opportunities in whichever camp they find themselves, whether it’s a limitation to become a Rabbi, to read from the Torah, to count towards a minyan or to fully participate in an egalitarian minyan. All Modern Orthodox Jews must confront the tension between the counter-cultural Orthodox Judaism and secular values and sometimes it can make us feel uncomfortable. I would imagine that this show, despite all of its sensationalism, brought to the fore some of these underlying issues that make many people in the modern orthodox community uncomfortable.
Baruch Hashem, there have been so many #myorthodoxlife posts from Orthodox Jewish women who, despite these tensions, feel so inspired and fortunate to be part of the Orthodox Jewish community. And we need these posts so badly. Because there often is a gap between our vision and our reality, between what is and what ought to be in our minds. And the question is how do we relate to that gap? How do we manage the tension? There is so much negativity in our community. And the negativity is understandable. After all, many of us are not happy with the status quo. But all the negativity comes at a price. It likely engenders less fidelity to halacha and to Orthodox Judaism, in general.
I think that our Rabbis were keenly aware of this tension and, in response, they tell us that every morning we must wake up and say, “Modeh ani” – thank You, God, for restoring my soul. Life may not be perfect, but thank You. The Magen Avraham tells us that every morning before we pray, we should accept upon ourselves the mitzvah of “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha” – of loving each person. We may not like certain behaviors or beliefs of our friends and neighbors, but we should love each one anyway. And as we lay in bed at the end of the day when we encountered challenges, difficulties and questions that may have made us question certain aspects of our holy Torah, we recite Keriat Shema. We accept upon ourselves the yoke of God’s Kingdom over us and we affirm that “v’ahavta et Hashem Elokecha,” that we will love God with all our heart and soul, despite all of the challenges, difficulties and questions.
The Orthodox Jewish community is not a perfect community and we should continue to try our utmost to improve it within the framework of halacha under the guidance of our spiritual leaders. However, while we do that, let us remember how Chazal and our Rabbinic leaders challenge us to frame our days. Even as we acknowledge that challenges do exist, we must always return to these bedrocks of our faith: Love for God, love for each other, and feelings of gratitude. And let us thank all of our inspiring women who reinforced this approach by posting on social media why their overriding feeling is that they feel blessed and fortunate to be an Orthodox Jew.