One of the few topics hotly debated across Shabbat tables, social media forums and elsewhere in the past month or so has been the hit reality TV series ‘My Unorthodox Life’ on Netflix which focuses on the life and journey of Julia Haart, CEO of Elite World Group, and her family.
At first glance it looks like the classic story of a person escaping the rigid codes of ultra-Orthodoxy, like many movies on Netflix in recent years. Naturally, many Orthodox Jews found it offensive, did not relate to it and saw the depiction of ultra-orthodox Judaism as almost anti-Semitic. Many have kicked into gear to rebut, malign and in general object to the narrative and to discredit it as much as possible.
Initially, I felt a similar feeling and did not want to watch it. I can’t bear to watch movies such as ‘Unorthodox’, ‘One of Us’ and others that come out frequently on Netflix as they really turn me off my religion, to be honest. However, something about this one – perhaps the length of the seemingly unending lockdown in Melbourne – has got me to watch this series and frankly, I haven’t been able to stop.
I’ve also come to really like it. To me I see it as not a classic ‘escape from religion’ topic but rather an inspiring human and Jewish story, with not just one, but many interesting characters whose journey and internal struggle with finding a healthy balance of religion is so familiar to many Jewish families.
There is Julia herself who’s impetus to leave her community came from seeing how her youngest daughter Miriam was not being treated respectfully by the system she was in. Miriam clearly was not interested in that lifestyle and Julia left in order to protect her. There is Batsheva, her eldest daughter and her husband Ben who grapple with the level of religion they can manage whilst maintaining a modern lifestyle. There’s Shlomo, who loves Shabbos, and Aron, a self confessed ‘black hatter’ who wants to do the whole thing.
What this fundamentally is about, is the human side of Orthodox Jews, who are not uniform or binary in their embrace or rejection of the tradition and rules.
For those that don’t agree with the depiction of ultra-orthodox society, that’s fine – this is a personal experience, which may not align with everyone else’s perspective. The point here is about the humanity and diversity of Orthodox Jews, and that I believe is not just a human thing, but also a Jewish thing.
One of the lessons I learnt in yeshiva, was regarding the custom for children to start learning the Torah from the book of Vayikra – Leviticus, which deals with the korbanot or animal sacrifices in the Temple. The explanation was given that the idea of the sacrifice which brought atonement to its giver is because it reached a place in God where observance or transgression didn’t matter; where God’s love transcended the observance of a code of laws, and attached itself to the person himself – as he or she is. Therefore children – not yet obligated in any laws – are the most fitting to begin reading this section, as they represent this pure connection with God, which is not connected to any observances, and is raw and human.
I believe it was the late Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who noted that the precedence of the Covenants with Adam and Noah to those of Abraham and Moses, teaches us that we are first human beings and then Jewish.
This is not just a lesson, but I believe a fundamental principle – God’s connection with us ultimately goes beyond the Torah – and our responsibility as humans sometimes limit the amount of rules that can be kept. First and foremost, a mother must protect their child, and if that’s not compatible with keeping the rules, I find it hard to imagine that the Torah would put itself before that.
But that’s only one part of the show. The other part is all very familiar and great to see – the reality TV depiction of the challenge so many millennial and other Orthodox Jews face, which is how to maintain the traditions whilst living and embracing a modern lifestyle. Ben and Batsheva show a great example of how they keep Shabbat and Kosher all while living at the height of fashion and with enormous social media influence.
Particularly here, we see from Ben, Bat, Shlomo and Aron their love of the tradition, which they speak about openly as well as their willingness to find a balance in modern orthodoxy. This is not an ‘escape’ story but a story of balance and moderation, which is not just a reality of life, but for many people a necessity for their mental health and wellbeing.
This primacy of humanity – the protection of a mother of her child, or of one’s mental health and wellbeing or happiness – before the detailed following of rules is actually not only just reality but an important lesson that we can take from this series. Orthodox Jews, like the rest of society are subject to the same burdens and challenges in life that impacts their mental health. But while for some people their observance may be positive for their mental health, there can also be a unique mental burden of a taxing religious code, particularly in the Hasidic or ultra orthodox groups. Bringing awareness to this need for balance, of the primacy of wellbeing over keeping every detail of the law is a Jewish value, that Orthodox Jews should rally behind. This is actually real ‘Ahavat Yisrael’ – love of your fellow, which is not a love of the law but of the person, and is the basis for the whole Torah.