Monday, October 25, 2010

Can you be Orthodox and take off your clothes on TV?

The scandal of Petrackgate has been livening up the Jblogosphere for weeks. In brief:
Esther Petrack, an 18 year old Modern Orthdox girl from Boston applied and was accepted as a contestant on America’s Next Top Model. In her audition interview, shown on the show, she was (falsely, as it turned out) shown saying she would put aside Shabbat observance in order to compete. That caused a huge uproar. But even after the misleading editing which caused that impression was revealed, the Jblogosphere still chatters away about the whether she can be considered Orthodox or not, given her parading around in her underwear and other skimpy outfits.
Here’s my take: 
First, so you have some understanding of my perspective, I have no problem with mixed swimming or women wearing bikinis on the beach or at the pool. And men will look at and admire attractive, scantily-clad women. That’s just natural. We’re all human. But this is different.
I’ve never seen the show (except the clip of Esther shown on YouTube, linked to on many blogs). But a show that makes young girls, in their teens or barely out their teens, stand in skimpy clothing to be judged is demeaning and objectifies women. This is irrespective of Jewish communal or halachic expectations and irrespective of the religion or background of the participants. 
That being said, within the context of the show, I don’t feel that Esther is doing anything worse than the other girls. They’re all being misled into participating in a show that encourages voyeurism. She made a bad decision, but because it would be a bad decision for anyone, not just Jews. And also within that context, she is to be commended for at least holding onto her shmirat shabbat & kashrut.
But as to the show itself? It’s the gawking and voyeurism and objectification of ANY young girls on this show that I have a problem with, not just Esther.
I neither condemn or embrace Esther. I think shows like ANTM are idiotic and objectify women. And most reality shows are an utter waste of time, with their main appeal being voyeurism.  
That being said, I don’t judge her any more than any non-Jew who might be on the show. They’re all participating in nonsense. But that’s from my personal perspective, not from a Jewish perspective. I don’t think she did anything that particularly shames Orthodox Judaism.
A final thought; Which of these objectifies women more?  
1) A voyeuristic reality show that asks young girls barely out of their teens (if even that) to show off their bodies and flash their underwear to be “judged”  
2) A stream of thought in charedi Judaism that reduces 90% women’s religiosity to obsessing over what they wear, with schools inspecting the girls and judging them, and telling them that the men they are supposed to bear babies for and work to support in kollel see them all as sex objects.
Comments from old blog:
  1. Dov Kramer
    October 25, 2010 at 11:55 pm | #1
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    Putting aside the issue brought up by the title (the real question is not whether you can be OJ and model the way she is, but whether doing so is consistant with OJ values; she could be OJ without sticking 100% to OJ values), I’d like to comment on your “final thought.”
    1) You are comparing partaking in a venture that contributes to the objectification with making girls aware that this objectification takes place. If such objectification takes place, this is not contributing towards it, it is trying to minimize it.
    2) The message isn’t (or shouldn’t be; I’m not there when the message is delivered) that they are “seen as sex objects,” but that there is a danger that they could be. If objectification can take place when women dress modestly, how much more so if they didn’t; the goal is to help others see them for their real value and not be distracted if/when they notice a girl’s legs or neckline.
    3) Aside from “90%” being an obviously exaggerated number (I wouldn’t disagree if you complained that they are taught that their religious value depends upon the religious success of their husband and children rather than their own), It is not what they are taught that would make them “seen as sex objects.” The schools are merely communicating an issue that may or may not exist, not causing it.
    This “thought” seems more like a clever way to take a pot shot at the Chareidi community than raising an issue that could be addressed (and corrected).
  2. October 31, 2010 at 7:27 am | #2
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    back when i was a bt (as opposed to now in which i am totally and happily otd) i was told that an orthodox jew is defined by keeping kashrut, shabbat and holidays. and of course, for married women, keeping taharat hamishpacha. a woman dressing or not dressing according community standards (which differ greatly from one orthodox community to the next)has nothing to do with upholding the basic laws.
    you might want to mention also, that the forced humiliation suffered by many women (who are then denied the benefit of higher education and are spiritual and emotional slaves to the men leading these communities) at the mikvah is a whole lot worse than posing in a swimsuit.
  3. Dov Kramer
    October 31, 2010 at 9:24 pm | #3
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    I’m sorry to hear about the poor experience(s) you’ve had at a mikveh. My wife tells me that the mikveh in our town does a very good job, but that others are very uncomfortable. I myself, don’t go to the mikveh as much as I would otherwise go if the setup was more dignified, but the setup for men is, I understand, very different then for women.
    Can I ask what made the experience humiliating? I fully understand if you don’t want to share, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to understand what it was like, in case I can ever help make the experience better for others.
  4. Kaguya
    November 11, 2010 at 2:36 pm | #4
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    I think everything here is very eloquently stated. I really like this.
    The objectification of women on both ends is problematic. Not showing is not necessarily better. It is more about what value judgments are being upheld or addressed behind the messages (both verbal and not).
    On another note, I do remember that I was totally revolted by many billboards on major streets in LA. Without exaggeration, I felt like most of it was embarrassingly pornographic and I really didn’t like that. At the same time, I don’t appreciate being told that revealing any flesh at all (including my voice) is problematic because it “arouses” men. I find that the problem with this message is also that it tends to get metaphorically understood as well, causing women to keep quiet about their thoughts and to devalue themselves. No, I’m really not for that. I am not an auxiliary to my husband, and would never want to be. (I happened to know that he also would hate that. ;)
  5. robert
    November 18, 2010 at 8:54 pm | #5
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    “…a show that makes young girls, in their teens or barely out their teens, stand in skimpy clothing to be judged is demeaning and objectifies women.”
    I believe that your protestation of the show is a bit excessive. No one is forcing the girls to participate in the show, they are there voluntarily. Modelling is by its very nature a profession in which the model willfully turns themself into an object to display whatever it is they are modelling, be it clothes, undergarments, accessories or even their bodies. To force someone to do it would be demeaning; to willfully turn yourself into an object is a valid pursuit and career choice. Just ask any model, they will tell you there is nothing demeaning about it. Its like saying being a professional waiter is demeaning b/c you are forced to serve others.
    As a further point, I have never watched ANTM, but my understanding is that a major part of the show is dedicated to getting to know the contestants on a more personal level, thus obviating your charge of their being objectified.
  6. robert
    November 18, 2010 at 9:08 pm | #6
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    I agree with your critique of the obsession with tzniut in the more right wing circles. I believe that there are two foundations to the laws of tzniut:
    1. Men are pigs who are incapable of controlling themselves.
    2. women are sexual objects.
    I would prefer if there were no laws of tzniut, and adult women would be left to their own devices as to what constitutes proper dress. The notion that elbows and knees MUST be covered while the face can be uncovered, I find to be absurd.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Kohanim and the women they love

Over Yom Tov I was chatting with a kohen who’s an acquaintance of mine. He’s in his mid-50’s and single. He really wants to get married, but there are very few prospects for him. He’s not insistent on marrying a younger woman who can still have kids. He makes an OK living and is a nice guy, but wouldn’t be considered a top “catch” by most.
However, in his age bracket, so many of the women he’d normally be able to date are out of bounds to him because of his status as a kohen. So he can’t date anybody who’s divorced, which is a really tough thing, because he’d like a family and recognizes that he’s not likely to have any biological kids of his own. He’d love to be a stepdad to kids of any age, young or grown, and be able to have a real family sitting around the Shabbat or Yom Tov table. But because he can’t date divorced women, he sadly envisions a future of, at best, just him and a wife. Widows are in relatively short supply. And even among the never-married women, many of them are off-limits because they’ve had a physical relationship with someone non-Jewish in the past, usually before they became more religious.
And that brings up another issue, of course, that being the probing into the sexual history of any woman who might date a kohen. The discomfort of having to disclose things like that is huge. It also forever relegates women who are ba’alot tshuva to second tier status. The frum community makes assumptions about their sexual history and either doesn’t bother to set them up with kohanim or feels no qualms about asking them personal questions that they’d never dream of asking their “pure” FFB daughters. (Or of asking men, making the whole thing quite sexist.) But in this day and age, not all of those FFB girls are so “pure” either. Some have had sexual relationships with men who aren’t Jewish. It’s a silly thing to ask a 40 year old woman to be a virgin (that’s another whole post) and some of their sexual relationships may have been with gentiles.
A friend of mine dealt with this situation a few years ago. She grew up Jewishly unaffiliated and very naturally had a boyfriend in college with who she had a sexual relationship. She became Modern Orthodox in her early 20’s and got engaged at age 25 to a guy who was on the frummer end of Modern Orthdoxy and happened to be a kohen. She then had to undergo the humiliation of her case being discussed by a bunch of Baltimore rabbis who debated if she was permitted to her fiancée. They questioned her about the nature of her sexual relationship with her college boyfriend and whether they had always used a condom, which might have meant the sex wasn’t “real”, thus creating a heter for her to marry a kohen. In the end, even though one rabbi said it was OK, the other few said no, and he broke off the engagement and broke her heart.
The Torah is pretty clear:
אשה זנה וחללה לא יקחו ואשה גרושה מאישה לא יקחו כי-קדש הוא לאלהָיו.
“They shall not marry a woman who is a prostitute or who is desecrated, and they shall not marry a woman who is divorced from her husband for he [the kohen] is holy to his God.” (Judaica Press translation)
But in this day and age, when we’re not even sure that those who claim to be kohanim are kohanim, and when nobody’s bringing sacrifices in the Temple, isn’t there a legal workaround? I’m not a halachic expert on the issue. I do know that the Conservative Movement made a halachic ruling that a kohen may marry any Jewish woman based on this being a sh’at techak, an emergency situation, in which it’s preferable for kohanim to marry divorced women than to intermarry.
My personal advice to my acquaintance, above, was simply to date observant Conservative women who are divorced, and not to worry about the prohibition. Why should he be denied happiness? But I don’t think he’ll be taking the advice, as he takes the Torah’s prohibition very seriously.
But it seems to me that this archaic obsession with a woman’s purity is outdated and insulting.