TV and the Orthodox Jew

Recently, an episode of ABC's hospital show "Grey's Anatomy" featured a character who is an Orthodox Jew. As I did not see the show the following analysis is based solely on what I have read about it, yet, again based on what I have read, I feel that there is a need to comment. Devo "Esther" Friedman, as the character is named, is a rude and self-righteous ba'ales teshuva, and portrays Orthodoxy in a very negative manner. This negative portrayal of Orthodoxy is further intensified by behaviour, supposedly justified by her new religious fervor, which is, in fact, contrary to Orthodox practice and belief. Foremost is her rejection of a necessary heart operation because it would involve the use of a valve derived from a pig’s body. In the first case, there is no prohibition in the use of a pig in this manner; the prohibition specifically relates to consumption of food. In the second case, the command to maintain life would override such a prohibition even if there was one. This is more than just an oversight or a mistake. The fact is that this portrayal of Orthodoxy actually reflects many concerns that need to be addressed.

While my first reaction was, and I believe the first reaction of any Orthodox Jew would be, to attack the show for this portrayal, in retrospect I have to accept the sad lesson that is part of this mistaken portrayal. There are, unfortunately, many individuals within Orthodoxy that reflect the personality traits of this character. Many who embrace Orthodoxy do present themselves as self-righteous and, again unfortunately, we in the Orthodox community do not do enough to correct such behaviour. Our concern for encouraging individuals to return to the traditional, halachic roots of Orthodoxy often results in allowing certain behaviours to slide and in a reluctance to give mussar, rebuke an individual for incorrect behaviour, especially if this incorrect behaviour or attitude is deemed to be somewhat supportive of the general religious movement. Bluntly, when someone starts keeping Shabbat, we become hesitant to say anything negative to this person lest he/she stop keeping Shabbat. This results in the development of individuals such as this character. It is a sad truth that we must face; the writer of this show, most likely, developed the character of Devo "Esther" based upon an encounter with a real individual who demonstrated these character traits. It is not solely a problem in the world of the ba'alei teshuva. Perhaps for divergent reasons and as a result of different dynamics, the problems of haughty ignorance and unforgivable arrogance can also be found within the world of those born frum. It is not only unacceptable; it must be fortified as unacceptable. We must accept this challenge.

In a similar vein, oftentimes individuals returning to Torah also think that they know more than they actually do. We can critique the show for portraying this character as being upset about a valve derived from a pig -- after all anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of Jewish Law knows that this is not problematic. Yet, how often do we hear ba'alei teshuva make ridiculous statements -- perhaps ones that are not so obvious -- and let it go. We can smirk at the lack of knowledge of the writer in developing this plot around an issue that is non-halachic in the first place. But what if the writer knew that this issue was really a non-issue? In the process of encouraging individuals to be more observant, we, oftentimes, wish to impart a sense of confidence in their decision. This confidence can turn to arrogance. More significantly, this confidence can be contradictory to the necessary sense of humility that one must have in the face of the corpus of Torah knowledge. Sadly, the very process of kiruv can lead to non-Torah results. See Kiruv: A Paradox of Hashkafa. I am often amazed at how many individuals, perhaps observant for a couple of years with little or no formal Torah study, show little or no respect in a conversation they may have with a rabbi on a Torah topic. There is a problem in the response of many people to the purveyors of Torah knowledge. There is also a problem with respect for others, in general. How often do we see individuals, with little previous Jewish involvement, on the path of observance totally disregard a statement by one who may not be observant yet has been involved with the Jewish community for years? Of course, this latter individual may also be greatly mistaken in his/her understanding of Torah -- but the humble individual truly desirous of growth and learning at least listens, The fact is that the portrayal of Devo "Esther" Friedman should bother us but part of what should bother us is that people actually have encountered Orthodox Jews like this character and, although a group should never be judged by the actions of one individual, it is time we recognized that there are problems within Orthodoxy that we must address.

Yet, having written all this, I still find the portrayal offensive on the most basic level -- it is insulting to Orthodoxy. At least, the show should have had another Orthodox character to balance the negativity. Even as we state that there is a problem of arrogance and self-righteousness within the Orthodox world, it must be recognized that this is a problem that is found within humanity in general -- although we do expect more from those committed to Torah. Yet, the reality is that there are many Orthodox Jews, both baalei teshuva and frum from birth, who are respectful and upstanding individuals. The character of Devo "Esther", as the sole Orthodox character on the show, becomes a stereotype of everyone who is Orthodox and that is unfair and degrading. Through this individual character, a whole group is attacked; is that not bias, and perhaps worse?

It is not enough, however, to simply mark this insult. It is important to understand from where this insult emerges. Many within Orthodoxy would like to say that it reflects an inherent hatred, within many Jews, directed against a true Orthodox piety. That is too simplistic and too self-serving. As indicated above, part of this negativity towards Orthodoxy is a result of, sadly, the negative behaviour of individuals who define themselves as Orthodox. Yet, there are some indications within the show (from what I have heard) that further indicate that much of what is being presented is part of greater general issues within the overall Jewish community. There is a on-going battle between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox and, within this battle, critiques of Orthodoxy, oftentimes unfair, are voiced by non-Orthodox entities in the attempt to discredit Orthodoxy. Many of the issues found within this show reflect these critiques, promoting the non-Orthodox view without consideration of the Orthodox perspective. The show may -- perhaps unknowingly, but perhaps knowingly-- have had a political agenda within the dynamics of the Jewish community.

The show used a female rabbi as a consultant. Since there are no female rabbis within Orthodoxy, this person could not have been Orthodox. Why would a show use a non-Orthodox rabbi as a consultant on Orthodox Judaism? If one was doing a show with a dominant Roman Catholic character, would a Mormon minister be brought in as a consultant? Maybe the producers of the show do not know any better. In general, the world perceives Judaism and Jewishness to be monolithic, unaware of the vast theological differences within the branches of what we term Judaism. The greater question is: why did this writer use a female, non-Orthodox rabbi as a consultant and even introduce a female rabbi as a character in the show? We could again answer that perhaps she also is unaware of the theological distinctions within Judaism and also has this mistaken, monolithic vision of Judaism. We can then question: why did this female rabbi allow herself to be the consultant knowing full well that she was not Orthodox? I doubt that we can argue that she also only has a mistaken, monolithic vision. One possibility is that, by keeping quiet, she was able to meet her own agenda of promoting her view of Judaism and attacking a view to which she does not prescribe, namely Orthodoxy. But there is a greater issue -- there is a directed desire to maintain the mistaken, monolithic vision and this show attempted to further this agenda.

Reform and Conservative elements attempt to maintain the single term, Judaism, as a description of the Jewish religion. In that manner, they can simply define their clergy as rabbis within Judaism, on par with Orthodox rabbis. Simply, thereby, all the rabbis become equal rabbis of Judaism. Orthodox elements attempt to challenge this assertion by declaring Reform and Conservative Judaism not Judaism. This response actually furthers the problem for thereby they are also trying to give a monolithic definition to Judaism, albeit solely Orthodox Judaism. The problem is that Judaism is but a term within the English language yet somehow we have tied a value of authenticity into this term. By maintaining a perception of a monolithic Judaism, the Reform and Conservative are able to present themselves as part of this monolith and thus equal partners with the Orthodox in generic Judaism. The fact is that Reform Judaism is Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism is Conservative Judaism and Orthodox Judaism is Orthodox Judaism -- each with their own unique theological base. See Adjective and Non-Adjective Jew. As such, Reform rabbis should be seen as the clergy of Reform Judaism, distinct and apart from Orthodox Judaism. Similarly Orthodox rabbis should be seen as the clergy of Orthodox Judaism, distinct and apart from Reform Judaism. The argument of the Orthodox should not be that Reform and Conservative Judaism are not Judaism. That argument is seen as insulting and, furthermore, it falls on deaf ears. If they are not Judaism, what are they? Of course they are not Orthodox Judaism, but that is precisely the point -- and the weakness of the argument. The Reform and Conservative simply respond that declaring them not Judaism is a further example of Orthodox elitism and intolerance. The proper response is that Judaism is simply a term, as broad a term as the term Christianity. Orthodoxy does not recognize Reform clergy as having the same standing as Orthodox clergy in the same way that Roman Catholicism would not recognize Protestant ministers as Catholic priests. Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism have distinct faith axioms and principles. They are not just different; they are fundamentally different. It is time that Jews started to recognize the major theological distinctions within the faiths that call themselves branches of Judaism. The fact that I find it unacceptable for a non-Orthodox rabbi (the fact that she was a woman is ultimately irrelevant) to be the consultant for this show is not because I am elitist. I would think it just as inappropriate to have an Orthodox rabbi be a consultant on a show that featured a Reform Jewish character, especially one who was, not simply non-observant but, a true adherent to the faith structure of Reform Judaism. Orthodox Judaism and Reform Judaism are distinct faiths -- it is time we recognized this. There are reasons why the branches do not want to state this fact. They all feel that it may weaken their acceptance within the general Jewish communal world as most Jews abide by this monolithic vision. This view however maintains falsehood and misperceptions such as emerge in "Grey's Anatomy". Calling Reform Judaism by this term does not mean I am saying anything about the truth of this faith. It is simply a term and using a term appropriately to clearly distinguish this system and reflect its true meaning furthers the advancement of knowledge and truth. The subtle message of this show was to maintain the monolithic vision, thereby not confronting the theological issues behind the branches of Judaism and subtly pushing a message of generic Judaism that is simply not true.

Another example of a hidden agenda emerges in the show's depiction of a conflict between a child and her parents over her acceptance of Orthodoxy. This is a matter that many non-Orthodox individuals highlight and use to belittle the movement of individuals towards Orthodoxy. Invariably, the adoption of Orthodox rules may cause some disruption in a family. For example, children who wish to keep kosher will have to confront their parents about the non-kosher kitchen and, no doubt, there is a possibility of friction. On both sides, sensitivity, tact and respect are needed; unfortunately, on both sides, they are often not forthcoming. Unfortunately, especially in recognition of the mitzvah of honouring and respecting parents, clashes between children becoming observant and their parents can be used by the non-Orthodox to attack the movement to Orthodoxy as promoting family discord and disrespect to parents. In this manner, the non-Orthodox are able to use one of Orthodoxy's basic values against Orthodoxy. This charge is not without merit. There are those who use Orthodoxy as a method of rebellion and do use Halacha to defend disrespect. There are, sadly, also Orthodox rabbis and professionals who, in fostering observance, have no consideration for parents and family, dismissing them as non-observant and thus irrelevant. There is a need to attempt to maintain respect and family harmony, and those moving towards Orthodoxy have to be sensitive to this value as well. Yet, having said all this, we must also recognize that even with the best of intentions, discord does often emerge and commitment to a value system does sometimes demand one to take a stand and fight for what one believes. Emet, truth, and Rachamim, mercy, are often contradictory. There are times we bend the truth to maintain peace and there are times we defend the truth even at the expense of peace. One cannot eat non-kosher food in order to maintain family harmony. If parents demand of their child to travel by car on Shabbat in order to attend some family event and the child respectfully refuses, yet thereby creates an argument with the parents -- so be it. There are values beyond family harmony. There are times that the non-Orthodox will point to how someone's movement to Orthodoxy tore apart a family, even broke up a marriage. And such a presentation, just as in this TV show, will powerfully present a message of a value -- the values of family harmony, parental respect -- derailed. Ultimately, we must accept that the answer is that indeed this is what sometimes occur, but it is in the pursuit of a greater value. It is this greater value that we pursue. Sometimes the reality is not black or white but grey and our goal must be the better shade of grey.

We, of course, must be vigilant in our defense of Orthodoxy and thus we must monitor the portrayal of Orthodox individuals in the media and assure that Orthodoxy is presented in the most positive light. Yet when this does not occur, it is too simple to blame the other, especially to blame the other in the broadest of terms. We must recognize any lesson of mussar that may emerge from such a presentation. We must also go beyond the simple response to see the many layers of intent that may be found within a negative portrayal. We must be specific in our critiques. And we must learn to distinguish the true challenges and attacks and respond appropriately.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

2005 NISHMA