Monday, February 15, 2010

The Forbidden World of the Ultra-Orthodox

I recently watched an Israeli film entitled The Secrets. It is about a young woman named Naomi who is the daughter of a Rosh Yeshiva, a wise, learned and respected rabbi who is also the head of an academy of learning. Following the death of Naomi’s mother, Naomi asks her father to allow her to attend a Yeshiva for Orthodox girls in Tzefat, an ancient and mystical city in northern Israel. I found it to be a fascinating movie, very different from my expectations. Yet it is also filled with sense of frustration by its modern Israeli filmmakers about the closed, strict nature of the ultra-Orthodox world.
Jews and non-Jews alike have been fascinated by the nature of strict Jewish observance probably since the rise of modernity and evolution of liberal Jewish movements. In particular we have a number of films attempting to enter this ‘forbidden’ world. The Chosen based on Chaim Potok’s book by the same name is probably the most famous of these endeavors. Similarly, but from a more comic vein is The Frisco Kid, and there is also the more recent Israeli movie Ushpizin. All of which are very accepting of men in the ultra-Orthodox world.
However more related to The Secrets are movies like Price Above Rubies, Yentl, Hester Street, A Stranger Among Us, and even Fiddler on the Roof. Each of these portrays in some ways wish fulfillment and frustration at the closed and restrictive nature of the ultra-Orthodox world especially for women. Contained in these depictions are forbidden relationships, and failed attempts at equality.
The conflict seems to be that we want the vitality, exuberance, and faithfulness to Jewish tradition to be observed in the Orthodox world, we just want women to be free to make their own choices and not simply be consigned to the home front.
I was even asked recently in response to The Secrets if a woman could be a rabbi in the Orthodox world. The answer is: of course not. The world of the ultra-Orthodox will never be the world we want it to be. They have their societal structures based off generations of Jewish interpretation of tradition.
So maybe we are fascinated by these communities in part because we commend the ultra-Orthodox for living the way they live, knowing we could never live that way. Yet, we wish to change them to reflect our sensibilities as is reflective in so many of our movies and discussions.
Thus for those of us living in the modern world, it will most likely always be a little alien, a little foreign to our sensibilities. Yes it is demanding. Yes it is rigid. Yes it can also be beautiful and spiritual. But truth be told, our modern approach can also be beautiful and spiritual. One does not need to be Orthodox to spirituality and meaning in a Jewish environment.
We just have to remind ourselves that a closed society does not necessarily make it more ‘authentic.’ It just makes closed. Which is why it is nice to be able to visit from a distance, but when the lights come back on, I personally am thankful to be in a tradition that allows my daughter to choose any path she wishes, and not have it be a path she can only dream about.


Adar said...

I wonder what it would be like to live in a Jewish community that was both fully observant and fully respectful of all Jewish choices? Is such a thing even possible?

I'd add a film to your list. The same year as A Price Above Rubies, the movie Pi came out. It's not directly about the Haredi world, but a sizable part of the plot has to do with some Haredi characters. It offered another, rather sinister take on "frustration at the closed and restrictive nature of the ultra-Orthodox world."

I haven't seen The Secrets yet, but I look forward to checking it out.

Rabbi Ben Sharff said...

Thank you Adar. I have not yet seen Pi, but I will certainly add it to my que.