Now that the public has seen some (or all) of Netflix’s new series, My Unorthodox Life, the people who know Julia Haart (Talia Hendler) are forward to clarify that this show is almost more fiction than it is true. This family, while in the blackhat world, was on the left wing side of it. Many of the claims of lack of freedoms simply were not true in the slice of Orthodoxy they existed in.
However, even if the issues mentioned in the show were not their issues, these issues do exist in some communities and some of the Torah sources raised in the show do need to be unpacked with nuance and depth. The show didn’t afford this at all, but rather laid out every challenging source and law out there in the first 5 minutes of episode one. So we have compiled a list of the major Jewish topics raised in the first few episodes which you can use as your own guide or send it to your neighbor, co-worker, relative or teenager.
- Sex is taboo: In Judaism sex is considered private but it is also the holiest thing a husband and wife can do. A man is required to give his wife pleasure according to the kesubah (the Jewish marriage document). This is called “onah” and this is considered a mitzvah in the Torah. That being said, some communities have taken the privacy that sex is meant to have and turned it into taboo and that is truly a problem. In some places, brides and groom don’t learn about pleasure or the fact that Jewish law requires consent. When sex is taught badly it destroys marriages and entire families. This is one of the issues we are working on in our Tikun branch.
- Yeshivish/heimishe community is all fundamentalists. This is a low blow. There are of course fundamentalists in the community. The moderates need to make sure they don’t have power. When fundamentalists aren’t stood up to and pushed out of the way, they hurt people. This is another issue we are taking on at Tikun.
- Women are second class citizens: When Orthodoxy is practiced in a healthy way, it can save women from the unhealthy dynamic found in the secular world of objectification and hyper-sexualization. When Orthodoxy is practiced in unhealthy ways, misogynists will find a way to take control and do damage.
- Girls can’t ride bikes or play sports: In the most rightwing and insular circles, boys and girls might not be allowed to ride bikes or play sports after a certain age, which is not a healthy approach at all. However, Miriam making this claim is an utter lie as she can be seen here as a sports hero in 2015. Riding bikes not only is normal and accepted in large parts of the Orthodox Jewish world, numerous charities, like this one, have hundreds and hundreds of people ride bikes to raise money each year.
- Women can’t sing in front of men: The mitzvah of Kol Isha is one of the most difficult to understand. At the same time, there are more avenues these days and women are discovering ways to use their talents within these laws.
- Women’s role is to be covered from head to toe and not attract attention: In some communities, modesty is elevated to be THE most important mitzvah for a woman. Julia Haart apparently always dressed to the nines, was an emblem of fashion in her community, and gave public Torah classes to large crowds. In places where women are reduced to simply disappearing, this is an incorrect approach and needs to change. Self-actualized modesty, however, actually brings about equality.
- Girls who don’t dress modestly will spend eternity in hell having their clothes dipped in acid: I heard boiling water, not acid, but both versions are sick. This is not actual Judaism, but sick, controlling and fear based education is still happening in some places and lives are being broken as long as it persists. This is an issue we’re taking on at Tikun.
- Thank you god for not making me a woman: Read this important response to this challenging prayer.
- Women’s role is to follow her husband: Read this important response about an often misunderstood text.
- Women must be baby-making machines: Birth control has a place in Jewish law, including for when there are emotional needs. But not every couple has access to this information nor is every rabbi trained or compassionate enough to know when to hear someone needs it. When these issues are ignored, you end up with dysfunctional families and unwanted children. This is an issue we’re dealing with at Tikun.
- A husband can divorce his wife for burning his food, but she can’t divorce him if she’s being beaten: Read this important response.
- They received no education, learned no history or grammar: This is also an utter lie. Even most blackhat girls schools have decent secular education. In terms of higher education, Israel is more extreme than the US and even there, college is getting more and more accepted. In more right wing schools boys’ schools, there is more of a chance the secular education will be subpar, which is problem. But the ex-husband went to Wharton and the children were at left wing yeshivish and modern Orthodox schools, so this does not seem to be the case with this family.
- There are no gay people in the ultra-orthodox world: This is obviously not true, and while the desires are not a problem, according to Torah law, the acts (especially for men) are. However – we are not supposed to micromanage each other’s Judaism. The great Rabbi Yisrael Salanter explained that, “we all ought to be worried about our own souls and other people’s bellies.” We are supposed to “love our neighbor as we love ourself.” This is probably the biggest modern challenge in Orthodoxy. The modern and centrist Orthodox worlds are making more headway in creating non-judgmental and inclusive spaces for all Jews. The rest of the community will have to follow.
My way or the highway:
Some people (including Orthodox Jews) have this approach to life. As I mentioned in my other article,
lack of secure attachment is the main underlying theme we see at Makom
– our branch for ex-charedi Jews – for why they leave. If Julia grew up believing that she was only loved conditionally, this could be a big factor in her being adrift.
- Can’t be part of outside world: There are certainly insular families out there and people who want more access to the world than their life/family allows. The ex-husband graduated from Wharton (the business school of U Penn), the daughter Miriam went to modern Orthodox high school and while she was there she built homes for non-Jewish families who were hurt in Hurricane Katrina. These are people who were very much integrated into the larger world.
- Wearing pants is shunned: Many Orthodox women don’t wear pants. Here are some reasons. Some Orthodox Jews are judgmental of people dressing differently than them. This is wrong. Here’s a piece of Torah explaining how to avoid this.
- Dressing immodestly is an emblem individuality: Being forced to do anything is awful. No adult should ever be forced to do anything outside of follow the law. Modesty allows plenty of room for self-expression.
- Girls cause men to sin, men can’t control themselves: Modesty is meant to be a partnership where men are careful with their eyes and women are careful in how they dress. People in some communities reduce men to helpless sinners who expect women to carry all of the burden. This issue wrong. It is meant to be a partnership.
- Pressure to get married: According to Jewish law, the couple has to consent to the marriage. Of course this is not the case in the most unhealthy families.
- Masturbation: An explanation on the Jewish perspective on males not masturbating.
- Shomer negiah/not touching before marriage: A reason for this mitzvah.
- Women can’t learn Torah/read Jewish books: In previous generations, there were less literate Jews (men and women) and then in the 1800’s a woman named Sarah Schnirer started the Beis Yakov movement to create Jewish schools for Jewish women using Jewish texts. She was a powerhouse and started a revolution. Nowadays, all Jewish women learn Jewish texts but the more modern communities like where I’m from (and mind you, I wear a wig) the girls and women learn everything including Talmud). More to the right, they learn Torah and less Talmud and all the way to the right, and most insular circles, they learn the least but still learn Torah. Julia herself was quite an accomplished Torah teacher.