Will America's Next Top Model Be Modern Orthodox?
There has been a lot of talk lately in the Jewish community about a particular contestant on the CW’s reality hit America’s Next Top Model (ANTM). Esther Petrack, an 18-year-old, self-identified Modern Orthodox Jew, is an aspiring model on the show. When asked by Tyra Banks, the show’s host, whether or not she observed Shabbat, Esther said yes and proceeded to explain all that that entailed. But Tyra fired back that contestants on ANTM work on every day of the week. Would Esther be prepared to break the Sabbath in pursuit of her modeling dreams? “Yes, I would do it,” Esther replied.
I am not an avid viewer of ANTM, nor do I personally approve of the explicitly provocative nature that so many magazines, ads, and television shows in our society have embraced. Even so, my inclination is that we should give Esther Petrack the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps we can infer from our own experiences as Jews in the modern world, that halakhic observance—at any level—is an on-going effort, a never-ending reexamination of our priorities in life. Perhaps we should consider that what was depicted as Esther’s split-second decision to abandon Jewish tradition was, in reality, reflective of her own enduring inner struggle. Instead of arguing whether we should commend or condemn Esther for the path she has purportedly chosen, shouldn’t we remind ourselves that ha-derech “the path” itself is complicated and full of both good and bad decisions? We are expected to make mistakes, and we are also expected to learn from them. After all, the Israelites were forced to wander in the desert for 40 years; God told Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai to get back in his cave; and every year, we repent for our sins, ask God for forgiveness, and pledge to change.
And while I doubt that rabbis will ever find a loophole that allows fashion models to work on Shabbat, Judaism is undoubtedly a religion of innovation and change. For example, rabbinic sources describe how to construct eruvim, enclosures around communities that allow observant Jews to carry objects outside of their technical homes on Shabbat, an action otherwise forbidden. However, as Jews began living in less concentrated communities, innovations were necessary in order to keep Shabbat. Today, eruvim often include modern telephone poles strung together with string or wire to create symbolic “doorposts.” Similarly, in the years following World War II in America, as Jews moved into the suburbs and away from synagogues within walking distance, synagogue attendance declined. In an effort to reverse this trend, the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards ruled in 1950 that Jews who did not live within walking distance of a synagogue were permitted to use a motor vehicle in order to travel to Shabbat services.
It is unlikely that our own inner debates, adaptations and innovations will ever be broadcasted on national television (or edited into an oversimplified, 10-second sound bite), as Esther’s were. However, instead of passing judgment on her, I hope that her case will inspire Jews to reexamine the role of modernity and tradition in their own lives and to come closer to the balance that is most meaningful to them.