NEW YORK – (VINnews/Rachel (Ruchie) Freier) – Chanukah Menorah flames are flickering, illuminating the darkness; metaphorically symbolizing the resilience, strength and spirit of the Jewish people. We celebrate not only triumph over the Seleucid Empire and its Hellenistic influence but the forces against Torah values of every generation. Our generation’s challenges are many including the attack of Torah values in the media. When asked for my opinion of the Netflix series My Unorthodox Life portraying Julia Haart’s break away from Orthodox Judaism, my opinion was based on watching the trailer and several YouTube clips. Upon the advice of colleagues, I watched the full series to make an informed judgment. Now with an upcoming second season, I share my thoughts.
It was appalling to watch the disintegration of Jewish family values and hear Haart declare her desire to influence others to follow her to “liberation”. Haart is not liberated, rather enslaved to a world of temporary physical glamour, glitz and pleasure in exchange for eternal spiritual religious faith and values. She is following the failed footsteps of the Misyavnim, the Jews who during the Maccabean Era (167-37 BCE) abandoned Judaism, embraced Hellenism, with a mission to mislead other religious Jews.
Julia misleads the audience unfamiliar with the diversity in Orthodox Judaism by alluding her roots to the insular sub-sect of Ultra Orthodox/Chassidic Jewry that I belong to. Aside from Julia’s struggle with anorexia and suicide, the details of which the public is not privy to, Julia’s narrative of growing up and raising a family in a “Fundamentalist Community” is an offensive sham of deception replete with contradictions, fallacies and heresy.
While my community gives me great pride, it would be disingenuous to say we are perfect. When issues that need to be corrected surface, I try to stand up for what is right. In the documentary film 93Queen, my role in creating Ezras Nashim, an all female volunteer ambulance service, to serve the needs of the women in Boro Park is accurately filmed in real time, not scripted as My Unorthodox Life. The audience is brought into my home and my struggles and challenges are documented by the talented Orthodox filmmaker Paula Eiselt.
While My Unorthodox Life is essentially a story of one woman and her very narrow perspective – Netflix paints a picture with broad strokes misrepresenting the diverse and vibrant Torah observant communities. In an age where being politically correct is the status quo, how is it acceptable to malign, insult, and disparage the Torah observant community? Core Judaic concepts of Shabbos, Kashrus and marital intimacy are distorted. King David describes this as a time to act (Psalms 119:126) A time to do for the Lord; they have made void Your Torah עֵת לַֽעֲשׂ֣וֹת לַֽה הֵ֜פֵ֗רוּ תּֽוֹרָתֶֽךָ.
Haart’s Heresy and Flawed Fundamentalism
Julia ridicules religious spirituality and persuades her children to pursue physical pleasure to explore the world. She finds the most intellectual resistance from her youngest son Aron who wants to focus on learning Torah. She negates traditionally sacred Torah observant life, claiming it is “Fundamentalism”. This is heresy –theories contrary to established religious beliefs — and is not a new phenomenon in Judaism. In the Mishna (the first writing of the Oral Torah, circa 200 CE) we find heresy mentioned in Tractate Yadayim. In the Gemara (Rabbinical commentary of the Mishna, circa 500 CE) from the first Tractate Brachos 12a, 28b, 29a, 34b until the last Tractate Nidah 33b, we find the Talmudists discrediting various forms of heresy.
Should Julia Haart’s heresy be ignored or challenged by Torah observant Jews? Rabbi Elazar Ben Arach (1st Century CE) says (Avos 2:19) ְדַע מַה שֶּׁתָּשִׁיב לְאֶפִּיקוֹרוֹס. One should know how to answer an apikores, a heretic. Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld at https://torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos-chapter2-19/ offers insight. He explains the origin of the word “apikores” as the Hebrew equivalent of Epicurus, the Ancient Greek philosopher (3rd-2nd Centuries BCE), founder of the Epicurean philosophy –“Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.”
Rosenfeld explains R. Elazar’s advice of knowing how to respond to the heretic is significant. “Although our gut reaction might be not to dignify the scoffer with a response … we are told to take his arguments quite seriously.” Rosenfeld further states we should never feel that in Judaism we are sacrificing this world for the next. Hedonists indulge their bodies until they burn out with such pleasures. Only we who understand our purpose in life, who sense our immortality can sense true happiness and fulfillment both in this world and in the next.
What is fundamentalism and does Jewish fundamentalism exist? The Merriam Webster dictionary defines fundamentalism as “a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching” — not orthodox Judaism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy published an essay on Maimonides (known as the Rambam 1138-1204) https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/maimonides/ The Rambam was the greatest Jewish philosopher of the Medieval Period and a leading rabbinic authority. The essay states: The Guide of the Perplexed, מורה הנבוכים (circa 1190) is the Rambam’s most extensive philosophic discussions where he states The biggest stumbling block to love of G-D is the belief that the only way to remain true to the Bible is to interpret it literally. The result of literal interpretation is a material conception of G-D, which, in Maimonides’ opinion, amounts to idolatry. See The Guide for the Perplexed Translated by M. Friedlander, PhD, (Dover Publications, May 2000, pg 211).
The concept of fundamentalism- the literal translation of the Bible and Scripture – does not exist among the multiple and diverse Torah observant communities. Since the Revelation at Sinai (Matan Torah) the Oral transmission from G-D to Moses is incorporated in the written Torah. Throughout Jewish history there have been fundamentalist movements based on various literal translations, such as, the Boethusians (Beysusim) and Sadducees (Tzadokim) (2nd Century BCE to the destruction of the Temple), who rejected the Oral Law (Torah Sh’Baal Peh) and the Maskilim, who translated Scripture (Tanach) rejecting commentary – all have failed the tests of time.
Uncompromising Ultra-Orthodox/Chassidic Values
Contrary to the outright lies by Julia and her children, the education most Ultra Orthodox/Chassidic girls receive is excellent. Many women are college educated and professionals. I am a graduate of the Bais Yaakov school system — the same school maligned by Julia and her daughters. Bais Yaakov provides strong religious and secular education preparing students for employment and higher education. I graduated high school at the age of 17, began working as a legal secretary and advanced to paralegal eventually earning my law degree.
A chance meeting with an expediter in Monroe led to opening my law office in Kiryas Joel, a Chassidic community in Upstate NY, known as a paradigm of charity. I specialized in real estate and frequently met with the Sullivan County tax collector who was Jewish and we often discussed Jewish philosophy. During one meeting, the noise in the hallway became disruptive and he proceeded to close the door. When I explained the Halachic rule of seclusion (Yichud) that the door cannot be locked when I am alone in the room with him, he paused and said, “Rachel, it is so easy to work with you – there is a thick black line between us and I know I will never cross that line.” Our rules of separation between the genders have not only been a safeguard for me, but a springboard for success in developing professional relationships.
After practicing law for a decade, my dream of becoming a judge came to fruition. When my uncle, the respected NYS Supreme Court Judge, Hon, David Schmidt ob”m retired, I ran for his original seat in Civil Court. While a judgeship was my dream, I never intended to run for public office – rather, hoped for an appointment. But that was not realistic nor would the political party leadership nominate me as their candidate, because they were told that a Chassidic woman can never win in Boro Park. The party nominated an Ultra Orthodox man but that did not deter me. With my supportive, well respected husband and children rallying behind me, my campaign for Civil Court judge began.
My campaign conformed to the standards of the Chassidic Boro Park Community; posters did not have my picture nor did I shake hands with men. The majority of Boro Park voted for me – I won! I am still as grateful to my community as I was at my induction, when I first adorned the black judicial robe, to assume the honorable title of NYS Civil Court Judge, for the opportunity to hold public office – to uphold the United States Constitution without compromising my Ultraorthodox/Chassidic values and traditions. In the spirit of Chanukah may we all find strength to stand proud of our faith and recognize that the strength of the Maccabbees is within each of us – let’s proclaim their rallying call against those who trample Torah values Mi LaHashem Elay מי לה’ אלי.
Rachel (Ruchie) Freier is a Civil Court Judge elected 2016 in the 5th Judicial District. She graduated from Touro College and Brooklyn Law School. She is a volunteer paramedic and the Director of Ezras Nashim Volunteer Ambulance Service. Ruchie, resides in Boro Park with her husband, children and grandchildren.