. . . Rabbi Shmuley on Dr. Phil - not so much.
Last Friday, succumbing to the J-blogosphere buzz, I watched Dr. Phil's interview of Pearl Perry Reich who is running a very ambitious and public campaign to gain custody of her children. Reich was on the show with her boyfriend, Shauly, and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (who had never before met Reich, and whose name Reich, tellingly, did not know). Unlike the Oprah Hasidic show, which I enjoyed despite myself, I found the Dr. Phil show more . . .well . . . disturbing. I chocked it up to the show is meant to be sensationalist, they elicited emotion, mission accomplished. Moving on. I wasn't going to write about it, except today I read Rabbi Fink's analysis, and saw that it is possible to write an articulate response to the show. So, I'll give it a shot.
First, I don't know very much about Reich's case, and the show didn't help. The interview was sidetracked (at times derailed) by Rabbi Boteach as well as some hyper-dramatizing from the producers. Of the three guests, I found Shauly was the most interesting and well spoken. (On this point, I have to respectfully disagree with Rabbi Fink. Shauly or Reich's language didn't strike me as extraordinarily "bad English" - at least as compared to the typical day show guest. Their syntax was more or less okay. Shauly's unfamiliar accent, though, suggests English is not his native language. Of note, since he was presumably raised in the U.S.). Shauly's focus was describing Reich's context - the specific community from which she emerged. He pointed to the community's isolation both from mainstream society, and its fundamentalist nature relative to the rest of the Jewish community. He provided descriptions of the community to illustrate. (i.e. he spoke about the effects of an impoverished secular education, the pressure to get married and have children early etc.). His points raised some questions that on a more nuanced show, would have been interesting to explore. Namely:
1. What are the distinguishing factors in what Boteach termed "normative" Orthodox Judaism (I'm assuming he was referring to Modern Orthodox) from what Shmuley termed fundamentalist Orthodox Judaism (and here I assume he meant Ultra-Orthodox)?
2. Is arranged marriage an accurate description for the shidduch system?
3. What is the social impact of the education system that individuals leaving fundamentalist societies have to overcome?
4. What bearing - if any - should a parent's change of religious observance have on custody rights?
Anyway, back to the show. Like Rabbi Fink, I was frustrated by Rabbi Boteach's complete refusal to accept the impact of Pearl Perry Reich's context - a fundamentalist sect within the Jewish community - on her situation. Boteach insisted that Reich's was an isolated incident. A marriage like any other gone awry. He was reluctant to acknowledge that such an thing - a Jewish fundamentalist - could even exist. I'm not sure why it would be so difficult to admit that we too have fundamentalists. Doesn't every major religion? Maybe Boteach was worried that in admitting we have fundamentalists he would besmirch the entire community? Maybe he was worried about "fundamentalist" sounding like a dirty word lest he offend the potential customers for Kosher Jesus? Maybe he's on to something there. I have a theory that fundamentalist forms of religions are closer to each other than they are to the respective religions they represent. Fundamentalist communities share a commitment to preserve the insularity of their communities (usually through resisting of secular influences and modernism), a highly disproportionate - by some accounts crippling - ratio of secular/religious education, stringent emphasis on delineating male/female roles, and - to varying degrees - a penchant for uniform, and often antiquated fashion. In labeling Jewish fundamentalists as such, perhaps Boteach worries that we are implying that they are more fundamentalist than they are Jewish?
Though it may not bode well for book sales, maybe it is possible to overdo Orthodox Judaism? In any case, denying that fundamentalism exists within the Jewish community does a disservice to both community as a whole, since this is not the kind of secret that's realistic to keep, and - more importantly - those trapped within fundamentalist sects. Just because people like Reich do not paint a glowing picture of the cloistered Jewish life, does not mean their experiences should be silenced or denied.