OU’s Diament says no; I say yes
By Dvora Meyers
Originally published in Tablet Magazine, September 22, 2010
My post about the modern Orthodox contestant on America’s Next Top Model has generated a large number of comments, many critical of Esther Petrack’s decision to defer Sabbath observance in favor of participating in the show. Even Nathan Diament, Director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (the nation’s largest Orthodox umbrella organization), got in on the action, sending out several tweets of his own criticizing Tyra Banks for not accommodating Petrack’s religious schedule and Petrack for pledging to forgo “honoring the Sabbath” mere days before Yom Kippur. (In fairness to Petrack, it was probably filmed at least a few months ago; she may have renounced her observance a couple days before Tisha B’Av.)
In an email exchange, Diament expanded his opinion beyond 140 characters. Asked whether the television network The CW should have rearranged its shooting schedule so that Petrack would not be forced to violate the Sabbath, he cited legal protections that may or may not apply. “Federal and state law require employers to attempt to accommodate an employee’s religious needs,” he said, though he acknowledged that reality show contestants may not be considered employees, so “that might make this more of a ‘spirit of the law’ point.” It’s unclear what effort, if any, had been made to accommodate the Jewish calendar during the shoot. (One commenter who claimed a relationship with Petrack noted that she kept kosher throughout. If that’s true, then at least kosher food was provided.) Diament, admitting that he is unfamiliar with ANTM’s schedule, wondered “whether it requires every model to be available to shoot 24/7—or whether there are shifts that could be used to accommodate Ms. Petrack.” I agree, but that’s just because I don’t think modeling is essential enough to require the same kind of hours worked by, say, doctors.
As to whether modeling is even an appropriate pursuit for a Modern Orthodox woman (or whether it is proper for her to appear on a reality show), Diament, qualifying that he is not a religious authority and therefore could not offer a halachic opinion, conceded, “Fashion modeling obviously also presents issues with regard to Tzniut (modesty).” He felt it was an issue for the girl’s individual rabbi. I would think Petrack would be hard-pressed to find an Orthodox rabbinic authority who would say that posing in a barely there bikini with words scrawled all over her body does not violate the restrictions placed on women’s dress and outward appearance in halacha. (But I am also not a rabbi, or even a rabba!)
Finally, Diament observed that both Tyra and Esther missed opportunities to send messages to the viewing public. Banks, for example, has expressed the desire to democratize modeling through her show by inspiring tall and impossibly thin girls from all backgrounds to aspire to a career on the catwalk. “In that spirit alone, the producers should have tried to work out a scheduling accommodation for Ms. Petrack,” he said.
As for how he would’ve advised Esther to handle her interrogation in front of the judging panel, Diament addressed his remarks directly to the contestant. “Before you told Tyra Banks that you would ‘do it,’ that you would work/compete on Shabbat, you articulated before a national TV audience what Shabbat asks of an observant Jew. What a lesson and inspiration for Jews (and others) everywhere it would have been if in reply to Tyra you would have said: ‘I am committed to the Sabbath and to winning this competition and I want to do both.’ It’s not too late, I’d urge, to go back to Tyra and open that discussion again.”
While it certainly would’ve made for a compelling moment of television, I think it is a lot to ask of an 18-year-old. Also, it would’ve smacked of grandstanding if she had merely shown up to say “no” and make a point; and if that had been her plan, then she would’ve been depriving another young girl of the opportunity to appear on the program.
Besides, Esther is not the only one sacrificing something to be on the show. Two of the contestants have children at home, whom I’m sure they miss. Should they be permitted to bring them into the models’ house?
And forgive me for stating the obvious, but life is full of difficult choices. Having been raised observant, I understand Esther’s plight. There were gymnastics competitions I couldn’t enter due to Shabbat, and break-dancing battles I couldn’t attend because they were on Friday nights (that is, until I made an Esther-like pronouncement and decided to go anyway). Though I often hoped that it could be different, I never thought that everyone else’s schedules should be rearranged so that I could have my cake and eat it, too. No one was telling me I couldn’t be an observant Jew. I just learned at a younger age than most that I would sometimes be forced to choose between two mutually exclusive things that were of nearly equal import to me.
I am happy that Petrack didn’t demand that the halachic details of Orthodox Judaism be catered to. And who knows? Maybe she was able to observe much more than we are privy to see. Maybe her housemates turn the light switches on and off for her on Shabbat. And while I appreciate Diament’s position—insisting on the rights and expanding the options for Orthodox Jews and related organizations is literally his job—I don’t think anyone is being wronged in this instance. In the end, all you’ve got is one girl who had to struggle with an adult decision.