THE BLOG
09/21/2010 03:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Drama Unfolds When Modern Orthodox Jews Compete on Reality TV

The religious blogosphere has been all atwitter as of late over the news that a Modern Orthodox Jew gave up her orthodoxy to compete on the new season of America's Next Top Model.

When asked by host Tyra Banks if she would break the Sabbath in order to complete a modeling challenge, the contestant barely paused before responding, "I would do it." With those four simple words, she defiantly threw off the yoke of her faith in favor of reality show stardom. As if that wasn't enough, she then proceeded to undress and show off her size 30G breasts.

To show you what everyone is talking about, take a look at the clip below:

Reaction, to use a term of related parlance, was fierce. A blogger for Jewlicious.com said he cringed when he watched the video. A commenter on TabletMag.com called it a tragedy. Another commenter noted the odd timing -- the video was released during the High Holidays, a season steeped in repentance (although, to be fair, it is also the fall season of new television shows).

This is not the first time Tyra was schooled in the quirky traditions of Jewish Orthodoxy. On her daytime talk in an episode dealing with menstrual cramps, a Chassidic woman informed the audience about the Jewish laws of marital purity whereby the husband and wife don't hug, kiss, or sleep in the same beds while she's having her period. Enjoy this classic clip:

But back to the issue at hand: By its very definition, a Modern Orthodox Jew (a group in which I reside) is someone who follows the dictum of Torah Umadda, the notion that both a secular and religious life can coexist. And so it's not surprising that Modern Orthodox Jews, more so than other denominations of American Jewry, are no strangers to reality television. One rarely sees a Chassidic Jew on reality TV, and it would be hard to discern a Reform or Conservative Jew, who, unlike the Modern Orthodox male who wears a skullcap, have no outwardly defining characteristics, from anyone else. (But our hats go off to non-Orthodox members of the tribe like Adam Lambert and Elliot Yamin, who both fared well on American Idol.)

(It should be noted that the term "Modern Orthodox" is a misnomer. Other brands of Orthodox Judaism are modern -- in the sense that they drive cars and live in the year 2010. In my opinion, it's not the best name, and a serious rebranding/renaming effort wouldn't be such a bad idea. But, alas, that's a topic for another article.)

Modern Orthodox Jews on reality television shows don't have the best track record. Daniel Brody and Lee Bienstock (both dubbed "The Orthoprentice") got fired on The Apprentice (although Bienstock ended up in the final two and eventually got hired by Donald Trump after the show finished taping). Dave Warshaw, a Modern Orthodox Jew from New York, became famous, but for all the wrong reasons. When he fell and smashed his head on the stage at his audition on So You Think You Can Dance, he became an Internet sensation when the video clip went viral.

This track record didn't seem to stop another Modern Orthodox Jew from participating in a recent reality show. Miami podiatrist and skullcap-wearing Andrew Gordon shacked up in the Big Brother house this summer without compromising his religious ideals. Nicknamed Captain Kosher by the other roommates, Andrew was very public and upfront about the restrictions an Orthodox life would have on him as a contestant. He couldn't participate in challenges on the Sabbath and even skipped an important house meeting that coincided with the somber fast day of Tisha B'av so that he could pray in his bedroom:

It's not just Jews, either; outwardly religious people of other faiths have staked a claim on reality TV. For example, several Mormons have done well on American Idol. (Brooke White and David Archuleta were both on the same season.) And a new TLC reality show features a polygamous Mormon family on the hunt for a fourth wife:

Esther Petrack, the America's Next Top Model contestant, at first chose to take pride in her Jewishness, telling Tyra she was from Jerusalem and taking the time to explain her beliefs. But once she realized that the rigors of the show would conflict with her Sabbath observance, Esther opted to switch gears and take pride in something else that made her unique: Her comedically enormous breasts.

This immediate about-face -- a proud Modern Orthodox Jew one moment and sashaying in a bikini and heels on national TV the next -- was a sad commentary. After all, the contestant is named after the biblical Queen Esther. That historical figure also competed in a beauty pageant, and even hid the fact that she was Jewish. But, when the chips were down and the time called for a hero, Queen Esther used the opportunity to reveal her faith and saved the Jewish people from imminent annihilation. It's her self-sacrifice that we celebrate each year on the festival of Purim.

Look, nobody is saying that being a Modern Orthodox Jew is easy. I'd be the last person to argue that wearing a skullcap all the time, only eating kosher, and not using electricity on Saturdays is easy. It's not.

But let's also be realistic here: I've often wished that I could be a contestant on The Amazing Race, but the bug-eating competitions (not kosher) and the flying on Saturdays (also not kosher) would put me in last place. (Although plenty of non-observant Jews have appeared on that show.)

Esther knew beforehand that competing on the show would conflict with the strict Sabbath rules she had been keeping until that point. And she decided that competing on the show, and the potential of a high-end modeling career, were more important. To be honest, she likely made that decision before the cameras started rolling. But the producers edited it in such a way that she appeared to be, as many grandparents would say, "finishing Hitler's work."

So, should the Modern Orthodox blogosphere be upset with Esther? Well, yes and no. She clearly left her Jewish beliefs at the door, but at the same time she also certainly gave it more than just a cursory thought. There was certainly inner turmoil, name-calling, and family backlash -- the perfect recipe for reality TV drama.

Benyamin Cohen is the author of My Jesus Year: A Rabbi's Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith (HarperOne).