No Guarantees (on the Esther Petrack Incident)

A small firestorm has erupted in our circles regarding one Esther Petrack, a girl from an MO background who declared on live TV that she would cease observing Shabbat to become a top-tier model. Some have even said this is a blow to MO – decisive proof, if you will that our methods don’t work to keep our members frum. “See!”, cry the naysayers, “Go MO and you get Esther Petracks. Go (whatever version of black hat strikes your fancy) and you’ll get good frum Jews”.

I say – BS. This incident is proof of nothing whatsoever. We all possess free choice; indeed it is one of the fundamental postulates of Judaism. That choice includes the ability to sin and do wrong. If that possibility didn’t exist, then the very concepts of reward and punishment or even the covenant between God and Israel would be meaningless, since they were done be’ones (i.e. forced).

There are no guarantees or fool-proof methods that can ensure that Jews will remain religious; our own sources prove the opposite. We worshipped the Golden Calf a mere 40 days after the greatest event of Divine Revelation in our history. In the time of the first Beit Mikdash, we worshipped idols alongside God, something attested to in both scripture and archaeology.

Even in the mythical “Golden Age” between the destruction of the second Temple and the onset of modernity, there were plenty of Jews who committed major acts of wrongdoing. In some cases, these were acts of principle – willingly converting to Christianity or Islam or becoming a Karaite, a Sabbatean or a Frankist. In others, they were simply done from te’avon – illicit affairs, for instance. Esther Petrack’s public abandonment of Orthodoxy is no more “proof” that MO is wrong than the above described events are “proof” that our forebearers’ methods were a failure.

The idea that there are methods that are “fool-proof” in terms of maintaining religiosity is a chimera that we must stop chasing. The time has come to stop bashing one another because we don’t answer to a concept that is entirely unachievable. We are all only human – we can only do the best we can to impart our values and worldview to the next generation in the most positive way possible. What they do with this is unfortunately out of our hands.

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About AIWAC

Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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7 Responses to No Guarantees (on the Esther Petrack Incident)

  1. fred says:

    some holes here.
    1. nobody says there are guarantees. what they may say is that mo, by which i am pretty sure they mean orthoodox lite, doesnt work. there may be some truth to this.
    2. jews, both traditional and otherwise, have sought to explain why people go otd: a standard historiographical question is why did the jews of ashkenaz so often choose martyrdom while the jews of sefarad converted. one answer is that ashkenazim were simply more isolated and less a part of the surrounding culture than sefaradim were.
    3. a 1500 year golden age? wow!

    • AIWAC says:

      Re:

      Point no. 1: I disagree. I know plenty of O-lite people who haven’t “crossed the line”. There are also plenty of Charedim who are outwardly frum and secular privately.

      Point no. 2: There were also many Ashkenazic Jews who converted to Christianity. The most infamous case was of course Rabbenu Gershom’s son. BTW, the Essenes and the Dead Seas Scrolls cult was also “isolated”. I don’t think anyone sees them as an example to emulate.

      Point no. 3: Smirk all you want, but many schools and members of our community perpetuate the myth that Jews between the Mishnaic period and modernity were perfectly frum and only forced to convert through persecution.

  2. fred says:

    there are plenty of o-lite who have not ‘crossed over’ and left the o community. but the o-lite community is less rigid about halakha and observance…
    i think more o-lite leave than hareidim, but this is just speculation on both of our parts.

    come on. of course there were willing ashkenazi converts. but their numbers pale in comparison to their sefaradic counterparts.
    and by isolation, of course i mean isolated within the tradition.
    i am finding your responses weak, which leads me to believe that you have a broad foregone conclusion that you are intent on defending. pure academics should reject this, and be open to solid criticism and be willing to change in face of same.

    point 3: in fact there is a very high retention rate for ashkenazim in your golden age. just as an example, afaik, the highest estimated rate for willing converts in the m.a. is lower than 15%. and this is the highest i can think of, at the end of the 13th century, when things were looking bad for jews of ashkenaz…
    furthermore, this was jews’ *self-perception.* the qehilla qedosha, etc.

    i look forward to reading your series!

  3. AIWAC says:

    –but the o-lite community is less rigid about halakha and observance–

    Of course they do, by definition. This does not, however, bear on the issue of retention rates, and in any event does not relate to the community I was refering to – MO (not O-lite).

    –come on. of course there were willing ashkenazi converts. but their numbers pale in comparison to their sefaradic counterparts. and by isolation, of course i mean isolated within the tradition.–

    Not just converts, but also deviants from Orthodoxy. Read the post again – conversion to another religion was only one of the issues I brought up. The number of Sabbateans was by no means “small”. The same goes for sinners.

    –i think more o-lite leave than hareidim, but this is just speculation on both of our parts.–

    Which was precisely the point of my post – it’s all useless speculation; there are no guarantees..

    –i am finding your responses weak, which leads me to believe that you have a broad foregone conclusion that you are intent on defending. pure academics should reject this, and be open to solid criticism and be willing to change in face of same. —

    I find your insinuations hurtful and unbecoming. I have no “broad conclusions” save that there are no “fool-proof methods” for retaining frumkeit. Just because I don’t always find others’ evidence to be convincing or compelling does NOT mean I am not willing to change positions when faced with evidence I find convincing to the contrary.

    While we’re on the subject…

    –point 3: in fact there is a very high retention rate for ashkenazim in your golden age. just as an example, afaik, the highest estimated rate for willing converts in the m.a. is lower than 15%. and this is the highest i can think of, at the end of the 13th century, when things were looking bad for jews of ashkenaz…
    furthermore, this was jews’ *self-perception.* the qehilla qedosha, etc.–

    Where’s your evidence for this? I’m not going to accept statistics without a footnote! I’m an academic, God damn it :)! Also, what about Ashkenazic Jews in Eastern Europe in the later part of the Middle Ages/Early Modern Period?

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, just that I’d like to see much more solid proof before I concede on this point. Remember, too, that we’re not just talking conversion rates but also deviation and sin rates.

    All the Best,

    Avi/AIWAC

  4. fred says:

    short answer: for sources on conversion see einbinder and references there. i hope to respond more fully anon.

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