I've been thinking a bit about all the back and forth regarding Wendy Shalit's criticism of the way Orthodox Jews are portrayed in modern fictional literature (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for relevant articles). Similar charges are made against bloggers who write about their (sometimes former) communities in less than flattering terms. This isn't at all surprising. No one likes having their flaws laid bare for the whole world to see. Especially not the frum world. Most definitely not the chareidi world. If it was up to them, all literature would be published by Artscroll and all news reporting would be done by the Yated.
Most of the arguments I've been hearing on the issue are about the supposedly distorted picture that is being painted in these stories. Many people feel that these characterizations do not accurately represent the societies and individuals that they're speaking about. Another point raised is to what degree authors of fiction have an obligation to authentically recreate their fictional settings.
But I think that the real problem that everyone is so upset about has nothing to do with how or even if these stories misrepresent what the frum world is like. Only someone who views the world in absolutist black and white terms would think that a novel's characters are wholly representative of the society that the story is set in. The real issue that's of so much concern is that to many frum people, even if it's acknowledged that the depictions aren't descriptive of the whole society, the very existence of these less-than-stellar figures and narratives are a problem.
After all, frum society loves to portray itself as so much better in every way than anything else that's out there. It perpetually presents its adherents as a content and fulfilled lot, wanting nothing more than to be left alone to follow God's laws, striving for goodness, righteousness, and the pursuit of virtue. Pettiness, dishonesty, selfishness, immorality, decadence, corruption and all the other moral failings that are part of the fabric of human society are concepts that the frum world would like to believe are absolutely foreign to their constituents.
I think it's that fact that Shalit and her advocates are so bothered by. Not about the distorted view of frum society these books supposedly convey. What bothers them to no end is when people share experiences and views which are contrary to the exaggerated claims of the amazingly inspiring, you'll-want-to-give-up-everything-and-join-us-right-away, frum fantasy pitch. They don't like it when frum people's hidden failings are uncovered. When frum people show less than a full commitment to halacha. When frum people behave corruptly. When a person strict about halacha behaves crassly. They don't like it when the cheerful and rose-colored image of frum life is debunked. When drugs, promiscuity, delinquency, mental illness, crime, abuse, and other social ills are revealed to exist. When a dark underbelly is exposed. The point isn't whether these things are common or not. It's whether they exist at all.
This is why they don't like books like The Outside World, The Sacrifice of Tamar, or Sotah. Movies like A Price Above Rubies or Trembling Before G-d. Blogs like Hasidic Rebel, A Hassid and a Heretic, Frummer and The Sheigetz. It's why no frum publisher had the guts to print a much needed book about spousal abuse. It's part of why Baruch Lanner got away with what he did for all those years. And it's why every unpleasant subject in the frum world is swept under the carpet until the problem is just too big to ignore.
Opponents of writers like Tova Mirvis and Naomi Ragen often accuse them of having an axe to grind, of pursuing an agenda. It may be true, it may not be true, but I think it's irrelevant to the point. The fact is that all of these authors, bloggers and social critics speak from a place of genuine experience. Whether that experience is representative of the whole community or not doesn't negate the fact that their feelings on these issues are just as valid and authentic as the feelings of one who has had mainly positive experiences.
No one's saying that all Orthodox Jews are deviants, crooks, and lowlifes. That all Orthodox communities are about superficial materialism and halachic one-upmanship. That Orthodox Judaism is full of hypocrisy and misogyny. But don't try to pretend that these things don't exist. Orthodoxy done right can be a wonderful, inspiring, fulfilling lifestyle. I truly believe that. But not everyone has a great Orthodox experience. Not every Orthodox person is so wonderful. And not every Orthodox experience is so inspiring.
Those of us who have had such experiences are entitled to share our view of Jewish life also. You don’t have to like it. But please don’t tell us that it’s any less authentic than the delusional fantasy that you think you’re living in.