Anatomy of a Smear

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by Avi Shafran, via Am Echad Resources

I don’t own a television and so have never seen an episode of the popular program “Grey’s Anatomy,” which has been described as a contemporary, R-rated soap opera set in a hospital.

I have, though, become somewhat familiar with a recent episode of the show – through the reactions it elicited from a good number of people – on ABC internet message boards, and in e-mails and phone calls to me.

The episode, according to all the descriptions, presents an aspect of Jewish law in an inaccurate way, and an Orthodox Jewish character in an unsavory one. As television goes, it would seem a textbook example of one of the medium’s many malignancies, its ability to propagate misinformation and misleading stereotypes.

The character in question is a newly observant 17-year-old girl who has a potentially fatal heart condition. Offered a lifesaving heart valve from a pig, she shuns it on religious grounds. That Jewish law in no way forbids such use of pig parts (only their consumption – and not even that when life is endangered) is not noted; quite the contrary, the viewer is led to believe that the girl’s refusal would be the natural stance of any observant Jew. The silliness of the scenario is only compounded by the casting of a woman as the Orthodox girl’s rabbi (and the episode’s “good guy,” of course).

As the episode’s writer, the aptly named Mimi Schmir, told the Forward: “Whenever there is a story that has a rabbi I never see a woman, I just see old men. I wanted to clash with the stereotype a bit.”

And clash she did, misleading viewers both about what Orthodox Jews believe and what their rabbis look like.

But the most egregious element of the fantasy is the character’s, well, character. The Orthodox youth is portrayed as, in the words of one viewer, “a crazy fundamentalist fanatical Jew [who] was rude and behaved horrendously to the doctors who were only trying to help her.” The character belittles her less-observant parents, cursing like a sailor in the process. Just your standard-fare nice, newly religious Jewish girl.

Now fiction, of course, is fiction. And writers of fiction – as several of them enunciated with umbrage earlier this year after Wendy Shalit took them to task in The New York Times Book Review for similar ugly stereotyping – are not bound by any rules of accuracy or courtesy.

Still and all, Orthodox Jews are not (I think) staples on television dramas. And so the manufacture of so rare a creature as a ba’alat teshuva, or “returnee to Jewish observance,” is laden with implications – and responsibilities. If the character is a positive one, or even a neutral one, no one, save perhaps an anti-Semite, would complain. But if he or she is consciously crafted to be obnoxious – and not merely obnoxious, but obnoxious in her dedication to her ostensible religious beliefs – does that not border on provocation?

It does in fact, and particularly so in times when so much ugliness and evil is perpetrated in the name of religion. Anyone familiar with Orthodox Judaism knows that it is characterized by a reverence for life (an ideal, after all, of Jewish law), a respect for parents (one, indeed, of the Ten Commandments) and a disdain for rudeness in act or word. Unfortunately, millions of viewers have no such familiarity.

And so what Ms. Schmir has provided them is an image, quite a colorful one, to go with the words “observant Jew” in their minds. And, for that matter, with the words “Jewish observance.”

Because, in reality, it is not only a Jewish demographic subset that the episode misrepresented and maligned, but the Jewish religious heritage itself – and, by extension, all Jews.

One message board poster, a self-identified Reform Jew, had it precisely right: “There really was no reason for this subject to be presented in such a negative light, and I am surprised that ABC would allow something that obviously has not been thoroughly researched to air. It’s just not right… and leads to more hatred and intolerance, which is so unnecessary in today’s day and age.”

Couldn’t have put it better myself.

Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America

(c) 2005 Am Echad Resources

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1 Response

  1. ralphie says:

    I blogged about this episode here and here. The character and storyline were pretty much preposterous, but I wouldn’t call it damaging.

    And I wouldn’t call the female rabbi character a hero, necessarily. She appears for about 10 seconds, in the operating room, in full scrubs including cap and mask. She contributes nothing to the issue of animal heart transplants and Jewish law – she just sings a couple of lines from the mishaberach for the sick just before the patient goes under. I would bet that 95% of viewers had no idea what was going on (this happened straight from a cut with no explanation or introduction) or that this masked person was supposed to be a rabbi.