I will begin with a short quote from the Simpson’s episode “Like Father, Like Clown.”
Jewish Man: Rabbi, should I buy a Chrysler? Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky: Could you rephrase that as an ethical question? Jewish Man: Um... is it right to buy a Chrysler? Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky: Oh, yes. For great is the car with power steering and dyna-flow suspension.
I begin with this quote to express that I am not used to answering questions about whether something will be good for the Jews or not, nor do I feel particularly qualified to do so. I am more accustomed to answering questions about whether doing something fits in with halakha or Jewish ethics. That said, I will offer my thoughts on the question you asked, but only after I answer the question you didn’t ask.
You didn’t ask whether it is a good thing for the person him- or herself to take part in a reality TV show. Nevertheless, I feel this should be addressed first.
I confess that I do not generally watch reality TV, so I am speaking only from my impressions of what few examples I have seen and what I have heard from others. Reality TV tends to feed off of people’s voyeuristic impulses by seeing other people in “real situations” (I am sure they are quasi-scripted or controlled in some way) acting wildly or exposing their weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. Of course, I cannot say that this is true across the board, as I do not know, but I think it is true as a general rule. Therefore, I do not look favorably on anyone (Jew or Gentile) being on a reality TV show where they can be exploited, mocked or made to act immorally.
That said, I will respond to your question. Given that Jews will be on reality TV, can it be a good thing for us? Yes, maybe, but not in all cases. The person would need to act morally while on the show. If the person behaves immorally and earns the contempt of the viewers, I cannot see how this would help. On the other hand, if the person behaves morally, and earns the respect of, or at least the fondness of, the public, then that could be a good thing. It may create positive associations to Jewish people in the minds of his or her viewers/fans. Additionally, if this person really develops some level of fame or prominence, he or she could use the public attention he or she receives in a positive way, by calling attention to Jewish causes and developing the image of an upstanding Jewish celebrity.
The opposite could happen as well, however. If the person behaves immorally, this could backfire and solidify bad Jewish stereotypes in certain viewers. Also, since many stars of reality TV shows make public spectacles of themselves this could have a bad effect as well. The person’s behavior together with how the producers use said person’s character on the show will determine the public reaction.
Truthfully, Jews appearing on such shows will, most probably, have little or no effect one way or the other, unless the show highlights their Jewishness as it did in Shmuley Boteach’s Shalom in the Home, an example of a reality TV show that probably had a positive effect overall. On most shows, the person will simply be another contestant/actor and his or her religion will be of little relevance.
I am just guessing, of course, as my rabbinic training gives me no more power of prediction than anyone else. Only time will tell.
Just this past month (2-12), Oprah Winfrey conducted an interview of ultra-Orthodox, Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn. Oprah’s motivation for the interview was to demonstrate that, despite the surface-level differences of culture, dress, and even deeper differences of faith, human beings share most things in common. We care for our families, we seek to create meaning in what we do, we yearn to connect others, and we are grateful for the gifts of life that we have been given. Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?
It is true that the media has exposed some of the “dirty laundry” of parts of the Jewish community in the past. However, the media has also played a large role in doing exactly what Oprah set out to do: show the underlying commonalities between Jews and all people. Indeed, many movies and television programs have indeed humanized Jews, realistically portraying our positive qualities, our dreams, and our suffering.
It is critical for us to remember that at the end of the day, morality does not discriminate. There are good people who are Jews, Christians, Muslims, Atheists, rich, poor, black, white, brown, gay, straight, and so on. And we must also admit that there are bad people who are of every faith, culture, nation, socioeconomic status, and color. Being Jewish, and even being a religious Jew, does not guarantee that we will be perfect. It does not even guarantee that we will be good; the Rabbis point out that one can be a navalb’rshut ha-Torah, one can be rotten with the permission of the Torah (i.e., following the Torah to the letter of the law does not guarantee goodness).
We must be mindful to learn, teach, and apply our Torah values toward a spirit of goodness, of compassion, of understanding, and of brotherly love. We must genuinely internalize what Hillel taught when he contended that the whole of Torah boils down to one essential idea: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow” (B. Shabbat 31a). And, just as we hope for other nations, faiths and cultures to give us the benefit of the doubt and to be open to our Jewish values and traditions, so too must we extend such graciousness to others – not just on television, but everyday and everywhere.
Question: Do you think Jews appearing on reality television shows can be a good thing for the Jewish people? When so much press about religious Jews is negative, could this be a positive step?
Identifiably Jewish individuals have appeared on so-called "reality television" shows for many years; Jews and our stereotypes have appeared in the entertainment media as early as Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer", and probably before. I do not know if there is a specific example that you have in mind when you ask your question, and I am not a fan of too many reality shows. But I do not believe that the problem you may feel is merely because of the fact of Jews appearing on such shows.
As a disclaimer: I have appeared on a television game show, "The Dating Game", in the early 70's. I have also appeared on WE TV's "Platinum Weddings" as an officiant at a Jewish wedding, during the production of which the crew could not have been more polite and sensitive to the religious needs of the couple being married; and the finished show portrayed Judaism very positively. So I am certainly in favor of Jews, as well as all citizens, being able to partake of all of American society's benefits.) But I did find via the World Wide Web an example of what probably was not the most flattering moment for Jews on television.
Esther Petrack, the young Orthodox woman who purportedly offered to forego certain Sabbath observances in order to compete on "America's Next Top Model", made a big splash back in September of 2010; see a Huffington Post article at this URL: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/benyamin-cohen/the-drama-unfolds-when-mo_b_721449.html. After all, someone who presents herself as religiously observant and then disavows her religious customs is not the best role model. Naturally, everyone has the right to observe – or not – according to the dictates of his/her conscience, and it could be that this is where her mind was at that time. But to appear hypocritical on religious matters does not bode well for positive feelings toward any religion.
So the problem is not that the participants or contestants are identifiably Jewish; it's how any contestant comports him/herself in regard to their Judaism that could make the difference.
I know of at least one other Orthodox family in New Jersey who appeared prominently in a reality show on the subject of recycling in their home. In watching the program, I saw that the family's Jewish observances were highlighted in ways that demonstrated that religious observance is not inimical to ecological concerns. That was a very positive image. So I believe it really depends upon how Judaism is presented, and how the hosts treat it.
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