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“Unorthodox” and the Modern Myth of Origins

May 26, 2020


Unorthodox, a mini-series that debuted on Netflix a few weeks ago, is the story of a young woman who escapes from her oppressive Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and finds freedom with a group of welcoming friends in Berlin. I offer this description with tongue pretty firmly in cheek, because, though it represents a fairly accurate summary of the narrative, it also hints at the oversimplification that makes this admittedly compelling and well-acted drama more than a little problematic.

The drama of Unorthodox centers around Esty (played by the astonishing Shira Haas, who deserves every acting award there is), a nineteen-year-old who has spent her entire life within a Hasidic enclave. Her education, her friendships, her marriage, her sense of self—all of it has been thoroughly shaped by the rigorous traditions of her religious community. Her marriage to a young man named Yanky proves to be unhappy, and when, at the promptings of his interfering mother, Yanky demands a divorce, Esty decides she has had enough. With the help of a Gentile friend, she slips the bonds of her society and makes her way to Berlin, where her mother, long estranged from the Hasidic world, has her residence. There, she falls in with a group of young, hip musicians who introduce her to a world of art, entertainment, and sexual liberty that she had never known. When Yanky and his cousin come to Berlin to fetch Esty and bring her home, the young woman resists and finds support in her circle of friends. At the close of the series, she walks through the Brandenburg gate, symbolically leaving her old life behind and ventures, smiling, into her newfound freedom.

Now, the makers of Unorthodox certainly intended this story to be a classic Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story, but I also suspect they meant it to be something more—namely, a retelling of the great modern myth of origins. Especially for those who appreciate modernity as the definitive breakthrough in the history of Western culture, the modern emerged after a long twilight struggle with tradition, especially in its religious expression. This took the form of the breakthrough of the physical sciences and the breakthrough of individual freedom against, in both cases, the supposed opposition of the religious establishment. Once you understand these dynamics, you will commence to hear this story told over and over again in both the high culture and the popular culture—in books, essays, articles, films, and television programs. It is as though we have to be continually reminded of the enemy that modernity faced down in its emergence and against which it still struggles.

What I find as a religious person is that this narrative, though constantly repeated, is tiresome and simplistic, and in fact does justice neither to religion nor the distinctive culture of modernity. And I should like to show this with the help of a commentator who was deeply sensitive to the qualities of both—namely, the twentieth-century Protestant thinker Paul Tillich. One of the principal marks of any society, Tillich argued, is a tension between the polarities of what he called “destiny” and “freedom.” Destiny is what is given to us, prior to any particular choice we might make. Thus, language, culture, family, religion, a definite type of embodiment, and a conventional manner of thinking and behaving are all aspects of one’s destiny. Freedom, on the other hand, is our capacity to decide for ourselves, to determine who we are and how we are to behave. The two subsist in a mutually conditioning relationship: without freedom, destiny indeed becomes crushing; but without destiny, freedom has nothing to stand on and finally no sense of real direction. All of life is marked by a certain oscillation between these polarities, one asserting itself and then the other, and this side of heaven, a perfect equilibrium is never reached.

If the modern is appreciated as the triumph of freedom over tradition (destiny), then the story of modernity will always be told as a sharp contrast between the two. And since many contemporary religious expressions have lost their distinctive character and have become pale echoes of the modern consensus, present-day narrators of the tale have to find particularly oppressive forms of religiosity in order to make their point. Hence, the producers of Unorthodox identified Hasidic Judaism as a painfully domineering expression of religion and used it as a foil for their hero’s journey into personal liberation. But it is precisely this either/or manner of telling the tale that obscures so much and that fails to respect the subtle interrelationship between freedom and destiny that in fact marks every culture.

In all of their pronouncements, in all of their conversations, in all of their moves, the liberated company of Esty’s Berlin friends reveal that their supreme value is freedom—the capacity of each person to find his or her own path. Practically anything is fine as long as the agent in question is not being forced to do it against her or his will. The fairly clear implication is that the introduction of any value or set of values that might direct freedom or give it form would be seen as an intolerable imposition. Please, no shoulds or musts in this community! But this simply makes their society the mirror image of Esty’s Williamsburg society—which was nothing but shoulds and musts—and just as one-sided. For a freedom that has no relation to destiny commences, in short order, to drift. Moreover, when everyone in a society is radically dedicated to the way of his or her own choosing, we end up with no community at all, but rather a loose confederation of individuals with often competing visions of the good life. Though Esty’s Hasidic society is certainly excessive and oppressive, I wonder whether her Berlin friends couldn’t have benefitted enormously from some of the density, texture, and moral purpose that it embodies.

In the end, I would warmly recommend Unorthodox. It’s a fascinating story and the main character is presented with great psychological subtlety. But don’t let it indoctrinate you regarding the nature of either modernity or religion.