Title: According to Their Deeds: A Frum Romance
By Melvyn Westreich
Laurel Publishing, 351 pages
A frum romance novel is an unexpected mingling of genres, but since I love both Torah and romance, I’m the target audience. This book was an entertaining read. The couple meets when they both attend a grief therapy group. He is Modern Orthodox and she is yeshivish. Frum Jews can anticipate the culture clash and the ensuing sparks as they fall in love. The story is interesting and amusing and the characters and supporting characters are well-developed.
I have been to a bereavement group and I read with interest how the book handles grief. It’s always tricky to write a romance when the characters start the story grieving for previous spouses, but the writer manages to convey unhurried development and it is very nice how they support each other in the grief process.
The writer is a bit snarkier than either of his main characters. Sometimes he writes from the vantage point of the man, and sometimes from the woman (which is a standard romance novel technique so you can see what’s going on in both their heads). But a couple of times I lost my feeling of immersion when I caught him describing side characters with a sharp sarcastic wit that was out of character for the fine middos of his kind characters!
Something I appreciated is that I have no idea what the author’s religious affiliation is. I couldn’t tell from the book. Both modern and charedi outlooks were presented even-handedly and plausibly.
Two things struck me as I was reading. Neither of them is a criticism of this book. In fact, the book is to be commended for its accurate portrayals, which prompted me to think about these issues.
When I got the book, I put it on my to-read pile and my daughter, also a romance reader, took it to her house for Shabbos to read it. When she brought it back, she said, “Mom, have you read this yet?”
“No, not yet. Why?”
“I don’t want to spoil it. But you’ll know when you hit it.”
As soon as I read the section where the main characters discuss the role of women and tznius, I knew exactly what my daughter was talking about. What I am about to denounce is, I know, something that is considered a pretty widespread Jewish hashkafa. I congratulate the author for correctly conveying this attitude. I found it demoralizing to read “men are defective creatures and so much more inferior to women. The rabbis must put constraints on the superior women in order to attain some sort of equality, otherwise, women would outshine the men just about all the time.” And men “see a woman in provocative clothing, and they become attracted. They can’t help themselves. It’s their yetzer hara…in order for men not to fall prey to their inborn weakness, Judaism must rely on women to take charge and to dress modestly at all times so as not to stir up immodest thoughts in men.”
Sigh. I spent over twenty years teaching girls in high school that modest clothing is about dignity, about allowing your thoughts, values, and actions to be more salient than your physicality. I teach my sons and I teach in class about the verse, “Lo sasuru acharei levavchem v’acharei eineychem,” that it is every person’s own responsibility to not go after their eyes. I quote the Gemara Brachos 24a and the Rambam Hilchos Issurei Biah 21:2: “Whoever gazes at a woman’s small finger (with the intent of deriving pleasure) it is as if he gazed at the place of the genitals,” and we all know that it is not forbidden to go around with bare pinkies and it is not women’s responsibility to make sure that men don’t gaze at our pinkies with sexual intent. I spent my career fighting the main female character’s apologetics, and it hurt to read them.
But like I said, I can’t say that this is not a mainstream attitude, even if it’s not how I understand tznius. Their discussion is pretty even-handed and they handle their differences with robust debate and ultimately with respect.
The other criticism I have is about the “very-modern” Orthodox position on premarital sex. Again, I’m not blaming the book – the portrayal is authentic. “Christian ethics considers sex out of wedlock – even by two consenting single adults – as fornication – a mortal sin. Jewish law does not. Judaism does not condone it and considers such a relationship to be lewd behavior and therefore should be scorned, but it is not a mortal sin.”
On one hand, this is accurate. Very interestingly, a big part of Torah is kedusha (holiness) and a huge facet of kedusha is that sexuality belongs in marriage. And yet, despite the tremendous emphasis on kedusha, premarital sex is a violation but not a death penalty violation. The concept of mamzer (a child born of incest or adultery) is often mistranslated as “bastard,” but it is not like the secular definition of bastard – a child born out of wedlock. There is no halachic ramification to being born out of wedlock.
However, why neglect to discuss niddah? Intimate relations without going to the mikvah is a very big deal in both halacha and hashkafa. It’s a kares violation (Vayikra 20:18). To give the impression that Jewish law is disapproving but insouciant about sexual relationships outside of marriage is misleading when you leave out mikvah.
Overall, there was plenty to think about in this story and I enjoyed it very much. I also found the rabbi to be wise and a great paradigm for aseh lecha Rav, “make a rabbi for yourself.” He was helpful and insightful as he shepherded this couple into their zivug sheni relationship.