The Religious Counterculture

Mayim Bialik

Actor Mayim Bialik blogged about the difficulty of finding this dress for the Emmy Awards, given the Jewish modesty laws she observes. What if all religious liberals felt such tension between their religious values and the demands of capitalist society? Credit: Heather Weiss.

I’m not easily starstruck, but there is one minor celebrity on whom I have a kind of a crush: Mayim Bialik. She plays Amy Farrah Fowler in The Big Bang Theory and long ago starred in the show Blossom. I have never watched either of these shows, but that’s beside the point. It’s not her acting performance that I admire so much… it’s her performance of her values. She uses her Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA to teach science classes as part of homeschooling children in her community. She is a vegan who says that she prepares vegan food for her family to teach her kids to care for the earth. And she is an observant Jew who keeps the Sabbath, keeps kosher (so it has to be kosher vegan food), and even tries to adhere to Jewish modesty laws in her dress. The last, I imagine, is no small feat for a woman who makes a living in Hollywood.

The modesty issue came to a head as Bialik prepared to attend the Emmy awards last fall. She needed to find a dress that covered her elbows and knees and collarbone, was not too tight, and, of course, was absolutely gorgeous enough for the red carpet. The quest for this perfect dress became very public as she wrote about it in her various blogs and columns. She called the quest, “Operation Hot and Holy.”

We may disagree with a tradition that requires this kind of modesty (although I’ll point out that most of the same modesty laws apply to men). But you’ve got to admire someone who takes her religious values so seriously that she is willing to withstand intense social pressure. If women in our culture normally feel pressure to dress in revealing clothing, the pressure must be tenfold in Hollywood and a hundredfold at big public industry events like the Emmys. But she did it—Operation Hot and Holy: mission accomplished—and afterward the blogosphere was bursting with women, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, thanking her for her courage in so publicly contesting the cultural rules of how women are supposed to look.

Do we religious liberals and progressives similarly experience a tension between our religious values and the values of the secular world? If not, why not? It’s clear to me that there should be tension. There should be enormous tension. We should feel it in every decision we make. We should feel it when we shop at the grocery store, when we go to work, when we speak to a child, and when (and if) we watch TV. We should feel it when we lie down and when we rise. We should feel like Orthodox Jews in Kansas or Mennonites in Manhattan. Until the world is as it should be—until all wars have ended, until no child is hungry, until we are living gently on the earth, until power is shared, and until all silenced voices are heard—until that day, we should not be able to fit comfortably into this world. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “There are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted.” Questions about the extent of our participation in the dominant culture should keep us up at night. If they don’t, something is wrong. ...

The rest of this article is only available to subscribers and NSP members -- subscribe or join now to read the rest! We sent an email and postcard to all current members and subscribers explaining how to register for our members-only area. If you remember the username and password you created for Tikkun, click on the blue “log in” link below. If you’re already registered but have forgotten your user ID or password, go to for automated instant assistance. If you are a member or subscriber who still needs to register, email or call 510-644-1200 for help -- registration is easy and you only have to do it once.
Login, Subscribe or Buy this article: $2.00

Ana Levy-Lyons is senior minister at First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn, New York, currently writing a book on the Ten Commandments as a radical spiritual and political vision. Visit Twitter: @Ana_LevyLyons. Email:

Source Citation

Levy-Lyons, Ana. 2012. "The Religious Counterculture." Tikkun 27(2): 45.

tags: Christianity, Culture, Judaism, Spiritual Politics   
Tip Jar Email Bookmark and Share RSS Print
Get Tikkun by Email -- FREE

COMMENT POLICY Please read our comments policy. We invite constructive disagreement but do not accept personal attacks and hateful comments. We reserve the right to block hecklers who repost comments that have been deleted. We do have automated spam filters that sometimes miscategorize legitimate comments as spam. If you don't see your comment within ten minutes, please click here to contact us. Due to our small staff it may take up to 48 hours to get your comment posted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *