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A Jewish Take on the Netflix Show 13 Reasons Why

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If you’re at all clued in to the pop culture world, you might be hearing the number 13 a lot lately. Schools, educators, psychologists and parents across the U.S have been abuzz for several weeks now about the controversial Netflix show 13 Reasons Why. Along with the surrounding controversy, the show piqued my interest from a Jewish perspective for its use of the number 13 - a number of significance in the Jewish faith. As a Jewish youth professional, it seemed obvious I needed to watch the show.
 
So what is this show all about?13 Reasons Why is the story of a young girl named Hannah who committed suicide. She leaves behind a series of 13 cassette tapes recording the story of why she chose to end her life and asking that these tapes be passed along through a list of individuals. Each tape is about each individual on the list, who in some way played a part in Hannah’s fateful decision. The show has gained a lot of negative attention recently, which is perhaps to be expected of a show geared towards teens that discusses such a serious subject.
 
The show’s earliest criticisms surrounded Netflix’s lack of trigger warnings and resource information for the highly sensitive topics and extremely graphic depictions of things like rape and suicide that are included in the series.The company responded quickly, adding a warning at the start of each episode in the series, but others have begun to argue that trigger warning or not, the storyline glorifies teen suicide as a means of revenge. A handful of others argue that the show actually brings awareness to the already epidemic proportion of teen suicides in the United States.
           
I approached my first viewing of the show with the Jewish significance of the number 13 stamped on the back of my mind. In particular, the concept of Bar Mitzvah colored my viewing, as it is a constant in my work as a Jewish teen educator. Primarily when we teach the teens of our community about what it means to become B’nai Mitzvah, we focus on a modern contextualization of adulthood at age 13 and their assumption of responsibility to do good in the world. This is the lens with which I watched 13 Reasons Why. Viewing the show through this lens led me away from both of the aforementioned major arguments about the show, which I do believe to be both valid.
           
In my opinion however, the true message of the show is one of taking responsibility for our own actions and coming to the realization that what we do always affects those around us. One event alone doesn’t lead someone to make such an irreversible decision like suicide, but a culmination of things does, which means everything we do matters.To quote the show, and more specifically Hannah Baker herself, posthumously:“ I started with Justin.Then Jessica. Who each broke my heart. Alex, Tyler, Courtney, Marcus, who each helped destroy my reputation. On through Zach and Ryan who broke my spirit.Through tape number 12 Bryce Walker who broke my soul.”
 
Each of the teens in this story, like millions of real teens around the world, had no idea that their one interaction, could make such a difference. As the character Ryan, who published a deeply personal poem without Hannah’s permission (in fact with her outright opposition), states, “All I did was publish a poem.” A culmination of events caused by others sparked this hypothetical young girl to think of suicide as an answer, and what confirmed it was silence.
           
The seemingly uncaring and inept adults portrayed in this show best embody this dangerous form of silence. The guidance counselor Mr. Porter tells a bereaved and guilt-ridden student, that no one could have done anything to change Hannah’s mind. And he may be right to an extent, but he is mostly wrong. This is the other major message I perceived from the series - Lo taamod al dam racha (Vayikra 19:16), “Do not stand idly by your brothers blood”. The Torah teaches us not to be passive in the face of violence. Hannah’s life was in danger and countless characters of the show stood idly by. Perhaps they were too busy, perhaps they didn’t know where to begin, but most importantly, they didn’t try.
           
I do think the show is too graphic for some, but important viewing for older teens, young adults and particularly parents and educators. I think Dr. Betsy Stone and educator Michelle Shapiro Abraham captured it best in their piece for reformjudaism.org on “How To Talk About ’13 Reasons Why’ With Your Teens”. They explain, “The Torah is filled with horrible stories. Though we paint Noah’s pretty ark on nursery walls with animals two by two, the real story is that of a flood that kills all life on earth….We don’t like horrible stories. Though they have lessons to teach us about life and pain, and how to survive this world, we don’t like them.” The storyline in this show is one of those horrible stories we just don’t like.
           
The behaviors of the teens in this show - sexual assault, gossip, stalking and bullying to name a few, are clearly not in keeping with Jewish values. But the overall message is that Judaism teaches us that everything we do matters. Just as one act of kindness can help repair the world, one bad thing can break it. My favorite Jewish quote of all time is from Sanhedrin 4:5 of the Talmud, “He who saves one life... is as if he saves an entire universe. He who destroys a life... is as if he destroys an entire universe.” This epitomizes the sense of social responsibility that is at the core of the Jewish faith and the core lesson in this controversial show. Ultimately the messages portrayed here parallel that of a Bar Mitzvah - You are responsible for your actions, and your actions have an impact, even your silence.
 
           
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