Does Modern Orthodoxy Not Believe in Fun? A Response to Rabbi Yitzchak Blau
Guest post by Avi Woolf
Avi “aiwac” Woolf is a translator/editor residing in Efrat. He has a BA in Land of Israel Studies and has taken courses in the Bar-Ilan Contemporary Jewry Dept. He blogs at QED and reads everything from Leszek Kolakawski to Richard Pipes to Rav Soloveitchik and lehavdil Rav Dr. Michael Avraham – when he’s not watching TV, of course.
In the latest issue of Tradition (44:2), Rabbi Yitzchak Blau unleashed a powerful and thorough, if scattershot, critique of television from the point of view of the ideals of Modern Orthodoxy. Rabbi Blau argued emphatically in favor of getting rid of the television in the house, and having children and adults spend their time more constructively. This can be done by reading newspaper articles on serious issues of the day, reading serious books like Dostoevsky and generally being an intelligent religious Jew and democratic citizen.
In the following essay, I intend to critique Rabbi Blau’s important, but in my opinion deeply flawed, essay on two fronts. The first will deal with Rabbi Blau’s primary criticisms, which I address according to their general category. The second will deal with the more fundamental issue which Rabbi Blau touches on, but does not address directly – the contemporary inability of Orthodox thought to view leisure, or “fun”, as anything other than a necessary evil to be restricted as much as possible.
A brief confession is in order before we begin. I am an avid consumer of both serious articles and books and of television and movies. I have downed several tomes that come close to or exceed a thousand pages on matters from political philosophy to military history and everything in between. On the other hand, I have also spent much of my life absorbing television shows and movies of varying quality – from the powerful and insightful to the cringingly bad. I write, therefore, as one who is fully cognizant of the advantages and disadvantages of both media.
Is TV Really So Bad?
Before we continue, let’s make something clear. Even the most ardent defender of television will admit that it is full of garbage, filler and useless information. The time spent on it is often far beyond what could be called necessary or even fun. Too often, our addiction to the “boob tube” will result in flipping channels aimlessly for hours, not even gaining the enjoyment television is supposed to provide.
My argument against Rabbi Blau in the post below is not to argue that TV is flawless. Rather, my purpose is to point out that TV is a tool of communication, one of many, which can greatly contribute to knowledge and moral understanding as well “corrupt youth” if misused. In this post, I will deal directly with Rav Blau’s primary arguments against television, organized according to category. Each accusation of Rav Blau will appear with my verdict regarding the charge. The verdict will then be explained.
Accusation #1: TV Dumbs Down Content
Verdict: Not applicable
As I said above, television is nothing more than a form of communication – no different from the oral communication of conversation, the textual communication of print and writing, or the oral and visual communication of plays. It contains both fiction and non-fiction, high-level and low-brow. Like any form of communication, it has its own grammar, vocabulary and rules of presentation.
To say that TV “dumbs down” content presumes that oral communication must follow the rules of print communication. Anyone who has ever held a conversation will know that what can be tolerated in print will never work in speech. Even in universities, no one would tolerate the oral presentation of an argument in the same form as the long, tedious and often convoluted and esoteric technique used in academic writing. It may sound distinguished, but the point would never get across.
In order to convey points orally, TV must resort to different methods, which include making the message as simple or at least as concise as possible. At most, TV can use visual aids, backgrounds, music and human expression to add resonance to the concise message.
As an educational tool, TV can work wonders in making complex subjects written in often unreadable or at least specialized tomes accessible to ordinary humans. Channels like National Geographic and the History Channel, the great documentaries like Ken Burns’ Civil War and Jazz, Steven Speiberg’s Band of Brothers are all products made for TV. Not only do they often explain issues better, they make them relatable in ways very few books can.
I also find myself puzzled by Rav Blau’s attack on TV news and his subsequent glorification of print news. Yes, it’s true – TV news shows and political programs, even the more sophisticated ones, cannot, by definition, reach the level of detail of a printed argument. Yet what they lack in this department, they more than make up for in relative clarity. Not everyone has the time to read magazine-level analyses of issues on a daily basis, and many aren’t interested in the first place, for reasons that have nothing to do with TV.
I also have to wonder what possible interest or understanding an 8-year old, or even a 13 year old, could have of the budget debates or deep moral quandaries that Rav Blau is so desperate to have them be engrossed in them? Why is there a need for them to do so?
I realize I have left out the issue of fictional shows, and this omission is deliberate – I will deal with that with accusation #3.
Accusation #2: TV destroys critical faculties
Verdict: Partially Guilty
Another accusation Rabbi Blau levels against TV is that its emphasis on sound bytes and visual means makes it a useful tool for emotional manipulation. The images on TV are irresistible and brook no rational argument. If you want proof for how destructive this can be, look no further than the Al-Dura blood libel, where a single picture of a frightened child mixed with false accusations led to mass demonization of Israel.
There is some truth to this charge, but I believe it Rav Blau is exaggerating this issue, for two reasons:
While it is true that images and TV can lie and manipulate, they can also inspire and enrich. The sight of the Israeli soldier in the river in the Six Day War, the landing of Man on the Moon and other images lead to positive, not negative results. Furthermore, there are many alternative sources of information available for the average person, including other news channels with different political slants and most importantly, the internet. In a world where TV is the only means of communication, or when the audience is totally ignorant on the issue, TV can sway them. Otherwise, it adds little.
More importantly, the idea that any particular segment on TV is irresistible and not subject to criticism is belied by the fact that people have different taste in TV shows – they avoid shows they don’t like, drop shows that change not to their liking. Indeed, the very phenomenon of “channel surfing” would seem to refute the idea that whatever’s on TV will suck you in.
More than that, though – unless people live entirely alone, they will often discuss TV shows with their friends or at least family, and disagreements on characters and plots are often inevitable. TV is certainly often a time-waster and can be manipulative if one is not careful or knowledgeable, but the idea that TV watchers lose all or even the majority of their critical faculties in selecting and approving of TV content just doesn’t seem to ring true to me.
Accusation #3: TV contributes nothing of moral value
Verdict: Not Guilty
The best expression of Rav Blau’s contempt for television and movies is his statement that while he can recommend hundreds of worthwhile books, he can recommend maybe 30 movies of intrinsic worth (likely about as many TV shows). The message inherent in these words is obvious – very, very little of visual media provides material of value.
Perhaps it is because I have always had a penchant for cop and law shows, but my experience has generally been the exact opposite of Rav Blau’s. No one, in my opinion, can watch shows like Homicide: Life on the Street or Hill Street Blues, or even Law and Order, and say that these shows do not discuss issues of value in a powerful and generally balanced manner.
The plethora of ethical, legal and psychological issues raised in these shows is breathtaking. In fact, I would argue that Rav Blau would benefit from using them as great examples for a discussion of sachar va’onesh, or the debate between objective individual justice and maintaining the integrity of the justice system at large (“technicalities” etc.).
Even putting aside cop shows, though, good science fiction shows can bring up issues of what it means to be human; a well-made drama can demonstrate the complications of human relationships. Show of hands: who has watched House, or lehavdil Scrubs, and not been fascinated by the many ethical and emotional issues of practicing medicine? My point is that discerning TV viewers can gain much of value if they learn, or are taught, how to look for it.
Rav Blau knows only 30 worthwhile movies? I can name at least a hundred off the top of my head, only a small number of which I will mention here: Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Shawshank Redemption, The Truman Show, Judgment at Nuremberg, Cast Away, Se7en, Up, Beauty and the Beast, Toy Story (1, 2 and 3), American History X, When Harry Met Sally, Defiance, The Godfather I and II, Tootsie, Kramer vs. Kramer, To Kill A Mockingbird, Wall Street, Saving Private Ryan, Marvin’s Room, and so on and so forth.
Notice that I restricted myself largely to the uber-serious movies and generally avoided comedies and dramas. If I had included them (and there are many that are worthwhile), the list would have been much longer. I believe, however, that my point has been made. There is much value in visual fiction both on TV and in movies – the trick is to lean or be taught how to tell the good stuff from the trash.
Accusation #4: TV Endorses Sexual Promiscuity
Verdict: Guilty – With A Caveat
Finally, Rabbi Blau refers to an argument that is often the clincher in these discussions – the open endorsement or toleration of frequent and open sexual relations on TV. Programs talk about sex, hint at sex and sometimes obliquely film sex. Girls especially are sent the message that they must do nothing but focus on their looks and do everything to “get physical” with boys.
There is no point in denying the above-described phenomenon; I personally received my sexual education from Beverly Hills 90210. TV programs, especially those aimed at teenagers and young adults, are generally contemptuous of abstinence, especially the kind endorsed by religious groups. If anything, many of them do everything possible to entice the viewer sexually to the point of outright voyeurism, whether it’s watching a hot guy or girl or waiting for them to kiss or get down and dirty. It is only natural, then, that many impressionable girls, already naturally raging with hormones, would be affected.
All this is true but it is not the whole story. The other side of the coin is the complete failure of Orthodoxy in general, and Modern Orthodoxy in particular, to deal with sex except as a complete taboo. Indeed, until very recently, the policy of most Religious Zionist high schools was little different from their Charedi counterparts. Sex is not discussed, except to scream and yell about the evils of masturbation and run private inquiries about student’s virginity or lack thereof, or go on patrol to expel girls who hang out with boys and/or wear attractive clothing. Even pre-marital sex education focuses almost exclusively on prohibitions, and very little about not only the positive aspects of sex, but also its crucial nature as a means of pleasure and marital physical communication.
The result is a split population – a highly devout, but extremely neurotic group that thinks they’ll go to hell every time they masturbate or kiss a girl, and the other group that does it anyway and just doesn’t care.
My point in all this rambling is that TV is not the cause of all this but merely a symptom. It wins the day not just because TV is so bad, but because Orthodoxy doesn’t offer anything else, and if it does, it doesn’t mention it. The almost paranoid fear of people committing sexual sins of various kinds is at the root of the gender-separation craze, and MO has yet to come up with a more rational way of coping.
Of course, MO could always learn to teach kids (and adults, esp. rabbis, educators and communities) to have a sense of proportion. They could knock it off with the “masturbation/sex=damnation” rhetoric and emphasize the always present possibility of teshuva. They could also spend much more time on sex as a positive, and far less obsession with whether or not someone accidentally miscounts one of R. Zeira’s seven nekiyim. But go ahead, blame TV. It’s much easier.
Modern Orthodoxy vs. Fun, Or “Why So Serious?”
However, I believe that what Rav Blau is complaining about is deeper than the issue of TV – whether watched for value or the pure pleasure of it. I believe Rav Blau inadvertently exposed a very serious lacuna in Modern orthodox thought – the complete lack of intrinsic value attributed to leisure in general, and fun and play in particular.
For those who disagree with me, I invite you to take a look at leading publications, blogs and books of Modern Orthodox thinkers – left, right and center. Check out the discussions and read the histories. You will notice a recurring theme – an obsession with intellectual and “serious” issues, and a complete lack of attention to either popular culture or leisure in general. “High culture” – the fine arts, philosophy, science, politics – these are OK. Comic books, TV shows and sports – not OK.
Much like the issue of sex ed, pop culture and play are simply not a part of Modern Orthodox thought. At best, they are tolerated, to help get rid of stress or as a natural impulse of children that will eventually disappear. Ideally, a la Rav Blau, Jews should spend their time studying deep things, thinking deep thoughts and constantly maintaining a degree of ideological-psychological tension that is very high.
A la Rav Blau, Modern Orthodoxy is very much a religion by intellectuals, for intellectuals, with little room for enjoyment or development of other aspects of life such as music, sports and games. There is little place for just “living” outside of the MO “mission”. I believe Prof. William Kolbrenner summarized this point very succinctly when he suggested replacing the term “Torah U-Madda” with “Torah and Chaim” (Torah and Life). We should have “conversations” with all the parts of life, learn them, enjoy them, cherish them.
More than that, as the blogger who goes by then name “Benjamin of Tudela” has pointed out in a comment, we need to stop dividing the world into only “good and “bad” things. There are many phenomena in the world that are simply neutral. Furthermore, oftentimes “bad” things can contain “good” elements and vice versa, as any religious defender of secular Zionism can tell you. A sense of proportion is key.
I suppose Rav Blau would counter that this attitude is the same that has lead to the reviled “edutainment” phenomenon. However, I submit that this would be to confuse the symptom for the cause. People – children, teenagers and adults – have an instinctive and healthy need for play (that is not tied to “Seriousness”). Play not only relieves stress but is proven to allow people to grow and develop psychologically and intellectually at any age.
”Edutainment”, then, is a flawed answer to a true need. We need better ways of handling play, not forcing “seriousness” down our students’ throats 100 or even 90% of the time. Rather than seeing it as either a sworn enemy or a tolerated pest, we would do well to study and understand play as a natural phenomenon of life. Sometimes people really do need to shut off their brains, overheated from 24 hours and 7 days a week’s worth of “mission, mission, mission”. Sometimes Shabbat really does need to be an actual day of rest.
Perhaps Rav Blau is concerned about the isolating effects of the TV/internet. But play is not confined to these things. Give your kid the Dangerous Book for Boys or the Daring Book for Girls. Encourage sports or playing board games or cards. Come to think of it, play among MO adults should also be encouraged. Just because we’re grown-ups doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have fun.
Sir Ken Robertson said that the present Western educational system (ourselves included) is designed primarily to produce university professors (or Rabbis) who “live inside their heads”. We would do well to abandon that monochromatic model, and embrace our bodies, ourselves and life in its entirety.