I was sitting on my bed in the dorm, reading a book when I heard someone moving in the other room. I stuffed the book into a desk drawer and went to see who it was.
I was expecting one of my roommates and was surprised to find the principal, Rabbi X. He seemed just as surprised to see me. I was taking different classes than most of the other students in my grade and so had a different schedule than them. Rabbi X had come to make his semi-weekly inspection for contraband and had apparently forgotten that I might be there.
“Hello.” He said.
“Hello,” I answered.
“How are you?”
“Please go back into your room until I finish in here.”
I retreated into my room and listened to the rustling of papers and banging of drawers as Rabbi X riffled through my roommates’ belongings, looking for contraband like radios, magazines, tabloid newspapers, and non-Jewish music and books. (“Non-Jewish” was defined as anything not published by Feldheim, Artscroll, or CIS.) When he was finished he knocked on my door. I opened it and stood in the doorway.
“Excuse me,” said Rabbi X, “Please wait in the other room while I look through your room.”
I squeezed by him, and he turned around to stand in the doorway.
“Do you have anything in here I should know about?” he asked.
I hesitated a moment, my urge to avoid trouble warring with my (naïve?) conviction that one should always be honest, then nodded. “Yes.”
“What is it?”
“Books.” I answered, and then added quickly, “Just some novels. They’re harmless.”
Rabbi X looked at me, a sad smile on his face. “How can you say that? If you were a shtarker boy, maybe I could believe that reading novels is harmless. But you, with all your questions…”
He shook his head. Clearly, reading these tumadike goyishe books had damaged my neshama.
Rabbi X objected to my reading novels because, as he told me at my admission interview, they often contained passages that were inappropriate for and harmful to a yeshiva bachur. By which he meant sex. To protect students from the irreparable spiritual harm caused by exposure to such licentious entertainment, all non-Jewish books were banned. Magazines were banned because they might have pictures of scantily-clad women and titillating articles. Radios were banned because students might tune in to shows that discussed sex.
(In reality, I chose books based on their entertainment value, not on how likely they were to get me aroused. My roommate often annoyed me by listening to baseball games on his contraband radio at full volume while he was in the shower, but I never heard him listen to anything to which I thought Rabbi X might object.)
In the frum world at large, media are banned almost exclusively because of their potential to expose innocent yidden to wanton licentiousness, thereby staining their neshamos and damaging their ability to properly relate to divrei kedusha. Denunciations of television and movies inevitably include diatribes against the appearance on the screen of the worst kinds of giluy arayos and shvichas damim. The central issue of the war against the internet is the easy availability of online porn. Even newspapers, the staid old maid of mass communication media, are frowned upon because they may contain untznius pictures and articles.
The yeshivish world holds that popular media are damaging to emunah and kedusha. And the yeshivish world is right.
But not for the reasons they proclaim. Exposure to media is not harmful because representations of sexuality damage our non-existent souls. It is damaging because these media present information not available within the confines of the frum world. It is damaging because it presents people who are different than the frum norm as people instead of as “goyim.” It is damaging because, in sufficient quantity and quality, such information can shatter a lifetime of sheltered indoctrination. Truths once heard from respected teachers can crumble in the face of solidly supported counter-evidence. Sacred cows are led to the slaughter one by one by outsiders who see them only as hamburger.
If I were cynical, I might say that the leaders of the yeshivishe velt have deliberately sold their followers on the idea that one should avoid exposure to the outside world because of that world’s sexual immorality in order to maintain control of the masses. I might even charitably say that they sincerely believe that they are doing a good thing: preventing people from going off the derech, something which the leaders beleive would adversely affect both those people's individual cheleks in Olam Haboh and the collective fortune of Klal Yisroel in this world.
I think, though, that that may be giving the community leaders too much credit. Separating ourselves from the depraved nations of the world is an old, old theme in Judaism and is undoubtedly one of the things that sustained the Judaism meme through millennia of persecution. The blocking out of the outside world because of its sexual immorality, and thereby preventing access to information that may cause people to stray, is just the latest iteration of an age-old adaptation.