Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Corrupting Influences

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?”
“I’m good.”
“Please go back into your room until I finish in here.”
“All right.”

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 (na├»ve?) 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.


  1. brings me back...

    my Rabbis didn't have the chuztpa to tell you that they were raiding your room instead they would sneak around and wait for you to leave only to pounce on contraband

    a few relevant anecdotes:

    There once was a speech in yeshiva where a Rabbi was darshening away about yehraeg v'al yaavor and decided to list "going to the movies" as a sin which you should die to avoid. (And he meant it!)

    I recently saw a sort of "Call to action" which tells all parents that it is their duty to search their kids' phones, computers, and mp3 players on a regular basis. This was signed by almost every Black Hat Rabbi in the community.

    In short, the advent of the information age is absolutely terrifying to the Chareidi world. This is more than regular, historical Jewish xenophobia this is unmitigated terror from a ubiquitous enemy - information.

  2. Ah, you didn't say you read goyishe novels. No wonder you're a skeptic!

    >Sacred cows are led to the slaughter one by one by outsiders who see them only as hamburger.

    I like.

  3. > I recently saw a sort of "Call to action" which tells all parents that it is their duty to search their kids' phones, computers, and mp3 players on a regular basis.

    I actually agree with that, though probably not for the same reasons. It’s just as important for parents to know where their kids are going and who they’re talking to online as it is to know where and with whom their hanging out it real life. But it shouldn’t be done behind the kid’s back, and I would frame it more as keeping an eye on the kids rather than conducting an investigation.

    > Ah, you didn't say you read goyishe novels. No wonder you're a skeptic!

    No wonder! Though it got worse when I stopped reading novels and started reading history books and science magazines. Ironically, it was the yeshiva’s no-goyishe-books policy that got me started reading non-fiction. I followed the policy for nearly a year, and, desperate for something to read, read through all of Berel Wein’s huge history books. I found that I liked reading about history, and the rest is, well, history.

  4. My guess is that partially exacerbating the normal devlopmental issues in adolescence, was the approach(at least in the past), of mainly dealing with sexuality in spiritual terms, as opposed to what Dr. Ribner writes on page 5,(link # 1, below), " but what about attitudes and feelings, doubts and anxieties?".

    See also footnote # 20, in the second link quoting R. Wolbe; though the focus is narrowly on an understandably sensitive issue, his point explains, in general, the Torah World's approach to sexuality in adolescence. Even *more* generally, the entire article presents a healthy balance to Torah observance, and of "Ahavah vs. Yirah".,%20Ribner.doc

  5. Shadesof, thanks for the links. The articles were very interesting.

    I would like to point out though that the post was not so much about sexual repression in the frum community as it was about using the excuse of sheilding the community from promiscuity as a way to cut off community members from non-sanctioned opinions and information.

    The sexual repression in the frum community, and the sense that we live in a particularly immoral time, is interesting in and of itself. Maybe I'll do a post on it.

  6. Keeping "illicit" information at bay, I can clearly understand. All cults do this. And if you (or your family) buys in to that kind of thing, the rules may be enforced. But this " If you were a shtarker boy" is unforgivable, it's exactly the wrong thing to say to a teen in all circumstances.

  7. In retrospect, I think the principal was in over his head. He was a very sincere, nice man who genuinely cared about the boys in the yeshiva, but he didn’t have the training or skills to be a principal. He was a fairly decent rebbe who was promoted past his level of competence.

  8. Most western and central European countries have laws prohibiting Holocaust denial.

    Why? Well, according to Holocaust deniers it's obvious.

    "Minds are being switched off to the Holocaust dogma as it is being sold as a historical fact and yet we are not able to question it. This is mental rape."

    The truth of course is that responsible leaders realize that there are plenty of imbeciles in society who will be misled by madmen.

  9. i think that its rediculous!!!!!!!!! if one wants to be good in english, grammer, essays-some books open up their mind, and they make them more imaginative, like some magic books... their are always books that has some sort of sex stuff-even if its jewish-yet it would still be alloud. why? because its jewish. For ex. "Mirrical Ride" is a great book about a Jewish girl who got cancer when she was in 10th grade and people thought that there was no hope for her beacause of that-and she ended up getting married to some person who was much older-this is a true story on a bais yakov girl and it would for sure only be accepted because its a "jewish book". im not saying that all non-frum books are Kosher for jewish nishamas to read, but there are some who are absolutly fine to read....

    i know from experimence-from when i was younger, when principles opr just about anyone is trying to be so strict on simple things like going into a dorm and opening up drawers(they could always do it at home anyways, so whats the point?)kids start to think sometimes that its rediculous to bne ajuew so they start to go off the derech....

    also whats the point in ding some of these things, if they see it in the street anyways? because when i was yunger i can still remember that in a hashkafa class one day we were discussing this, and we came up-that when one isn't used o seeing some things then when they go in the street they will be more affected than one who's mother has a magazine, lets just say that she like looking at that has things she likes to buy but it has one or two people who are wearing pants....

  10. > one isn't used o seeing some things then when they go in the street they will be more affected

    That’s a result that the frum community seems not to grasp. Which parts of the body are considered erotic is mostly a cultural thing. In Victorian England, ankles were considered indecent, and I’ve read of a native tribe where the women routinely go topless, but would never dream of letting a man see their thighs.

    Given that the aim of banning sexual imagery and enforcing ever-more-stringent tznius rules seems to be the reduction of licentious thoughts (itself a goal of dubious morality) sexualizing elbows and collarbones is counterproductive. Despite their stated purpose, though, I’m afraid that tznius policies are justified not so much by the practical reduction of male arousal as they are by invoking mystical consequences.

  11. <<< Which parts of the body are considered erotic is mostly a cultural thing. >>>

    that's true, and maybe it's a good argument for accepting the de facto modification of certain tznius standards, such as not obsessing over elbows. But how far should it go? 'Leaving it up to each individual's discretion' is the American way, and arguably the best-tho-imperfect way. But, by definition, it's not the religious way, and we are talking about a religious sensibility.

  12. That 'if you make it forbidden, you increase the desire' line has a kernel of truth, but it's way overused & equally overrated: Contemporary society exposes almost everything--and that is by no means due to an evolved state of enlightenment or de-erotifying the female form; on the contrary, virtually EVERYthing in our popular culture is sexualized to an utterly ridiculous degree; the message young girls are apt to recieve from pop culture these days is far more toxic & demeaning than ever before. e.g. When a Britney or a Christina, or now Miley, apparently feels compelled to build their music all around suggestive dress, sexy dance moves & increasingly explicit videos, that is decidedly not female empowerment. So it's not quite fair---or objective-- to knock frum overprotectiveness without giving equal time to the recklessly irresponsible attitudes that dominate on the other side. Thong underwear, fig-leaf mini-skirts, teeny halter-tops...for little girls? No, this does not promote respect for women as fellow human beings, and not sex objects.
    (note: I'm a fairly old-fashioned guy, not a male feminist, but I believe in respect & equality)

    Having said all that, yes, some of these frum folks are $%#@ nuts-- the women with their all-black, long-sleeved, ankle-length, layered outifts, and the guys who can't part with their hat & jacket even in 90 degree weather. Looking like a sweaty moron does not sanctify Hashem.

  13. Fortunately I never had to experience these episodes during my yeshiva years. I don't know how old you are, but I was in yeshiva (high school, and later) in the 70s and early 80s. Then, even in black hat circles, such censorship was not commonly practiced. Mussar was given to avoid dirty magazines and movies, but that was about it. Even my friends in Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland had no such restrictions. (We used to joke about stories of boys who were masturbating into the sinks...)

    I recall going with a few friends and some chabad girls to a James Bond movie (The Spy Who Love Me). Nobody made a big deal out of it.

    Things were much more laid back then.

    I think internet changed things alot. Everything is so much more accessible now, so it is much more difficult to control what people are exposed to. So, paradoxically, this has made the yeshiva world even more insular and strict.

  14. > I think internet changed things alot.…

    I’m sure it did, but I don’t think it was the determining factor. I was in high school in the mid 90s, when 486s were top-of-the-line and AOL was still on its first version of its software. (Back then, I was teaching myself how to use DOS. The memories…)

    The changes in yeshiva censorship policies probably has more to do with the perpetual slide to the right than with any one particular development. That’s not to say the internet isn’t a big deal in yeshivas now. My youngest brother is in high school now, and his school had my parents sign a contract stating that he will not use the internet, “even to look up divrei torah.”

  15. What kind of yeshiva is your brother going to? Black hat?

  16. > What kind of yeshiva is your brother going to? Black hat?

    You mean there are other kinds? :)

  17. Poor kid, your brother (even though he may not know it)