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.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Shaped Like a BLOGG!


I found this while reading my daughter her bedtime story. It’s from The Shape of Me and Other Stuff by Dr. Seuss, published in 1973.

Monday, June 28, 2010

1st Century Spin Doctors

Tomorrow is Shiva Assur B’Tammuz, a fast day which commemorates the day four Roman legions breached the city walls of Yerushalayim. It begins a three-week period of mourning for the destruction of Yerushalayim, ending on Tisha B’Av, the day on which the Bais HaMikdash fell.

It is traditionally held that Yerushalayim fell to the Romans because of sinas chinim, hatred between Jews. For once, the traditional explanation is right. The Jews of Yerushalayim were split into numerous political factions, all of whom were fighting with one another. Although the citizens of Yerushalayim were initially able to repel the legionnaires, the fighting between the factions took a heavy toll. Supplies were needed to withstand the siege were destroyed and fighters who could have been used to repel the Romans were instead killed defending territory from rival factions. Even at the very end, when the Romans had taken all of Yerushalayim and the last of the Jewish fighters were desperately defending the Beis HaMikdash from legionnaires in the neighboring Antonia Fortress, the three factions holding the Beis HaMikdash each held distinct areas and fought each other at the same time they tried to hold off the Romans.

The basic outline of this history is well known in the frum world. What’s interesting is the spin it’s given. For one thing, the fighters are presented as impetuous, almost evil people as compared to the pacifist Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, but that’s to be expected given that the version of events recorded in the gemara was written by people with the same values as Rabbi Yochanan. More interesting is that the cause of the destruction of Yerushalayim and the Beis HaMikdash is seen as metaphysical. Yerushalayim didn’t fall because of the practical consequences of sinas chinim: that Jewish factions were fighting among themselves, weakening each other and eroding their collective ability to stand up to the Roman legions. Rather, Jewish people were hating each other and creating a miasma of sin that hung over the nation, therefore as a punishment Hashem sent the Romans to destroy the Beis HaMikdash.

Why was a metaphysical explanation hung on what would seem to be a mundane progression of events? Why the unnecessary metaphysical spin on the idea of sinas chinim, when the simple interpretation that intra-Jewish hatred and fighting destroyed the ability to resist the Romans is adequate?

I think that the spin given to the fall of Yerushalayim and the Beis HaMikdash was both a response to the political reality in which the Jews at the time of the gemara lived and an attempt to maintain Hashem’s stature after the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash.

Were the story to enter Jewish mythos as one of military defeat, it might inspire other Jews to attempt an armed rebellion against Rome. After all, Yerushalayim’s defenders failed because they were divided! If we stand together, maybe we can beat back the Roman conquerors! To the Rabbis concerned with preserving Jewish traditions and maintaining social order, this was unacceptable. A revolt would (and several times did) bring the might of the Roman Empire down on Judea. There was little hope of Jewish rebels defeating the Roman legions, and a very real chance that rebellion would bring harsh sanctions from Rome. Far better to vilify the fighters of Yerushalayim as thugs and to present the battle as one that they were divinely decreed to lose because Hashem was punishing the Jewish people for sinas chinim.

Perhaps even more important than maintaining social order was explaining how the Romans could have destroyed Hashem’s house on earth. Framing the incident as a military defeat would mean acknowledging that the pagan Romans defeated the holy followers of the One True God and destroyed His city and His temple. Better to present the fighters as undeserving thugs who would not have merited Hashem’s help. Even more, the idea that Hashem used the Romans to punish the Jewish people for the sin of sinas chinim implies that not only didn’t the pagans defy Hashem and defeat His fighters, but that Hashem is so great and powerful that Rome, the most powerful empire in the world, exists only to be used as Hashem’s tool for chastising His chosen people.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Just Shoot Him!


I came across this cartoon yesterday. It illustrates a question I’ve had for a long time now about the David and Goliath story.

When I was a little kid, I learned the story of how David, a boy with no military experience, went up against Goliath, a giant warrior. David hit Goliath with a stone from his “slingshot,” which miraculously hit the giant Philistine in a vulnerable place right between his eyes and killed him.

The picture I formed was of a Dennis-the-menace like kid with a toy slingshot going up against an ogre. For the kid to win was certainly a miracle!

The actual story as related in nach is somewhat different.

David was a young man, not a little boy, and he used a sling, not a slingshot. I suppose my first-grade rebbe can be excused for not knowing much about obsolete weaponry, but the difference between a slingshot and a sling is enormous. Even a real slingshot (as opposed to a toy made with a forked twig and a rubber band) propels a projectile with about the same force as a BB gun. A sling, on the other hand, is a deadly weapon. From Wikipedia:


A sling is a projectile weapon typically used to throw a blunt projectile such as a stone. It is also known as the shepherd's sling.

A sling has a small cradle or pouch in the middle of two lengths of cord. The sling stone is placed in the pouch. Both cords are held in the hand, then the sling is swung and one of the two cords is released. This frees the projectile to fly on a tangent to the circle made by the pouch's rotation. The sling derives its effectiveness by essentially extending the length of a human arm, thus allowing stones to be thrown several times farther than they could be by hand.

The sling is very inexpensive, and easy to build. It has historically been used for hunting game and in combat.


Until the invention of firearms slingers were used in combat in the same way as archers. Unlike a bow, though, slings were easy to make and fired stones or cheap lead bullets instead of expensive arrows. This was not a toy. As a shepherd, David would have had experience using a sling to defend his sheep from predators. In the hands of an expert, a sling was as deadly as a pistol.

The encounter, then, was not a little kid with a toy challenging the Philistine champion. It’s more like the scene from Indiana Jones where Indy, confronted by a large man who is clearly an expert swordsman, pulls out a revolver and shoots him. All of a warrior’s skill counts for nothing if the other guy has a gun – or a sling.

So why is the incident treated as a miracle?

One reason might be that, until very recently, it was assumed that the outcome of combat depended, not on the skill of the soldiers and generals, but on the will of God. As recently as the American Civil War, General Robert E. Lee, after ordering an assault on the center of the Union line at Gettysburg (despite the protests of his subordinates), said that the result was “In God’s hands.” Lee, a master tactician, felt that tactics mattered for nothing when compared to God’s will. This sentiment was even stronger in the ancient world. Thus the outcome of a battle was seen as nothing less than the manifestation of God’s will – a miracle. The unusual circumstances of a shepherd defeating a seasoned warrior (and the shepherd boy going on to become king) are what made this particular encounter memorable.

Another possibility is that the unusual aspects of the encounter are themselves the reason the incident is considered miraculous. Even today, someone who survives a situation where he might have been killed often calls his survival a “miracle” even if there was nothing supernatural about it. Even though there was nothing supernatural about David shooting Goliath in the head, the fact that David came through the encounter in one piece might itself be reason enough to call the incident a miracle.

So, would we consider it a miracle today? If a teenaged farm boy armed with the pistol he uses to shoot at coyotes faced off against a master swordsman in single combat and won by shooting the swordsman between the eyes from twenty feet away, would that be a miracle?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

I Have Met the Other, and He is Me

I’ve been having a case of writer’s block lately. Or more accurately, a lack of inspiration. I used to have an idea for a post pretty regularly, every week or two. Lately, nothing.

I suppose part of the problem is that I want my posts to be original and unique, and most of what there is to write about has been written. I can write about my own experiences, but unless my anecdotes tie in to some bigger point, posting autobiographical accounts just seems narcissistic.

That said, I finally had an idea. It occurred to me that I instinctively feel uncomfortable around people who dress the way I do now.

The yeshivish world is obsessed with how people dress. For girls there’s tznius; for boys, there’s the uniform of black hat, pants, shoes, socks, and yarmulke and the white shirt. Even little kids starting in in 4th or 5th grade have to wear an approximation of the uniform, though their dress shirts are usually allowed to have patterns and they can wear all-black sneakers instead of shoes. I remember going shoe-shopping as a kid and having trouble finding sneakers without a trace of other color. Even a white Nike swoosh on an otherwise all-black shoe was a problem.

While it might be permissible to wear a polo shirt on vacation or while playing ball, dressing “like the goyim” was completely unacceptable. To this day, when I shop for clothing I inevitably imagine the clothes for sale on the stereotypical boorish "goy" caricature and have to quiet the voice in the back of my head that asks how I could wear the same things as one of them.

The ultimate goyish clothing is the jeans-and-t-shirt outfit that has become ubiquitous in the US and around the world. T-shirts might be tolerated in camp during the summer, but jeans, especially blue jeans, are evil. I still instinctively react to a frum guy in jeans by assuming he must be a bit of a bum. Which is odd, because a guy in jeans and a t-shirt is what I see most of the time when I look in the mirror.

I was sixteen when I realized that judging people based on the way they dress is silly. My epiphany came one afternoon when I was passing by a shul and was asked to help make a minyan for mincha. As I stood in the back looking around at my fellow congregants, I noticed one who was dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and sandals with a leather yarmulke on his head. I instinctively judged him to be less-than: less frum, less of a decent person, not as worthy as a refined yeshiva bochur like myself.

Then I realized how absurd that was. This guy had voluntarily come to shul in the middle of the day to daven mincha with a minyan. On the other hand, I, had I not been dragooned into helping make the minyan, would have happily not davened mincha at all.

And I was thinking that I was frummer than him? Because I wore a white shirt and he wore jeans?

We judge people based on how they dress because it’s convenient. We can tell at a glance what a person is wearing; it takes hours of conversation to learn about someone’s personality and beliefs. Because we judge people based on what they wear, clothing can be a strong group identifier. In the yeshivish world, wearing the yeshivish uniform declares that you’re One Of Us – and not One Of Them. Unfortunately Them is seen as the evil Other.

I have no problem with clothing as a group identifier. The indoctrinated belief that someone who dresses like One Of Them is the evil Other… that still affects me. Even when those who dress like the Other dress just like me.