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Monday, August 4, 2008

Media and Torah

As of late I have been thinking about the interrelationship of media as extensions of the senses vis a vis Torah. The problem is that the rav or talmid chacham, a person wise in Torah, is limited in his perception of the sensorium of the modern world. A person who teaches in a yeshiva or any other rabbi seriously steeped in the study of holy books is quite out of sync with his young students who live in a world of internet, DVD and MP3 music. That is the case if the community is modern orthodox and does not have a blanket prohibition on such things. Otherwise, the young person encounters all of the above as forbidden fruit, which is much more dangerous. The all or nothing rule applies.
The Torah scholar operates with a very narrow window on the world, consisting of text alone. He uses a computer primarily for e-mail and word processing of text only without graphics. He does use text searches heavily in software such as the Bar-Ilan Responsa Retrieval Project. But the effect of the textual emphasis is to pull away from the tactile "feel" of the graphic world. Print means uniformity, limiting what I deal with to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The literate world de-emphasizes the other senses. The oral Torah, on the other hand develops the sense of hearing. Music is linear, sung or listened to, whether in song with words or in the Hasidic nigun. The electronic generation of youth, on the other hand, is bathed in music, walks around with earphones or has music recorded on his/her cellphone. The sense of hearing is in the form of a diffuse field which permeates the environment. The combination of written and oral Torah seems to seek a sensory balance between the visual and the auditory. The problem is that at a certain point the oral Torah, which was originally forbidden to be written down, was permitted to be written in order to avoid being completely lost. As a result, the post written-Talmudic world has a strong visual, anti-auditory bias.
For the talmid chacham being involved with the graphic world presents two serious problems. One is bitul Torah, being involved with something non-Torah in time that could be used for learning Torah. This is somewhat of a theoretical consideration, since involvement in any activity necessary for either livelihood or furthering the learning or teaching of Torah will be considered the fulfillment rather than the violation of Torah.
The other problem is more serious, that of shmirat einayim, protection of the eyes. This means avoiding seeing things which one ought not to see. On Shabbat I was on the hilltop known as Giv'at Ronen, off the road leading up the mountain to Har Bracha in the Shomron, attending the brit (circumcision) of my grandson, born to my daughter Esther and son-in-law Yehoyariv. One of the speakers in the course of the Shabbat spoke about his personal experience of growth in protecting the eyes.
When one becomes selective about what one sees, one gives up as an act of will the possibility of knowing everything possible about what is going on. One makes choices. One looks here and not there. The reason for this is mentioned in Parshat Shlah, Bamidbar (Numbers) 15:39. A male Jew is obligated to put tzitzit (fringes) on the four corners of his garment to remind him to keep the mitzvot and not be led astray by his eyes and heart. One especially chooses to fix one's gaze on the text of the written or printed word of Torah. That creates a purposeful narrowing of vision. That is a voluntary act of saying to the world, I choose not to be with it, I choose not to attempt to know everything that is going on.
Believe me, I am not up to that yet. I think we need people who know what is going on to keep an eye out for the problems and provide insights into the visual, graphic world. If we don't know what is going on, we will get hit over the head with it. I think the brainwashing and plotting from above that led to the expulsion from Gush Katif was an example. The paradox is that as long as we keep our eyes out in the world we are vulnerable to the corruption which can attack us through our senses. The eyes are one thing. The sense of touch is even worse. What about "being in touch"? What about the sound mind in the sound body? It goes on.
Please comment. I can only go so far without the stimulation of the thought and criticism of others. These questions are a struggle and the answers seem very far away.

9 comments:

Batya said...

goyish, the challenge of Yiddishkeit is living with it all and being able to mavdil bain kodesh v'chol.

Uri DeYoung said...

Shalom!
First, many Torah scholars in the national-religious sector are very much involved with learning what the dangers of the media, including Internet are and how to protect youth and adults from them. I cannot remember how many notices for classes and seminars on the subject of the media, including Internet, and Torah I have seen over the past few years, all lead by prominent rabbis with other educators, sometimes social workers or psychologists. I do not know much of what is happening in the hareidi world, but I do not consider the national-religious crowd in Israel to be modern-orthodox. Modern-orthodox is a diaspora, mostly American phenomenon. The hareidi world is gradually letting in the Internet after strict filters, some designed by Internet Rimon, created by my neighbors, have been installed and judging from the damage that the Internet has caused their caution was not misplaced. As far as I know they haven't had bans on recorded music of their own community, only on radio and TV, both of which warrant the ban. Perhaps today there's a bit of Torah on the radio, but it can be found elsewhere of better quality.
In terms of the brainwashing before the expulsion you should separate the public into a few groups: the soldiers, who were intensively brainwashed for 18 months to believe that they were fulfilling a duty of national importance, the left-wing/average citizen who were bombarded by a mass media campaign and the right-wing, who were faced with a divided and sometimes stammering group of rabbis who could not always back their opinions with halacha. The rabbis often did not give their followers clear guidance. Many rabbis went against their own rabbis and did not seek a new mentor, which is not the Torah way. (A Jew is free to leave one rabbi and find another, but as long as he/she calls his/her rabbi by that name, he/she must follow his rulings.) One low level officer was told by his rabbi not to enter the house of the family he was expelling, so he sent his soldiers in to do the dirty work for him. Do we see a bit of confusion there? The right-wing did not fail in the struggle before the expulsion because of brainwashing. The right-wing failed because the rabbis did not give clear guidance, and ignored their gedolim - like Rav Shapira ztz"l, and Rav Levanon, may he live to 120, who did give a clear ruling to not expel.
Hadassa

shlomo said...

1.
"The problem is that the rav or talmid chacham, a person wise in Torah, is limited in his perception of the sensorium of the modern world. A person who teaches in a yeshiva or any other rabbi seriously steeped in the study of holy books is quite out of sync with his young students who live in a world of internet, DVD and MP3 music."

That CAN be the case, but is not NECESSARILY so. You'd hope that rabbis who answer societal questions would bother to acquire the necessary expertise in those areas.

Most or all charedi rabbis lack this knowledge, which is why I do not regard them as competent leaders even for their own communities (though they are competent scholars in their own little niche). But there are many dati leumi rabbis, whose Torah learning credentials are impeccable, who are totally aware and involved in what is going on in their society as a whole. Hopefully, in the future there will be even more.

Of course, most teenagers would see anyone old enough to teach them as "out of touch"...

2. "The literate world de-emphasizes the other senses."
I think this line does a disservice to anyone in the last 3000 years who has enjoyed reading literature or poetry.

3. Put all the cute midrashim aside, shmirat enayim means not staring at and lusting after the opposite sex, no more and no less. It has nothing to do with intentionally choosing to be ignorant of the world around you.

goyisherebbe said...

One of the problems and advantages of blogging is that it is a rough and ready medium and what comes out is spontaneous rather than polished. I was not suggesting that all rabbis are detached from life. Far from it. I was also not suggesting that no one is aware that there are dangers on the internet. I myself blogged about the conference on the subject which took place last week. Nor was I denigrating literature etc.
What I am trying to point out is that in our generation there is a lack of in-depth awareness of the nature of electronic media as they change at very great speed. This is similar to the culture shock that occurred for preliterate cultures faced with the written word or the Renaissance culture suddenly faced with the transition from manuscript to movable type. I am also specifically referring to the vulnerabliltiy of the public to brainwashing or addiction or whatever which occurs not because there is no awareness of danger, but because people have yet to understand how the media work. More specifically a Torah perspective is needed on this subject. I think that there are very few people who are working in this direction which I think is vitally important.
I agree with Hadassa that the brainwashing which made the expulsion possible took place on several levels and I did not intend to paint them with one brush. I simply was struck by the naivete of some of the secular public in failing to critique the media and accepting whatever they say uncritically. Many of the less Torah-educated people who consider themselves religious and have TV at home I include in this vulnerability. I returned exhausted from a nightmare of trying to get from Sderot to Gush Katif to the home of a fine person in a moshav in the south who had TV. I saw the spectacle of the people in the Gush dancing with the Sefer Torah and hugging the soldiers and I was sick, both for the people who lost their homes and were in a state of shock but also for the generaled citizenry who were watching the show and imbibing the subliminal message that the expulsion was somehow okay because of the way the people who were filmed received it. This was done by selective reporting. Who are the media theorists who are trying to intelligently counter such phenomena? I want to meet with them and discuss the issues.

Anonymous said...

Let's be honest, Israel has kicked thousands of Arabs out of their homes many times, most recently a few years ago in Rafiach. We think this is not a problem because we're Jews and they are not and we have a right to eretz yisrael and they don't. But amazingly enough, the majority of Israelis who disagree with that premise weren't upset by those expulsions any more than by Gush Katif. I guess the message is that Israelis just don't care about anything which happens far from home, or perhaps just don't care when the victim doesn't look like them. And probably it's always been that way. If anything, the diversity of media sources nowadays makes it harder to brainwash people than when there was just one TV channel that everyone watched nonstop.

Uri DeYoung said...

Shalom!
We in K'far Darom were privileged to have a rabbi who felt that the people who danced with the soldiers were "holani", sick and said so in an interview after the expulsion. I also think that the people who greeted the soldiers with "I love you" showed bad judgment. I called the first one what he was. He said, "Shalom" and I replied that there is no shalom for rashaim. It'll take time to convince the rest of the right-wing.
anonymous, just when did Israel deport thousands of Arabs from Rafiah? I doubt that Israel deported even 100, during all the time that the IDF was in charge. Most of the Arabs who left Israel fled (went home) during various wars and I wouldn't call that being expelled.
Hadassa

Anonymous said...

For example
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2004/may/17/israel1

No we did not put them in trucks and deport them, but we did destroy large areas of residential buildings, forcing the inhabitants to find somewhere else to live.

goyisherebbe said...

Anonymous, you and the Guardian have the unmitigated gall and chutzpah to equate families in Gush Katif with terrorist supporters harboring tunnels for smuggling weapons and drugs. They should be thrown out. As Knesset Member Dr. Aryeh Eldad says, when they have celebrations and lavish funerals in honor of terrorists, we should bomb them. They are the enemy, damn it, they are killers. They have an entire culture that glorifies murder. That is fundamentally different from Israel, which has a peace movement. How long do you think a demonstration of flower children in Gaza singing "give peace a chance" would last before they all were murdered and mutilated in the inimitable way that terrorists love. Besides, they rebuild the houses anyway, and our prisons now have revolving doors. But now that you have got my adrenalin going, let's please get back on topic. Let's hear some constructive synthesis from Torah about how media work and what we can do about them.

Anonymous said...

The Guardian might want to morally equate Gush Katif and Rafiach but I don't, so don't accuse me of it. All I wanted to say is that practically speaking, both were expulsions, both were defended on "security" grounds, and the average person in Gush Dan was indifferent to both. So, pretty similar except on the moral level. Which means it's understandable that people (here and abroad) whose morality is lacking have a tendency to equate the two. If you want to change this, then perhaps you should try to understand exactly how and why their morality is lacking, as opposed to just getting angry and frustrated at them.

Also when you say "They have an entire culture that glorifies murder. That is fundamentally different from Israel, which has a peace movement." - you obviously disdain the peace movement and wish for it not to exist, but at the time you mention it as a reason why we are more moral than they are???? That's a huge internal contradiction. Not to mention the fact that this "peace" movement has little to do with peace and really should not be held up as a moral badge of honor. And even if the Gazans had a peace movement, even if they were all peace activists, it would be our responsibility to conquer and subjugate them.