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29 Sivan 5761 - June 20, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
Is Modern Entertainment Any Good for the Soul?

By Rabbi Nosson Zeev Grossman

The questions that I will discuss this time are: is it possible to have religious entertainment, entertainment with a "hechsher" produced with good intentions and containing religious motifs? Can a Torah-observant Jew live peacefully with the modern entertainment culture, even before checking its programs and the quality of the plays?

The world of entertainment is not a modern phenomenon. In ancient Greece various popular diversions were invented that were presented in amphitheaters specially built for this purpose. Chazal frequently warned against visiting theaters and circuses, since they harm man's soul.

Entertainment has changed its form through the ages and in the various parts of the world it appears in different hues. The common denominator of them all is the aim of fulfilling man's desire to forget his daily yoke, to free himself from all constraining values. A person escapes from seriousness -- where his intelligence dictates his actions -- to the more comfortable domains of permissiveness, haughtiness, and unrestrained gaiety.

Entertainment in all its diverse fashions is radically opposed to the Torah way of life and to genuine Jewish feeling. Even if there is no explicit prohibition against it, entertainment's essence is the antithesis of Jewry and Torah.

HaRav Yosef Lipovitz zt'l (in Nachalas Yosef on Megillas Ruth) enlightens us with a midrash that teaches us to what degree this subject is considered a cardinal principle of Judaism.

When Ruth sought to cling to the Jewish Nation and accept the Torah's yoke, Naomi delineated to her the limitations and restrictions that the Torah demands of Jews. "As soon as Naomi heard that [Ruth wanted to enter the Jewish Nation] she began setting before her the halochos of geirim. She said to her: `My daughter, it is not the way of Jewish women to go to the theaters or stadiums of the non-Jews.'[Ruth] said: `Where you go, I will go . . .'" (Ruth Rabbah 2:23-24).

HaRav Yosef Lipovitz zt'l writes about this: "It is simply magnificent! According to the explanation of Chazal, Naomi started learning hilchos geirim not from the actual laws of the Torah -- from the 613 positive and negative mitzvos -- but from the side issues of not going to theaters and stadium shows. It can be inferred that Chazal saw in refraining from this [i.e., keeping away from these sources of entertainment] an essential principle of accepting the yoke of Heaven's kingdom. This is truly amazing. How can it possibly be so important?

"`Chazal are sometimes terse in what they write in one place, but elaborate in other places' (Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 3:8). The gemora (Avodoh Zorah 18b) calls all these places of entertainment moshav leitzim, about which the posuk writes: `. . . nor did he sit in the moshav leitzim; but his delight is only in the Torah of Hashem' (Tehillim 1:1-2). From the posuk in Tehillim we understand that a moshav leitzim and the Torah of Hashem are two opposing factors that contradict each other . . .

"Let us now return to the subject of theaters and circuses. We do not know when people started patronizing them, nor what their motive was. From Chazal, however, who included them in the definition of a moshav leitzim, we learn that they were not just places of entertainment. The aim was to tutor man and to provide him with a direction for his life. Chazal in the past criticized them severely, declaring that they are mere leitzonus; present reality has shown this criticism to be conclusive. How many ornate phrases have been repeatedly used by the various types of theaters, assuring us that they will serve as a mortal `temple' for culture and the improvement of character traits? Not only have they not improved these things, they have even served to incite all sorts of evil inclinations. One cannot seek relief, or the bettering of oneself, by using the cures prescribed by doctors of idolatry.

"When Naomi began guiding Ruth along the way of Judaism, she needed first to cancel all the principles and concepts that Ruth had inherited from Mo'av. In her first talk with Ruth, Naomi said: `My daughter, you must be aware that all our axioms are different from those of other nations. It is not the way of a Jewish woman to look for truth and beauty in theaters and circuses, because according to our outlook there is only falsehood and depravity there.' What the book of Ruth begins to teach us, Tehillim concludes: `Happy is the man who did not go . . . nor sat in the place of jesters; but his delight is only in the Torah of Hashem.' We have one way and that is the Torah. Only the Torah can pave the way for us in life and only it can educate man as to how to refine his life."

The weltanschauung of show business offers man an "alternative" for spiritual experiences: a cheap replacement that will help him push aside the spiritual hunger ingrained in his neshomoh. The world of entertainment is the opposite of how a Jew should live and fulfill his obligations in his world. The Torah demands that man concentrate on his duties in life, that he utilize his capabilities to their fullest, that he engage in the study of Divine wisdom, dominate his yetzer and refine his nefesh.

In contrast, entertainment helps a person run away from himself and disregard man's lofty level and sacred soul by diverting his attention to the follies of this world, to worthless matters, while creating an atmosphere of conceit and disregard for one's duties in life.

For these reasons the world of entertainment is truly the foremost enemy of Judaism. This was true even in the distant past, but how much more is it true today, when all these things are just as true, and one does not even have to bother going out to a theater? All the spiritual garbage is readily available through radio, television, the computer (Internet), video and films.

Fifteen years ago one of the famed baalei teshuvah in our generation, R' Uri Zohar, published a book called Uvocharto Bachaim (later translated by M. Weinberg and called My Friends, We Were Robbed!). In this book R' Zohar portrays the deliberating and questioning that led him to return to Judaism and become Torah-observant. As someone who was well aware of what is happening on the other side of the fence, he depicts sharply and bluntly, without covering anything up, the various offerings of the entertainment world which take up most of the average secular Jew's free time. He notes that as long as he was engrossed in the secular world he was unable to examine objectively questions such as: "What is the point of comedy?" or "Why is it so right or important to laugh and to make others laugh?"

He writes that the answer to this question can be found by first analyzing the word "entertainment," which in Hebrew is bidur, literally meaning "dispersal."

"When performed at its best, it consists of the spontaneity of improvisational comedy mixed with equal portions of self- deprecation, social satire, and that distinctively bitter- sweet laugh-cry which characterizes the Jewish sense of irony. The whole mixture is then presented to, or rather scatter-gunned at, the audience. This catch-as-catch-can dispersal of straight lines, punch lines, body movements, changes in modulation, tone, and expression induces in the audience another kind of dispersal, the dispersal of pent-up tensions and emotions in the form of laughter."

R' Uri Zohar writes that the entertainment profession can never make any tangible change in society or the individual. There is no one in the world, among all those who watch shows, i.e. the entertainment "consumers," who ever made any significant decision as a result of the influence of theater art's creativity on him.

Once a driver stopped near R' Zohar for a red light and recognized him as being the famous Uri Zohar. The driver said to him angrily, "How could you do such a thing? One day there you are on stage making us laugh, and then poof! You just pick up and leave -- just like that. Who's going to make us laugh now? You should be ashamed of yourself."

"That incident," relates R' Zohar, "along with others of a similar if less dramatic nature, confirmed the accuracy of a conclusion which I reached after having learned quite a bit of Torah, namely, that the nature of the artistic life is essentially barren. I realized that each of my performances had accomplished nothing more than the temporary dispersal of repressed energies (both mine and those of the audience) which, by the next day, would inevitably accumulate again, to be dispersed once more until the next show -- Sisyphus on stage."

R' Zohar writes in reference to the above: "Who says that it is so important to take part in this specific process? Torah life concentrates one's entire spiritual capability and makes it his goal in life. Entertainment is only scattering light; the aim of Torah and mitzvos is concentrating light. For someone who has a clear view of his aim in life, entertainment is negative. It interferes, sterilizes, and anesthetizes."

We do not really need anything written in modern times to understand the detrimental influence entertainment has on man. As cited above, Chazal warned many times against theaters and circuses (stadium shows). Even Naomi told Ruth that distancing oneself from those entertainment sources is a principle of a Jew's uniqueness. Today's baalei teshuvah can acknowledge this since they themselves are eyewitnesses -- "There is no one wiser than an experienced person" (Akeidah, chap. 14).

They experienced personally and directly the demoralizing influence of self-conceit, permissiveness, and escapism that characterizes the audiences of these shows. They are fully aware of the damage that was done to them and their friends because of this "leisure culture." There is nothing like those bewitching pleasures, shallow and lacking any essence, for preventing a person from arriving at the "hour of quiet" about which the Chazon Ish zt'l (in the beginning of his Emunah Ubitochon) writes that it is the first condition necessary for a person to realize emunah and his duty in life.

It is a mistake to say that entertainment was prohibited because "chodosh (in this sense meaning innovation) is prohibited by the Torah," that is, that the Torah is against anything new. Entertainment is not chodosh at all. Its source is in the ancient heretic world of Greek culture. Entertainment is opposed to Judaism not because of it is an innovation but because of its essence.

Judaism does not oppose using modern technical ways of spreading Torah for chinuch purposes. If the role of a pen and an inkwell is replaced by a tape recorder, computer printer, CD-ROM, and modem, there is no reason not to use them to relay educational and Torah messages. This is with regard to an electronic means of communication.

But entertainment is not only or mainly a means of communication. It is the expression of a superficial spiritual existence that is alienated from reality and is diametrically opposed to the way of Torah and emunah.

Under the conditions created and forced upon us in Israel, in the process of continually grappling with the attempts of secular groups to capture the nation's soul, gedolei Yisroel have permitted representatives of the chareidi community to appear and be interviewed on the media. Their aim is to let the nation know what daas Torah is and to rebut those who attack us. In this way we can utilize modern technology for our purposes and not leave the arena for the exclusive use of enemies of the Torah. If we do so, perhaps some traditional Jewish message will be absorbed by hearts that are aching with emptiness and nourished on secular incitement against the Torah.

On the other hand, Torah-true Jewry has never taken part in entertainment and amusement programs, whose essence is totally opposed to the basis of our Torah. We can pass on Judaism using the latest technical innovations, but not through theater. Just as the theaters and Greek stadiums could not be used as a proper place as "entertainment in the spirit of Judaism" for the cultivation of any positive influence, so this cannot be done by today's theaters and circuses.

Entertainment and Judaism are two enemies and a moshav leitzim is the absolute opposite of Toras Hashem.

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