Galilee Diary: Changing channels

February 9, 2009

by Marc Rosenstein
(Originally published in Galilee Diary and Ten Minutes of Torah)

Happy is the man who has not followed the counsel of the wicked, or taken the path ofsinners, or joined the company of the inane. -Psalm 1:1

We do not go to the stadium because it is the "company of the inane;" Rabbi Nathan permits [attending the gladiatorial contests] in order to shout and save a life - or in order to bear witness [to the death of a Jewish gladiator] and thus release the widow to remarry. The sages taught: We don't go to theaters and circuses... If there is idol worship there, we don' t attend because of that; if not, then we don't attend because it is the "company of the inane." -Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 18b

Last week I was asked to teach an internet in-service session for "Jewish Roots" teachers in ORT schools, on the topic of "Reality TV and Jewish Identity." At first I thought, "Right, how about the elephant and the Jewish question?" But then I understood that the request was based on two concerns - how to make Jewish text study relevant to the students' lives - and the teachers' concern with the moral values or lack thereof in the popular culture of their students.

First of all, it's important to point out that while Israel now has satellite TV, and even without it, quite a few channels available to everyone, it is still a small country, in which a seemingly trivial cultural fad can seem to totally saturate the national consciousness. I remember when there was only one television channel, you could walk down the street on a summer evening and set your watch according to the theme song from Dallas, coming out of every window. We've come a long way since then, but when a reality show has a significant "event" (e.g., deciding who to remove from the island, or the vote on "A Star is Born"), you can't schedule a meeting or a school program that evening. And even if you don't watch, it will be on the front page of the mass circulation tabloids.

Before reality shows, the youth entertainment fad here was the South American "telenovella" serials. There's always something. Indeed, already in 1912 the historian Joseph Klausner published an attack on the shallowness and ignorance of Israeli youth. When I came on EIE in 1962, I was taken aback to discover that my classmates were obsessed with Paul Anka, not with authentic Hebrew music. But wait, perhaps this isn't a modern phenomenon at all - look at the Talmudic discussion above, of Jewish attendance at the theater. It seems that while there were some rabbis who found a moral defense for participating in pop culture, the dominant attitude seems to have been "Jews shouldn't go there" (which implies, presumably, that they were going). The question is, what is the level of prohibition - is participating in pop culture merely an unseemly waste of time and dulling of the senses and the intellect - or is it idolatry? Is it just silly - or is it evil? Is it valueless - or does it represent negative values? Does the integration of Israel into global culture - manifest in the production of a full program of reality shows in Hebrew - represent a success of Zionism, or a failure? Should we be pleased to have taken our place among the nations - or disappointed that we couldn't do better? Would Eliezer ben Yehuda, the reviver of the Hebrew language, be proud of what we are using it for, or ashamed? And is it even legitimate to attempt a moral judgment of culture? Isn't culture whatever the people create for themselves?

It seems that these are questions we've been asking for centuries. You might think that they would only be the concern of Jews living as a minority in the Diaspora - but it turns out that cultural influences doesn't stop at the border of the holy land - not in Roman times, not today.

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