Saturday, June 21, 2014

Side Note: The AGT Kid With The Yarmulke

I wish Rabbi Fink was right.

In the tradition of the Berditchever, he tried to find a “silver lining”, a limmud z’chus to whatever extent possible for the kippah-clad 6th grader who appeared on America’s Got Talent telling dirty jokes about his parents’ sex life while his parents shepped nachas onstage.

[I haven’t watched it.  I’m afraid if I do, the authorities will come looking for me; I’d look kind of the way Robin Thicke did mid-twerk with Miley, as if he was waiting to be arrested for statutory offenses.]

The reason I wish Rabbi Fink was right is because I’m a nogea b’davar, big time.  Leave alone my Saw You At Sinai resume which indicates that “I plan on: Definitely Owning A TV—Definitely Going Out To Movies—Definitely Watching Movies At Home”.   My SYAS essay details how I “embrace popular culture”.  [That might explain why I’m still single.  But maybe not.]

I play in cover bands.  Female-fronted.  Have been for years.  I’m not even going to publish our set list.  I’ve been known to say that I’m very makpid on kol isha: I try to hear as many women singing as possible.  [And yes, I generally keep my kippah on while onstage, or at least have my head covered.]

So while I definitely agree that, as Rabbi Fink put it, “we need more work on our image of being normal than our image of being religious”, this particular incident will swing the pendulum in the other direction; it’s given the right-wing crowd and/or anyone who eschews TV and the like a bigger pischon peh against MO than, to paraphrase Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, “reams of Yated Ne’eman”.  

This makes even ME think twice about how steeped in pop culture I am.  [I’ve drawn some lines, occasionally asked some shailos from various LOR’s [and been actually pleasantly surprised by some of the answers I’ve gotten.]  But I admittedly haven’t viewed my immersion in pop culture through a purely halachik lens.]  So actually—I’m pretty ticked off at the kid’s parents; they’ve made it harder for the rest of us, especially those really involved in the arts who actually care.

However, maybe that’s where the silver lining Rabbi Fink looked for is.

First--at least judging from the facebook universe, most of the commentary was decidedly negative.  The term “Chilul Hashem” was bandied about—by MO practitioners who don’t necessarily have smicha.  Even R’ Yaakov Menken didn’t use the term in his Cross-Currents piece on the incident.  [Maybe he thought it was so obvious that it didn’t bear mentioning, but maybe not.]  This indicates that the MO universe is definitely NOT comfortable with this, and that something needs to be done.

Second--while we now recognize the need to draw lines somewhere, the involvement of Orthodox Jews as Orthodox Jews in the arts—performing and otherwise—isn’t going away.  We had the case of Ophir Ben-Sheetrit, suspended from her HS for singing in public; we have Orthodox dancers and dance teachers dealing with varying levels of communal tensions; and from my experience, many more kippah-wearing musicians in various beis mishtaos [some doing it for a living, some not].  When I did it in 1991 it was still a novelty, and somewhat controversial [especially since I was a Shana Bet guy].  It’s less so now.  There are going to have to be conversations and parameters, but maybe if the realization hasn’t yet sunk in that this is a viable option as far as Orthodox participation beyond mere spectating, maybe it will now.   There was a time when religious authorities tried to dissuade their charges from entering certain [actually, a majority of] professions, for various reasons [“Jewish boys/girls don’t do that”].   Some felt compelled to choose between the said professions and religion, and religion lost.   Then Orthodoxy adjusted--someone figured out: you can do both.  Same thing here.

Third--see some of the comments on facebook and elsewhere about “levels” of chilul hashem:  “Well which is worse, the MO kid with the dirty mouth, or the Chassid/black hatter who [insert malfeasance here]?”  In theory, that might be beside the point, with one important caveat: the widespread discomfort and [with the possible exception of me] lack of cognitive dissonance in the widespread criticism indicates that, unlike some of our more right wing cohorts, there seems to be less wagon-circling.   No one is saying that this is being used to attack our way of life.  [Except me.  And I’m admittedly an interested party.]

One more point: R’ Menken opined this happened because deviancy has been defined down.  I would—and have—argued—the opposite: sometimes the bar is raised too high, and there is a backlash.   This can—and has—happened in too many areas to detail, but maybe some people want to define themselves in contradistinction to perceived extremism, and this is what results.

So maybe Rabbi Fink was right after all.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Korach: "We're All Individuals!!!"

I’ve written before about how Korach, under the guise of egalitarian protestation, used his own prophetic vision to advance his personal position to get what he thought was rightfully his at the expense of those who were deluded enough to follow him and the democratic pretensions he actually didn’t believe in, or care enough to even give credence to.

Even if he himself didn’t believe what he was preaching, “kol ha’edah kulam kedoshim” being the catchphrase employed, it might be interesting to compare this case of Biblical democratic pretension to another: the story of migdal bavel.

The catchphrase there, as pointed out by the Netziv, was devarim achadim.  In HaEmek Davar Bereishis 11:4, he asserts that Tower-era Babylon prefigured the Iron Curtain in its legislation: “..if some would leave they might adopt different thoughts…[] so they saw to it that no one left their enclave…[] anyone who deviated from devarim achadim would be sentenced to burning…”  Judy Klistner refers to this as “coercive conformity”.

We see a lot of this, particularly on the Left and in academia, to the point that former Mayor Michael Boomberg admonished a graduation audience at Harvard about the disturbing trend of "liberals silencing voices "'deemed politically objectionable.'"   On the Right, it didn’t start with “You’re either with us or against us”, but the recent primary-season brouhahas between Tea Party and Chamber of Commerce candidates—and the insistence in some Republican enclaves that the party dedicate itself to a unitary religious vision—indicate for the tendencies for groupthink in those quarters.

That being in the word at large, how does this “vision” translate to the Jewish world?

One can note the difference between the respective Divine paybacks:  Korach dies. The dor haflagah doesn’t.   Why is Korach’s punishment so much more draconian?

He used religion to do it.  He not only held himself up as the leading light of egalitarianism, he held himself up as that of religious egalitarianism.  Despite the fact that he had ascended to his then-already lofty communal position because of his DNA [as Moshe pointed out to him], and his assertions of “kulam kedoshim”, he also intimated he would make changes to mitzvos, both bein adam lamakom [the “talis she’kulo techeiles”] and l’chavero [his rantings about tithing as an onerous system of taxation were a surefire way to score political points with the public].

There are many ways conformity can be introduced into religious practice, from all corners.   There’s no reason to point them out [although one might say that because there are so many of them—as Professor Lawrence Kaplan might say, “Which Da’as Torah?”—conformity is an impossibility].  But if someone tried to use “kulam kedoshim” as a justification…