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.

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