Monday, February 23, 2009

Lion’s Tail

“No. You are a Jewish girl who got mixed up in the culture of the heathen-Greco-Roman-America of today. Look what they use you for: to sell their soft-porn smut through reaching out to the lowest aspect of humanity and to make airports a place where mothers have to cover children's eyes. How many lascivious thoughts has your image evoked? How many jealous thoughts? How much wasting of time? How much degradation of values?...
…But you are not the only one to blame for this ignominious degradation. All those Orthodox Jews who take pride in having kosher hotdogs and a Maariv Minyan in Madison Square Garden - they too are to blame. Oh, they would claim that their worship of professional sports has nothing to do with your public exhibitionism. But it does, because both come from the same root; that is, the Greek and Roman fascination with the body. Is it a coincidence that Sports Illustrated caters to both the pro sports and the soft-porn crowd? Of course not, because both pro sports and soft-porn are flip sides of the same coin. What can one expect from the secular Jews when Orthodox Jews act like Hellenists?
…Orthodox Jews sitting in a stadium munching on kosher dogs while watching today's gladiators compete? This is not the stuff of a better world, nor the actions of a G-dly people…
…It is time for the Jewish people to end our addiction with animalism. It is time that we stop being the heads of foxes by helping the world plummet in its moral decline. Instead, it is time for us Jews to be the tails of lions, that is, to fulfill our role by being a "Light Unto The Nations" nation. The time has come to get up, shake off the dross of 2,000 years, and get to some real work. We have better images to put on the sides of airplanes and on magazine covers. We have a chance to make great things happen in this generation: to help breathe the breath of life back into a world that has chosen physicality over spirituality, and to remind mankind that we are all created in the image of G-d, and not vice-versa.”
This is an excerpt of an article by Yishai Fleisher which appeared on February 17, 2009 in Arutz Sheva. If you haven’t guessed, it was written in protest to Bar Rephaeli appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated Magazine as well as having her image graced on the side of a Southwest airlines Boeing 737. The author while protesting the lack of tznius, revealed a warped and unhealthy resentment towards western culture to the point that it has corrupted his own understanding and appreciation of Jewish culture as it has evolved through the ages. Under normal circumstances I would have read the piece, chuckled and moved on. However, what I find most troubling is that Fleisher’s point of view is finding wider currency among a growing number of right wing orthodox Jews. He may be right about the lack of tznius but his condemnation of western values is not the answer and is therefore of great concern.

This growing community of people seems to equate sports with pornography, spirituality with a rejection of physical beauty. In rejecting the display of flesh in public they are throwing out the baby with the bath water. If there is anything sensual or erotic about an object d’ art it must be rejected. There is a display not only of intolerance but fanaticism that defies any logic, common sense and is indicative of a total lack of contextual understanding of our history and culture. His rant flies in the face of our tradition which offers ample examples of the balance and value we place on aesthetics. Parshat Terumah is a good example of that.

My intention here is not to use parshat Terumah to rationalize the behavior of any model or the display of oneself in an immodest manner. My intention is to contextualize our history and tradition and demonstrate how timely and beautiful it can be while appreciating physical beauty for what it is. Parshat Terumah begins with a description of gifts to be accepted in the building of the Tabernacle and its vessels. “And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold silver and copper; blue purple and crimson yarns fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skin, dolphin skins, and acacia wood.” (Exodus 25:3-5)

From this description one can assume that color, texture and materials were very important to the building of the Tabernacle. It teaches us too that physical beauty was something which ought to be appreciated. We give gifts of things that are precious to us. Obviously these gifts were highly prized and appreciated. The text underscores and encourages our appreciation of beautiful things. Indeed the aesthetics involved in the design of the structure was as important as the message emanating from it. Otherwise, why the detailed description in our text of the materials, colors and fabrics involved in the construction of the Tabernacle.

Over the centuries and perhaps because of the long exile the Jewish religious aesthetics lost its unique signature and adopted many of the art forms from other neighboring or host culture. During those periods and perhaps because of our experience in exile we shunned art forms that were pagan or Christian in nature, perhaps as a way of maintaining our unique culture and resisting assimilating into the neighboring culture. Our sages and rabbis however were wise and they were able to draw a qualitative line between enjoying art for the sake of its beauty and appreciating it for its religious value.

There is a Mishna in Talmud Avoda Zara that tells an interesting anecdote about Rabban Gamliel, president of the Sanhedrin who frequently bathed in the Aphrodite bathhouse in Acre. One of the pagans bathing there at the time that Rabban Gamliel was there asked him how it was that he was bathing in a place where there was a statue of Aphrodite. Rabban Gamliel answered him that one has to make the distinction between that which is important and that which is irrelevant as well as the intent of the statue. Had the statue been placed there for religious worship it wouldn’t have been permissible to bath there, but as it is there only for aesthetics it is permissible to bath there and to enjoy the aesthetics. This is a fascinating Mishnah because it demonstrates the balance in Rabban Gamliel’s approach to Jewish living, halacha and appreciating the Greco – Roman world of culture.

Rabbi Yosef Karo, editor of the Shulkan Aruch made a similar distinction when he said that statues in a small village aren’t to be viewed whereas those in larger cities are permissible. The reasoning being that those placed in a small village were done so for religious purposes and therefore a Jew isn’t allowed to get any pleasure from it. However those placed in larger cities were placed there for the purpose of art and aesthetics, not for religious purposes and therefore can be viewed for artistic appreciation.

It would appear that the ability of our sages and rabbis to make these fine distinctions in order to appreciate art and architecture of the ages has been lost on many of our 21st century rabbis and scholars. There is a trend as demonstrated by Fleisher and others towards a fanaticism that has no genuine grounding within our tradition. The ability to balance Jewish living and the world we live in was a talent that our rabbis and sages valued and honed. Unfortunately it is fast disappearing.