Monday, November 3, 2008

How can a Jew deal with the outside world?

I saw this movie with my friend, Nosson Zand (now travelling with Matisyahu), starring an LA yeshiva bochur who got attracted to rapping. It’s a classical Jewish story of “inside vs. outside”; one of the early 20th-century Jewish writers (Mendele, Peretz, Sholom Aleichem, Isaac Babel) could’ve written it, had they lived in our times (I believe there is actually a story like that by Babel which I read in middle school). The plot has everything: a rabbi’s son who rebels, attraction of the outside culture, a friendly goy, a non-friendly goy who gets Jews in trouble, another “boy scout” Jew who is hypocritical, although he pretends to be sincere, and last but not least: an intolerant, well-meaning but a bit backward rabbi who just doesn’t get the main protagonist.

מזמור לדוד — Song of David the Movie (with Hebrew Subtitles)
(Click on the link for better movie quality.)

As it turns out, it’s very strange to see somebody you know personally (and in a different context) act in a movie. I didn’t like the movie so much, for obvious reasons, but I did like Nosson’s acting; the role comes to him naturally, even though his story is actually a polar opposite of his character’s.

Regarding the movie itself — two issues:

1. The question of intersection of secular and Jewish cultures is really the question of intersection of material and spiritual, finite and infinite, the topic of Chabad Chassidus. The question of what to do with one’s secular “baggage” after returning to Judaism is a relatively easy one. When asked for advice, the Rebbe always said not to make all the years devoted to secular education (and secular life) go to waste, but to use them for the purpose of Judaism. Nullification of something negative is good; transformation of it to good is better. A more difficult question is: if one has a choice to begin with, should one lower oneself in klippah, expecting to turn it into kedusha?

2. My initial reaction was to post this video, but the second one was not to post it, because it portrays religious Jews negatively and the whole community and yeshiva system as intolerant. In the end, I decided to post it, because I think this issue must be addressed. Intolerance to the secular culture may or may not be a bad thing in this case, in absolute terms (see question one). In relative terms, however, it has been my opinion for a long time that a major problem of the frum world was inflexibility and inability to do ischapcha with issues that changing time throws into our face, choosing to dismiss or supress (iskafiya) them instead. A few generations of Jews who went “off the derech”, the success of Reform and Conservative movement are the results of this inflexibility.

As a response to the problem, there are a few choices: a) increase our defenses, raise the walls, call everything “outside” of the walls evil; b) compromise — create a balance between our inner values and outer values; shape our life in such a way that it is effectively on the “outside”, but the twist of an “insider”; c) transform the “outside” into the “inside”.

In my personal opinion, there are major problems with first two approaches. The first one results in losing Jews on the one hand and prevents one from transforming this world into a G-dly place on the other (at least, it doesn’t maximize our efforts in doing so). The second approach may look attractive, with one caveat: in practice, the “outside” always sucks people in; at the end of the day, you stop being a Jew — you become a doctor, a businessman, a scientist, a lawyer, a brick-layer, who is “also Jewish”. Everything Jewish which cannot compete with the world is swept away. The essence of Judaism is lost; it becomes just another culture, just another “ethnic wisdom”, just another strategy to deal with the world. In theory it shouldn’t happen; in practice it happens all too often.

The third approach is the most difficult one. But, in my opinion, it maximizes the essence of our role, as Jews, in this world. The third approach is approach of Chabad Chassidus. The difficulty of the first question and the dangers of the second approach always remain, but Chabad Chassidus grants a Jew one tool the first two strategies do not (in my humble opinion): it allows a Jew to always remember why he is here, and in front of whom he is standing. When in a palace of a king, it is easy to forget about the king and concentrate on the palace. Solution? Study about the king. Then the palace will not only not distruct one from the king but will also enhance one’s understanding of who the king is (which is why one came to the palace in the first place — right?).


Shorty said...

I'm not sure I understand (and i would like to) by bringing outside inside...

Are you saying (still using your analogy), that while spending time in admiration of the material "wealth", look towards the owner of the "wealth" - what makes them "tick" so to speak, how they got to be "wealthy"...that sort of thing?

I also don't understand (and i would like to) how this applies to being "attracted" to rap music, and the story line in th movie.

I am learning about these lessons in my Jewish women's group, and I am having trouble grasping some of the concepts


Αλέξανδρος said...

Are you asking about the third type? The bottom line is to use material for the spiritual purposes. That way you transform the “outside” (something from non-Jewish world) into the “inside” (a legitimate part of the Jewish world, since now it is used for Jewish purpose).

This is different from the first approach, which wants to separate Jews from something which is not (yet) Jewish. The second approach admires something non-Jewish for its material benefits, not for its usefulness for Judaism.

An example of that is Internet (or any technology). It is potentially dangerous, because it can influence a Jew “away” from Judaism. One solution is to ban use of Internet. The other is to recognize that in our lives, there are Jewish needs (Torah, mitzvos) and there are regular, human needs — such as Internet. Just make sure they don’t contradict (and if they do, figure out, what’s more important in this case — and if you can choose a more lenient way in Judaism to accommodate a conflicting “worldly” need, then do so).

The third approach is to deny shying from something which can be used for yiddishkeit (first approach), and to deny that Jews have “just human” needs that are outside of Torah. Every need we have is a need of Torah; if it has nothing to do with Torah, it is not our need. We do, however, need to find a way to use as many aspects of the world as possible for the sake of Torah.

So, one can use Internet (radio, TV, etc.) to spread ideas of Judaism. What will prevent somebody from being influenced negatively by Internet is not a “wall” of some kind or a compromise, but realization that the whole reason one is using Internet (or living in general) to begin with is for Torah, not anything else.

Regarding rapping, it’s the same idea. Nosson Zand (the actor in the movie) uses rap to spread ideas of yiddishkeit. Those ideas could be spread some other way, but why not “elevate” the medium of rap if one has a chance and was already placed in such a position by Divine Providence?

Hope this helps... Thanks for the comment.

Shorty said...

Yes i understand now! Thank you!

the sabra said...

hey, nice post.
warming to see other ppl appreciate chabad for what it is.

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