“Life is happier without movies and the Internet.” So declare countless stickers that decorate bus shelters, billboards, and private doors and porches in Charedi residential areas. Naturally, it is difficult to prove scientifically which lives are happier, making it hard to argue the case one way or the other. What is certainly true, however, is that many happiness-seeking people think otherwise. The entire world, and among it no small parts of Charedi society, choose to live with the Internet (including its filtered versions) and movies. To paraphrase, the stickers bark and the caravan moves on.
As a young and fairly naive Kollel student, I recall myself expressing wonder at the very notion of batallah (time-wasting) that was raised in conversation with my chavrusa: What can a person spend so much time on at home other than Torah study? As soon as the personal computer burst into our lives and made its way into many homes, my question received an adequate response. Today, it seems that only a minority of Charedi society distances itself altogether from viewing movies. The rest, each family to the degree and level it chooses, have adopted Western society’s leading pastime. Some limit viewing to Charedi productions, while others open their screens to cinema productions from elsewhere – the more modest among them.
The Charedi war against television ended several decades ago with an overwhelming triumph. Antena owners – rooftops used to give you away – were ostracized from every Charedi community, until the absence of a TV set from the living room became the hallmark of a Charedi home. Yet, the advent of the 21st century revealed that this was only a temporary victory
Things were different once. The Charedi war against television ended several decades ago with an overwhelming triumph. Antena owners – rooftops used to give you away – were ostracized from every Charedi community, leading to the situation whereby the absence of a TV set from the living room became the hallmark of a Charedi home. Yet, the advent of the 21st century revealed that this was only a temporary victory. The penetration of the computer into Charedi homes – whether for Torah use, for everyday needs, or for work – altogether changed the rules of engagement. From a position of total advantage, the campaign objectives shifted to containment and damage limitation. Under radically changed circumstances, this has become the maximal aspiration.
How can this new reality be navigated? How should we react to circumstances whereby alongside traditional educational themes our children are exposed to messages, explicit or more subtle, from sources totally disconnected from (and often antithetical to) Jewish and Torah values? At present, the approach of educational institutions is to entirely ignore the issue. A staff member might occasionally release half a wink, as though to signal awareness of a student’s viewing habits and a conscious decision to overlook the matter – but nothing more. The position has its merits. It maintains a sterile public space and guards the purity of mind of those who altogether refrain from exposure to movie content. There does come a time when silence itself becomes deafening and can be more damaging even than speech, but I am not in possession of a yardstick that can indicate whether or not this time has come. My question, however, does not apply to institutions but to us: families, individuals, mature and young adults who are faced with ever-growing dilemmas around the not-so-new media of visual art. How do we handle it?
Given the magnitude of the challenge, which to my knowledge has not received serious treatment on other Charedi platforms, I was pleased to see Eliyahu Levi’s recent article on Tzarich Iyun, “Two Cheers for Shtisel.” Discussing cinema in general and the successful Shtisel series in particular, Levi opens with a general observation about the medium, based on Socrates’ biting critique of theater. He then proceeds to warn of the potentially negative influence of Shtisel and similar Charedi-oriented productions, which he fears could cause a “loss of mystery” or “loss of uniqueness” to Charedi experience. My present essay will employ a similar structure. As to Socrates, I will shed light on his position concerning theater by reference to “Plato’s cave,” and proceed to discuss the extent to which today’s cinematic productions share the same flaw. Following this, I will discuss the internal challenges that movies present Torah society, and consider a potential method for damage limitation. Finally, I will argue that despite its failings, Shtisel remains good for the Jews, and reflects a trend we should be aware of, and even thankful for.
Cinema and Plato’s Cave
Thoughts about cinema – watching characters dancing on a screen – bring us quickly back to Plato’s renowned “allegory of the cave,” or “Plato’s cave” as it is often referred to. The simile describes a group of prisoners who are chained to the wall of a cave for the duration of their lives, facing a blank wall and lacking the ability to turn their heads. Behind them is a partition, behind which burns an eternal fire that lights up the wall in front of the prisoners. The prisoners watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of the fire (and above the partition) behind them, which are carried by people who walk back and forth behind the partition (so that their shadows are unseen on the wall). The sounds of the people talking echo off the walls, so that the prisoners believe they emanate from the shadows. The shadows thus become the prisoners’ entire reality. (Republic, 514-515).
The ensuing events are less important for our purposes, yet still worthy of mention. One of the prisoners is freed and after harsh travails makes it out of the cave into the real, sunlit world. After his eyes adjust he realizes the difference between light and shadow, between the real world and the artificial reality of the cave, and makes up his mind to return to the cave and share the discovery with his fellow prisoners. However, upon returning to the cave his eyes are unable to see in the darkness, and the prisoners mock him and claim he was blinded by leaving the cave. They scoff at his claims about the real world and, fearing blindness, they decide that anybody who tries to free them and take them out of the cave shall be killed. In line with Socrates’s bitter end, Plato’s cave allegory does not reach a “happy ending.”
Socrates’s critique of theater, which Levi cites from the tenth book of the Republic, is an extension of the cave allegory. Socrates notes the “ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry” (607b), and Plato’s cave frames this same struggle as a battle between light and darkness, between wisdom and ignorance. Socrates’s claim in book ten is that the poets do not aspire to a reflective life, a life of wisdom and knowledge. Their heroes are warriors, people of the earth, and therefore Socrates accuses them of a mimicry (mimesis) that cannot be true to its subject – the poets, after all, have no experience of warfare. The voices of the poets, in Socrates’s vision, correspond to the sounds echoing off the cave’s wall, presenting the listener with a one-dimensional and deeply flawed version of reality. The philosopher, by contrast, engages in reflective thought that presents reality in its multi-layered fullness. Just as the poet, even the philosopher does not know the ways of combat and warfare, yet this constitutes no fault for he analyzes rather than mimics, he is “above” reality rather than “beneath” it. Just at the prisoner who left the cave, the philosopher invites his listeners, at significant risk that Socrates himself will ultimately learn upon his own flesh, to experience the good light (see, for further analysis, Allan Bloom’s essay on Plato’s Republic, printed at the end of his translation).
The main dispute between Socrates and the poets concerns the right type of education for the next generation, or the identity of the legitimate educator: the poet and his passions or the philosopher and his reason? Love, as an example of a powerful feeling – romantic love, friendly love, love of Hashem – is a strong trigger for passionate action. […] It inspires us to action, but the action often strays from the line of truth, from the purity of human reason
The main dispute between Socrates and the poets concerns the right type of education for the next generation, or the identity of the legitimate educator: the poet and his passions or the philosopher and his reason? Love, as the most potent of emotions – romantic love, friendly love, love of Hashem – is a powerful trigger for passionate action. However, the other side of the coin is that “love ruins the straight line” (Bereishis Rabbah 55). It inspires us to action, but the action often strays from the line of truth, from the purity of human reason. Socrates thus sides forcefully with a philosophical education, to the point that he advocates banishing the poets and playwrights from the polis, for fear of their adverse educational effect on youth and on society.
The critique of a non-rational education recalls Rambam’s teachings concerning hipa’alut – a passive state in which a person is acted upon rather than acting in a positive sense. Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 1:55) warns us lest we relate any element of passivity to Hashem. For instance, it would be wrong to say that God acts out of compassion or out of anger, out of love or out of hate, for this implies that others (for whom Hashem feels love or compassion) act upon God, rendering Him passive – nif’al. All that can be said, according to the Rambam, is that God acts in a way that recalls, in human terms, acts of love or compassion, while He Himself remains entirely aloof of any human emotion. In a similar vein, Rambam warns his readers, especially those acting in a leadership capacity, to emulate Hashem and refrain from making decisions in a state of passivity: “all hipa’alut is bad” (1:54). In imitation of Hashem, we are beholden to refrain from actions that derive from “weakness and compassion and hipa’alut” or from other emotions such as anger or hatred, but to act only “as appears correct according to proper judgment.”
Human perfection in the Rambam’s system is manifest in somebody who controls his urges, his emotions, and his physical lusts (which the Rambam disparages), “and places his destiny as the destiny of man qua man, namely, rational thought and none besides” (3:8). The lives of Plato’s cave-dwellers, whose entire world is engineered by others who control their feelings and thoughts, are prime examples of a passive life – a life of hipa’alut. The Rambam compares such a life to that of a slave, defined by passivity. In other words, they are similar to matter, which for Rambam is the source of all evil and deficiency, controlled by a form that others impose.
This, too, is the fundamental criticism that can be leveled at the pastime of cinema-going. In a modern version of Plato’s cave, we imprison ourselves willfully, seating ourselves in front of a screen and entering a virtual reality invented by directors. Entry into the cinema hall (or its living room equivalent) is in effect an act of submission, turning ourselves into “matter in the hands of the potter” for others who play with our emotions and engineer our awareness. For similar reasons, Rambam voiced fierce objection to music (Pe’er Hador no. 143); his objection to movies would likely be still harsher.
Culture as Education
In the ancient and ongoing struggle between poets and philosophers, there is little doubt that the poets, or directors in the cinematic version, have the upper hand in terms of influence and education. “Politics,” quipped Andrew Breitbart, “is downstream from culture.” Social change is certainly influenced by ideas, but its great engine is culture; and as of today, culture’s most powerful instrument is cinema. We should take note of this cultural dominance. Cinema, whether on the big or the small screen, defines the values of today’s Western culture, often without our even knowing it.
This insight stands at the core of much of cinema’s fiercest criticism, hailing from both sides of the political spectrum. On the Left, groups such as the “Frankfurt School” and its later disciples critiqued the use of cinema in enculturating individuals into the dominant system of needs, thought, and behavior. In the words of Herbert Marcuse, “with the control of information, with the absorption of individuals into mass communication, knowledge is administered and confined. The individual does not really know what is going on; the overpowering machine of entertainment and entertainment unites him with the others in a state of anesthesia from which all detrimental ideas tend to be excluded” (Eros and Civilization (1955), p. 55). Critics on the Right agree that cinema has a tremendous influence on our lives, but focus on its collective indoctrination in damaging perceptions of love and sexuality, violence, family and community relationships, alongside encouraging other ills such as warped consumer culture and rampant commodification.
Cinema isn’t of course all bad; there are many positive aspects to it. One, which was mentioned in Levi’s article, is the cinema’s capacity to pass sharp criticism on existing social norms that require adjustment and rethinking. Indeed, the mimicry of our reality or parts thereof can bring viewers to reflect on the reality they know – on politics, society, relationships, religion, and so on – and on the differences between the on-screen reality and its true version. Some movies even utilize the power of the medium to arouse viewers to think about moral dilemmas and to question commonly held beliefs. Moreover, movies can move and inspire us. In the words of Jack Nicholson, “they offer hopes (and) give traumas; they take us places, we never been, just even for few moments; they can take us away when we want to get away.”
The Charedi educational model does not encourage personal autonomy in choosing between different visions of the good life, but educates toward a single vision alone: “the right vision.” Hollywood culture does not necessarily negate religious practice (though that seems to be the general direction), but it presents it at best as one (not particularly attractive) option among competing options for the good life. This itself is anathema to the Charedi educational model and explains the general reticence to face the issue
It is these positive aspects of cinema that cause us to lower our guard and absorb its messages (overt or implicit) wholesale. In the past, the visual art of cinema was employed by states as a means of indoctrinating the masses; Nazi Germany is of course the example that jumps to mind, though it is but one of many. Today, the messages emanate from private Hollywood-based corporations rather than state actors and revolve around personal love rather than national hatred; from a religious perspective, however, it seems they challenge us more than ever. As James Walcot wrote, today’s cinematic productions are controlled by “the hegemony of liberal pop culture, with its moral sloth, smug secular humanism on stilts, denigration of God and country, villainization of corporate capitalism, and Oprah deification.” I’m no expert, but if these are the educational themes, we would be better off skipping school.
I do not mean to claim, as we sometimes hear in debates around cinema, that watching violence necessarily makes us more violent. The argument is more subtle. David Thomson notes in several of his books that our identification with an on-screen killer, and our very exposure to an act of murder, gradually erodes our resistance to murder. If such a statement can be even partially true concerning the obscenity of murder, it can surely apply to less abhorrent yet deeply damaging phenomena such as cheating and betrayal, not to speak of attitudes toward religion.
Moreover, for the Charedi individual the problem is not limited to any specific content but begins with the exposure itself – exposure to different lifestyles and religions, to different opinions and dispositions, many of them incongruous with or even hostile to traditional Judaism. Charedi Judaism chooses an approach of isolationism in resisting and rebuffing the threat of liberal humanism and its attendant culture and ideas. The Charedi educational model does not encourage personal autonomy in choosing between different visions of the good life, but educates toward a single vision alone: “the right vision.” Hollywood culture does not necessarily negate religious practice (though that seems to be the general direction), but it presents it at best as one (not particularly attractive) choice among competing options for the good life. This itself is anathema to the Charedi educational model and explains the general reticence to face the issue.
So what is to be done?
Passive and Active Viewing
One worthy response to the challenge of cinema harkens back to the sticker we opened with: “without movies and the Internet.” Eliminate movies and the Internet, and you eliminate the problem. But alas, it seems that this solution will not be practical for many members of Charedi society, for whom movies and the Internet, with whatever filter they choose, have become a part of everyday life. Over the Covid-19 period both possession of a personal computer and connection to the Internet increase greatly in Charedi homes, and the trend, like it or not, is hardly set to reverse. We thus need an alternative response.
Perhaps a return to the Rambam and his critique of the passive mindset can offer a positive direction in which to think. Yes, movies can expose viewers to improper content and to potentially harmful messages, while they can also provide us with a source for inspiration and reflection – a reflection on ideas, and, even more importantly, on ourselves. The difference does not necessarily lie in the right choice of movie, which can also of course be a significant factor, but rather in our mindset as viewers: between “active viewing” and “passive viewing.” Passive viewing allows the director to play with our emotions and exposes us to the messaging latent in almost any movie. By contrast, active viewing employs a critical approach to the movie itself. It questions the way in which the director chooses to present the story, the messages he includes, and the values he espouses. Active viewing doesn’t allow the director to spoon-feed us but brings the act of viewing closer to the act of reading or listening to a lecture, in which we are challenged to process information by means of conscious and active thought.
Passive viewing turns the moviegoer into a caveman, matter to be molden by the hands of the director-potter. The loss of control might give a person a certain feeling of comfort, but it leaves him imprisoned at somebody else’s hands. By contrast, active viewing turns the tables, rendering the movie itself matter in the hands of the viewer, who gives it form and meaning
Passive viewing turns the moviegoer into a caveman, matter to be molded by the hands of the director-potter. The loss of control might give a person a certain feeling of comfort, but it leaves him imprisoned in somebody else’s hands. By contrast, active viewing turns the tables, rendering the movie itself matter in the hands of the viewer, who gives it form and meaning. The viewer is aware of the emotions the movie arouses, the moral dilemmas it raises, and the solutions it provides. He considers how all these are relevant to his own life and surroundings, and which insights can be gleaned from the comparison between the movie’s presentation and the reality he knows. Rather than being imprisoned in the theater, the movie can sharpen a viewer’s perspective on reality.
I am aware of the fact that most of us have no intention of becoming movie critics, and that most people who see movies do so for their enjoyment and not for the purpose of uncovering the veiled agenda of the director. Yet, all of us, even those who simply want to enjoy a good movie, can do so on a level that is more aware and less vulnerable. The internal motion of active viewing is something that requires practice and preparation and, for the young, education and training. It does not necessarily come easy. But this internal motion can make all the difference between descending, whether in the choice to see certain movies or in the way we view them, into the cave of passivity, and remaining in the light of personal choice. The Lubavitcher Rebbe used to quote his shluchim, who were concerned about the potentially harmful effects of working in a non-observant environment, the words of the Gemara: “Since it is in the process of giving out (taste), it does not absorb (taste)” (Chullin 8b) – if you are in a mindset of influencing others, you are less likely to be influenced yourself. Our case is somewhat different of course, but the idea is similar.
This is not a complete solution to the potentially damaging influence of cinema – certainly for the Charedi individual, for whom movies can be a special challenge. However, non-ideal circumstances require non-ideal solutions, and all we can do is find the least harmful path, and search for the light within.
Desecrating the Charedi Mystique?
Other than Socrates’ critique of theater, Levi notes another reason why cinema, and specifically the Shtisel series, raises concerns: the loss of intimacy. Viewing intimate scenes in Shtisel caused him acute discomfort, and he notes by way of illustration a scene depicting a Charedi shidduch date. Levi imagines a nineteen-year-old Charedi young woman, who is about to begin her own shidduchim career, and wonders: “When she goes out on a real date, she may suddenly bashfully divert her eyes, like the actress on TV, or perhaps tell of some unusual hobby she has as Shira (a character in the series) did?” Levi is concerned about the loss of surrendering our authentic, “one-time” experiences to cinema representations. He wants us to be ourselves and fears the desecration of our intimate lives and the debasement of our mystique. It is better, he claims, that Charedi individuals should watch non-Charedi characters, who are distant from their own lives, and will not affect their experiences; he finds the viewing of Charedi characters especially disturbing.
I do not agree with this assessment. So long as we are speaking about the active side of viewing, that seeks to draw insights from cinema productions to our own lives, there is an advantage, rather than a disadvantage, of seeing the interactions of Charedi characters in movie productions. The Charedi viewer will naturally feel a closer identification with such characters and their circumstances, and viewing will therefore be more engaged, more active, and more meaningful. Even for the fairly standard themes of a classic soap opera, which generally fit the mold of Shtisel, the fact the family being portrayed is both Charedi and relatively realistic challenges the Charedi viewer to think about himself, about his life and his surroundings, and to ask the question: to which degree to I know similar characters who experience like dilemmas? Which insights might I be able to draw for my own life? Both in terms of the type of content, and in terms of the mode of viewing, local Charedi productions (Shtisel comes close) thus have a concrete advantage over those from afar.
Our mystique does not inhere in the superficial acts we perform, but in the desires and emotions we feel and in the thoughts and passions we choose to express. On the contrary, the reason why social conventions are so important – conventions that encompass aesthetics, manners, culinary style, values, and even intimacy – is to allow us to function superficially almost without thinking, which allows us to focus on our internal thoughts and feelings
As for the problem of losing the Charedi mystique, I find it hard to identity with the concern. Our mystique does not inhere in the superficial acts we perform, but in the desires and emotions we feel and in the thoughts and passions we choose to express. On the contrary, the reason why social conventions are so important – conventions that encompass aesthetics, manners, culinary style, values, and even intimacy – is to allow us to function superficially almost without thinking, which allows us to focus on our internal thoughts and feelings. The lack of conventions would force us to invest significant attention to the superficial form of our everyday function, and prevent us from focussing on the internal content: on emotion, relationship, intention, and feeling.
This principle is true for all areas of our lives. It is true, for instance, in the structure of our meals, which typically include an appetizer, a main course, and a dessert. The presence of a set structure allows us to focus on the content of each course, rather than having to plan each meal from scratch. And it is true even in matters of the spirit: Our mitzvah actions all look the same, as dictated by the Torah and by the Sages, and even the words of our everyday prayers are common to all of us; we are left to imbue the standard form with meaning, with intention, with ourselves. This is where the mystique lies, and not in the superficial form that we might encounter on shows such as Shtisel.
Moreover, it is quite possible that a nineteen-year-old girl, certainly if she has no similarly aged brothers, has never before encountered a boy, let alone spoken to him, so that she could find herself quite unprepared for the shidduch date experience. Lacking social conventions for this type of situation, the first encounter with a boy – and vice versa for boys, of course – could be somewhat awkward, and prevent her internal voice from shining forth. Indeed, this is one of the reasons we send our children to chosson and kallah teachers before the wedding: to teach them our own social conventions, so they’ll come into marriage prepared. Social conventions do not desecrate our mystique; they empower it.
Many might comment that we have managed fine in the past, and, for the most part, they would be quite right. I would therefore not advocate watching Shtisel for this purpose. However, I do not see the desecration of our mystique as a reason to avoid it.
Shtisel: Good for the Jews
In conclusion, allow me to add a good word about the Shtisel series that Levi critiques. Ultimately, the reason to applaud Shtisel is not because of some internal-Charedi concern, but rather because it is an exceptional series that portrays Charedi protagonists in a sympathetic, human and nuanced way, which makes it easy for all audiences to identify with and love them. After several decades of hostile (or even dehumanizing) media presentation, Shtisel is the spearhead of a new era in which Israeli productions realistically portray the Charedi individual as a Jewish human being – one who might possess unusual values and a somewhat idiosyncratic way of life, but deeply human nonetheless.
After several decades of hostile (or even dehumanizing) media presentation, Shtisel is the spearhead of a new era in which Israeli productions realistically portray the Charedi individual as a Jewish human being – one who might possess unusual values and a somewhat idiosyncratic way of life, but deeply human nonetheless
Shtisel might not be entirely faithful to the value of truth. Yes, it is mimicry and not an altogether faithful representation of Charedi life. It deserves credit for its refusal to wink at the secular fantasy of Charedim waiting to escape from their stifling ghetto and doesn’t even pander to the false narrative whereby a person’s search for love inevitably demands the surrender of his faith. But its true contribution is not to the value of truth but to that of peace. In particular, during the Covid-19 period, when relations between Charedim and the rest have been so strained, we need Shtisel to remind us how close we are, how much we share. In the words of Peter Beinart:
American Jews […] find it appealing because the anxiety about fitting in that plagued Eli Peck and Alvy Singer has been replaced by an anxiety about Jewish unity. In many extended American Jewish families, it’s not just hard to talk politics around the dinner table; differences in the observance of Jewish dietary laws make it hard to eat together at the dinner table at all. American Jewry’s bitter political divisions over Israel—and the widening religious and cultural divides between ultra-Orthodox, modern Orthodox, and non-Orthodox American Jews—have led many to fear that Jews are becoming strangers to one another. Shtisel soothes those fears. Jewish tradition encourages Jews to think of themselves as an extended family; by reaching into the most extreme and insular corner of the Jewish world to find universal themes, Shtisel sends the message that, despite everything, they still are.
Shtisel is good for the Jews. And it’s good even for Charedi Jews. Like all cinema, viewer discretion, especially for the Charedi viewer, is advised – but by comparison with your average Hollywood production, Shtisel seems far less challenging. Its inaccuracies, which many in my closer circles complain about, can be easily forgiven, and our Sages have already taught that “it is permitted to alter (the truth) for the sake of peace.” Certainly, it does not turn the creators into resha’im arurim.