[This is a modified version of an email I recently wrote. I look forward to comments]
Rabbi Aryeh Klapper recently wrote the following in his article "Fostering Modern Torah Leadership"
"Many Modern Orthodox Jews find spiritual inspiration and deep meaning in Shakespeare and Milton, but believe that halakha forbids reading all Christian religious works or works with erotic components".
This comment is the impetus for writing this post. Something I have struggled with for quite some time is how to reconcile my religious practice and the beauty of the arts and literature. As an example movies, good ones with substance and meaning will express the full gamut of human experience. Human experience from time immemorial has included profanity, violence, sexual expression and coarse humour. The Torah itself is aware of this; the book of Genesis is a very X-rated anthology of rape, incest, sex, murder, etc. Shir Hashirim is unabashedly erotic and many discussions in the Talmud do not leave much to the imagination.
Yet if that is the case, why do we find such a condescending attitude to expressions of human creativity? What can be said to the following secondary sources that essentially forbid all secular literature, movies, theatres, sport — even music is only begrudgingly allowed.
What does it say for Modern Orthodoxy and its adherents, on what grounds can its curriculum and societal norms be defended from a halachic perspective? I think Prof Allan Brill in his "Judaism in Culture: Beyond the Bifurcation of Torah and Madda" summed it up well with the following:
"Can one determine from the following three short halakhic statements which works of the vast fields of literature, philosophy, science, history, politics, and art, are permitted?
307: 16 Secular Poetry and parables, erotic literature such as Sefer Immanuel, and books of wars are forbidden to read on the Sabbath. Even on weekdays they are forbidden because [they are considered] a place of scoffers, and one violates not consciously turning to their idols, and [concerning] the erotic literature there is a furtherdecree of [following] the evil inclination. Those who write them, and copy them, and needless to say those who publish them cause the public to sin;
Note [of Rama]: There is to distinguish, that it is only forbidden to read secular and military matters. In the vernacular, but in Hebrew they are permitted.
307:17: It is forbidden to learn on Shabbat and Yom Tov except Torah, even books of wisdom are forbidden. There are those who permit it [works of wisdom]. Based on their reasoning it would also be permitted to look in an astrolabe on the Sabbath.
307:18: One can inquire from a demon those things permitted on weekdays.
Following the logic of practice, these halakhic statements, despite their binding legal status, do not describe the current practice in Modern Orthodoxy."
I look forward to some thoughtful comments and feedback on the above issue. Its a complicated topic, but one definitely worthy of discussion.