Category Archives: Torah U Madda

Why do we get bored?

Orthodox World of Wigs

Interview with Avi Wolf

The most popular post in 2011 on the Torahmusings blog was an essay by Avi Woolf entitled Does Modern Orthodoxy Not Believe in Fun?

Following that article, I interviewed Avi and asked him the following questions.

– How do you reconcile movie watching with the inherent halachic
issues that arise with watching content that has sex, violence, nivul
peh, etc. Do you think think there is no halachic prohibition
– Do you feel that there are any shows that should not be watched?
– How would you feel about taking first year yeshiva students to go
and watch “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit
Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” as an excursion?
– Do you believe that contemporary Judaism is too prudish, when it
comes to matters of sexuality? What would you propose differently? As
a serious suggestion, do you think we should be going down the route
of poskim giving heterim for masturbation for sexually frustrated
single men, allowing single woman to go to mikvah?

Below is his response:

How do you reconcile movie watching with the inherent halachic issues that arise with watching content that has sex, violence, nivul peh, etc. Do you think think there is no halachic prohibition

I believe that here you fall into the common trap of many religious thinkers and members of the yeshiva world, in that you view everything through the lens of the formal law codices and authorized texts and attribute no value or authority to the world outside your window. Ergo, the issue of TV (or any issue) rises and falls, in your view, on the question of whether or not I can muster halachic and textual arguments and defeat nay-sayers.

My attitude is entirely different. I take it as a given that many activities of Jews fall outside the strictly sanctioned matters discussed by major poskim. Some of them are neutral, some problematic and some might be outright assur. There is a difference between the real observance and transgression as evidenced by communities and ideal level of observance as evidenced in the often utopian and detached law codices. I happen to agree with Dr. Benny Brown, for instance, that strict adherence to the Chofetz Chaim’s loshon Hara psika would make most normal discourse almost impossible. This is to say nothing of how “loshon hara” can thus be warped into the equivalent of the mafia code of silence.

I believe that the “Ideal” and the “real” need to negotiate, and know when to enforce and when to give way, not try to enforce utopia down normal people’s throats. Hearing swear words, seeing violence or sexual images to varying degrees is part of this negotiation. A sense of proportion, often entirely lacking in theoretical halachic discussion, is also key seeing some skin is not the same thing as watching an X-rated movie, and hearing some swear-words does not mean the hearer is going to suddenly have the mouth of a sailor. We need to trust those who receive values that they know how negotiate these things.

“Do you feel that there are any shows that should not be watched?”

 Everyone has their red lines, and I trust that people who are sufficiently infused with Jewish values can establish appropriate boundaries. I myself have certain boundaries I will not cross, while others have theirs. It is an individual (or familial) call.

How would you feel about taking first year yeshiva students to go and watch “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” as an excursion?”

Why should I consider this a problem?

Granted, I’d prefer if they have better taste in movies, but I don’t think it’s a disaster.

“Do you believe that contemporary Judaism is too prudish, when it comes to matters of sexuality?

Absolutely, and to our collective detriment.

“What would you propose differently? As a serious suggestion, do you think we should be going down the route of poskim giving heterim for masturbation for sexually frustrated single men, allowing single woman to go to mikvah?”

I don’t think blanket heterim are necessary nor even a “global policy”. What is needed is a toning down of anti-sexual rhetoric. When students are taught about sex, they should be taught a lot more about teshuva and how what they are feeling is perfectly normal. Furthermore, they should not be given the idea that having sex (or maturbating) immediately puts them outside the pale or means they are a bad person (as opposed to wrong behavior). I don’t want to hear any more stories about people who go have sex and then chuck Torah and Mitzvot altogether because some overzealous teacher told them it’s the worst thing in the world.

The point, then, is to have a less perfectionist, 100% or nothing attitude towards sinners, sexual sinners included. I know this sounds hyperbolic, but the only real alternative is the hafrada insanity, where the ideal prevent sexual sins at all costs attitude prevails.

Chag Sameach,



What happened to the Laughter, Entertainment, Art and natural existence

Dear Rabbi Jacobson,

You probably haven’t received a question like this before or at least
formulated in this way, but this is something I see as a major problem
of a theological nature – What happened to the laughter,
Entertainment, Art and natural existence.

The problem is both intellectual and the same time emotional. I’ll
preface it simply with the statement I love movies.. I love art,
literature, satire, comedy, commentary on existence, philosophy. But
yet, in my understanding of Judaism, all these pleasures are
“forbidden”, “assur”, and quite frankly it makes me depressed.
Is there no place for a movie like Pulp Fiction, comedy like Curb your
Enthusiasm, Richard Pryor, or
Sacha Baron Cohen the philosophy of Satre, the great works of
roman/greak art in the Torah? Everything thing is forbidden either due
to its sexual nature, because of “bad” language or because the topic
is taboo.

But there is a double standard…. we are starting the book of
Genesis, where story after story is graphic, gory and x-rated

•       You have the rape of Eve by the serpent
•       The murder of Cain by Abel
•       The rape and castration of Noah by his son
•       The rape of Dinah and the subsequent revenge,
•       The near pack rape of Lot and his friends by an angry mob and the
subsequent offer of his daughters as a “peace offering”?

Why is there the double standard? Why is contemporary Judaism so
prudish, trying to create an artificially sanitised world disconnected
from the experiences of the rest of mankind? Why does it have to be
such absolutes, why is there no room for grey, subtlety, balance? Why
are television/movies and literature out of bounds, but yet the Torah
is free to delve and describe the full extent of existence?

Why does contemporary Judaism make life frigid and dull?

I look forward to your comments.


Some source material for your interest that inspired this letter


Dear Rael,

Firstly I must apologize for the very long delay in my writing to you. I read your letter with great attentiveness, and I also reviewed the article you sent about the absence of “fun” in Modern Orthodoxy.

Let me tell you how I see it. I will quote a parable the Lubavitcher Rebbe once shared with Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks (quoted in his book A Letter of the Scroll). The latter was afraid of going to study in yeshiva, where he might be forced to abandon his love for Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Shakespeare, Goethe, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Hegel, Kant, Emerson and Dickens. He shared this fear with the Lubavithcer Rebbe. Here was the Rebbe’s response:

Imagine two people whose job it is to carry stones. That’s what they do for a living, they carry stones. One of them carries big sacks of building material, the other one carries little pouches of diamonds.

Imagine now you give each of these people a bag of emeralds, how do they respond? The person who spent his whole life carrying heavy building materials looks at this sack of emeralds and thinks,

‘Another burden,’ whereas the person who carries diamonds knows the stones are precious, so when you give him emeralds, he says, ‘Well those aren’t diamonds, but they certainly are precious stones.’ They’re not like mine, but I have to value them and take care of them.

So it is with “fun,” sensuality and beauty. If you really learn to appreciate the Divine core of existence, the G-dly energy in every person, in every encounter and in every existence, then you will be far more sensitive to the music, the depth, the beauty, the majesty, the positivity inherent in sensuality and in aesthetics. The more you learn Torah, the more you develop a Torah perspective on life, the more you can appreciate culture, the arts and even sensual pleasures. Because if you are used to diamonds, you will notice the emeralds.

On the contrary, when one is entrenched only in “stones,” in the very brute layers of life, they night not even notice the glittering emeralds; their appreciation of the fun aspects of life will be far more superficial and empty.

Rael, it may be that many a Torah Jew do not appreciate this truth, but I think it is true: A deeper connection to Torah allows for even more “fun” and more appreciation of the emeralds in secular culture, literature and the arts. True, the Torah seeks to fine tune our depth, our sincerity, our sense of responsibility, our soulfulness, our spiritual and soulful yearnings; but when one does become in touch with this side of himself, he comes to appreciate more, not less, those aspects in secular culture and art which are truly life-enhancing, educational and inspiring.  As far as the “filth” often present in the arts, this the Torah indeed rejects, but I think for good reason as it does not contribute to the welfare of civilization and to individual people growing up saturated with this filth. We want even our fun to be refined, meaningful and life-affirming.

The fact that many religious Jews don’t understand this today, is sad, but it does not take away from the truth of what Torah is really all about.

Regarding the book of Genesis: Of course the Torah deals with all of the corruption and sagas of human affairs. The question is what are its conclusions. The Torah talks about all of this in its objective to teach of the basis of moral behavior and the responsibility to sometimes curb our instincts for the will of the soul which is one with G-d.

Warm regards,

Rabbi YY Jacobson


Rabbi, Bais Shmuel Congregation
30 Broad Street. 44th Flr | NY, NY 10004

347.625.1700       |


Hitting the Nail on the Head: The Dilemma of Torah U Madda in the real world

"In my own experience, when addressing a group of students from a Modern Orthodox yeshivah in Jerusalem, I was surprised at the resistance that I had elicited through my comments about Torah Umadda (which reflected some of the reservations that I am mentioning here). The casual gathering that it was, I pressed harder to find out what was underlying their strongly stated commitments to the pursuit of secular studies. For one, as it turned out, most of those present had been, at some time or another, talmidim (students) of talmidim of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Though most of them did, in fact, stand up for the concept, they failed to give the impression that it was anything more than a rallying cry that they had inherited from their teachers. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky may have been surprised that his talmidim at Torah Vodaath were unaware of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.  These bachurim(young men) to whom I was speaking, though championing Torah Umadda in the abstract, also failed to have anything more than the most superficial connection with secular studies. In fact, from the resistance that my talk had elicited, I had the impression that they thought that I (or perhaps their rebbe who was present) intended to prevent them from reading Tolstoy’s classic.

But if any of them had heard of the book, they certainly did not want to read it. I remained confused by the disparity between their enthusiasm for the concept and their indifference to the actual phenomenon until one of the young men confided: It’s not so much that we are interested in Torah Umadda, what we are really interested in is Torah and entertainment.” This talmid provided, and he did so humorously, the reduction ad absurdum of the position (to the discernible relief of his friends), but he revealed that the primary concern of many yeshivah boys (aside from parnassah) is not incorporating the classics into the life of the ben Torah, but rather accommodating Torah into a contemporary lifestyle—of popular culture, of movies and of MTV. As a colleague once suggested to me, for the current generation (and there are no signs it is getting better), it is not so much a question of Torah or madda, but rather one of taivah (pleasure) or taivah. This is to say, young men and women in our communities are not worrying over the problem of synthesizing Torah and the legacies of classical traditions. It’s not Torah and Aeschylus and Sophocles, but, at best, Torah and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise (and a lehavdil would have to split between the last two and all of the former terms). Torah Umadda, from this perspective, may be a madreigah to which most young people in our community cannot possibly aspire. Further, if knowing the zeitgeist means knowing Schwarzenegger, does it mean that we and our talmidim, the leaders of the next generation, should be on line to buy tickets to the next sequel to Terminator? For Rambam, knowing madda meant having access to the classical texts of Athenian culture. For the current generation, madda includes much more: Plato and Aristotle come along in a package that includes Yahoo!, The Matrix and MTV. In most cases, it’s the latter set, and not the former, which most compellingly attracts attention."

(Jewish Action 5764 / 2004 – Torah U Madda – A view from the Academy – William Kolbrener)


1) For an attempt at synthetis between the world of Hollywood and Sinai see "Corner of Hollywood and Sinai" by Dodi-Lee-Hecht. See her post "Half a cup of plot and a dash of character " where she battles the halachic issues of her approach.

2) For a heartfelt plea from a rebbi to his talmidim not to attend New Years Eve parties (although the issues of hollywood and media are mentioned) listen "Sealed Hearts, Eyes and New Years Eves Parties" by Rabbi Ally Ehrman

3) For these and similiar issues in the MO Camp see the post "Modern Orthodoxys Weakness"by R'Harry Maryles of the Haemtza blog

4) For an assesment of Torah U Maddah reality vs the dream, read "A Tumultuous Love Affair – YU, Me and the Last Three Decades " by Rabbi Mayer Schiller.

Halacha, the arts and the depth of human experience

[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.

Is this the end of Torah im Derech Eretz?

Controversial moments at Rav S R Hirsch memorial celebration.