Rabbi David Stav on Popular Culture– Bein HaZmanim

As I mention previously on this blog, I have in my files almost two years of drafts, or at least outlines, of unfinished blog posts. One of them was on the book by Rabbi David Stav on popular culture, Bein Hazemanim (Yediot Aharonot, 2012). At the time of its publishing, I was working on my Orthodox Forum article on popular culture but it was not germane to my presentation. However, as of late, Rabbi Stav’s views on popular culture have come to a broader audience through the opposition to his allowing Orthodox Jews to see films. Gasp!


 Bein Hazemanim, released a year ago, frames the question as what to do with one’s leisure time. The goal is to reduce the growing gap between Torah and routine activities of the public. Modern life is characterized by abundance of leisure relative to previous generations, and it is filled with patterns of cultural and entertainment which are not expressed in “genuine” religious literature. How does one relax after work, spend vacations and go for family outing? The book was reviewed by all major Israeli papers and as they all noted in unison, that there was a greater promise of offering answers to bigger questions that were not answered such as choosing between going to South America or India after the army, the worlds of art and literature, the role of being a sports fan, or which Mp3’s should be on one’s phone? The Rabbinic approbations treated the very questions of leisure as not ideal (bedieved), only for those who could not live the ideal life, so the content of the book was much less than the promise. The tone was that unless we permit certain things, the dam won’t hold.

The opening of the book offers the dichotomy of extremes, either not wasting any time because of bitul Torah as opposed to the Talmudic statement that the recitation of the Shema could serve as one entire obligation to study Torah. Leisure is presented as the down time from Torah study, or more plainly as the human need for relaxation and the human tendency to play. Each chapter offers a form of leisure,  such as reading, art, sports, hiking, movies and theater,  treated by his collection of Biblical verses and followed by responsa. For example, music is discussed by its genealogy to Yuval in Genesis, music playing in the temple, Simchat, Beit Hashoeva, and then to modern sources. Each topic includes both lenient and strict sources but returns to the original approach, showing recreational and leisure are not improper in themselves. The book concludes with a discussion of tzedakah and volunteering one’s time for chessed.

Here are some of Rabbi Stav’s bottom lines: one can attend a non-religious wedding but no mixed dancing, you can play basketball without tzizit, you may hit a friend in a wrestling match, you can swim without a kippah, and talk about Torah in the pool. You can also do yoga (but not Transcendental Meditation), are allowed to read newspapers, and to watch sports competitions.  The ostensive reason for opposition to Rabbi Stav is that he states that one can watch movies as long as you close your eyes at the “problematic scenes.”  (page 208). He does not allow one to watch a female singer on TV. He also allows all classical music even religious music such as masses and requiems, expanding Rav Lichtenstein’s leniency. (Chaim Navon offers a positive review of the work as a concise halakhic work in line with other Religious Zionist works.)

The short review in Ynet (h/t Menachem Mendel) states the Religious Zionist problem with the book in succinct terms.

My problem with the book is that […] this ship has sailed long ago. Most of the Religious – National do not looking for permits to see movies or listen to music. In contrast, the ultra-Orthodox community, at least outwardly, does not admit that they consume Western culture, prohibition or permission.

Rabbi Stav is rabbi for the Ezra youth movement founded in the spirit of Hirsch’s Torah and Derech Eretz. Rabbi Hirsch did not do these contortions to permit Beethoven, Schiller, and hiking the alps. He had a vision of an integrated culture. More directly: Did anyone in Bnai Akiva seek permission to listen to Shlomo Artzi or to hike the trails of Israel?

The review in the Religious Zionist newspaper, Makor Rishon, was a full-fledged rejection of the book as irrelevant religious leadership.  The review written by Dr. Roni Shweka, whose PhD is in Talmudic Studies and who is a member of The Friedberg Geniza Project Computerization Unit and author of New Song: Essays on the Formation of Israeli Rock (Carmel, 2011), delivers a manifesto on the role of culture and Religious Zionism.

Right from start, Shweka informs us that, “In my opinion the book failed in this goal. The book sins in its lack of understanding of the challenge which it seeks to answer, and as a result he answers irrelevant questions” that are not our modern questions. “In many cases, the author seems to be avoiding direct dealing with the matter in question, either by escaping into quotes from classical halakhic literature[…]” that are at best vague instructions, restating the obvious and at worst missing any content. “In short, those who seek guidance and religious perspective in relation to modern culture will not find it in the book”

Shweka asks that if a student came to him for guidance on balancing Torah study, his social life, college, and leisure would Rabbi Stav open the case books of law or will talk with the embarrassed boy and try to figure out where his heart tends, where are his qualifications and on what path will he have the most success to himself, the community, his spiritual personality, and his professional future? Most of these questions are about balance, personality formation, maturation. Since the reviewer is left to assume that Rabbi Stav would approach it that way in person, one cannot help but question the minimalist formalism of the book.

Shweka finds some of the material unnecessary and embarrassing. For example, if someone want to know what to do after the army, then what is the connection between the punishment of Cain to wander, the diversification of tongues or Patriarch Isaac walking in the field with a question about should one hike in Nahal Yehudah, motorbike in the Golan, visit the classic cities of Europe, or do a three-month trip to the Far East? In a similar view, he asks, seriously, what is the connection between Jacob wrestling with the angel and our modern problems in “Sport and physical culture?”

Rabbi Stav finds Rav Kook innovative because of Kook’s belief that melancholy, ill patients or those with a sad heart could walk occasionally. Shweka in turn asks if any of us seek a responsa for permission to take a long walk. Each form of leisure is shown to contribute to the health and peace of mind through the rest and relaxation needed from time to time. The Sages treated walks favorably.

Sweka thinks that this approach reveals a lack of understanding about modern culture, its social contexts, and what roles and needs it fills. Talking a relaxing walk is the paradigm, sports are also relaxing to watch but there is no recognition of the culture of sports its violence or ethos. Literature is relaxing but no discussion of the edifying and cultural role of literature, which is so prevalent in American discussions.

With regards to music, he mentions classical and folk music, both of which he permits. And he treats the rest- jazz, rock, rhythm and blues- as “just songs”? Shweka notes that “music in general and rock culture in particular are one of the most dominant forces shaping Western society” This would include “The most significant social revolutions in the second half of the twentieth century, including the anti – war and the feminist movement, associated with the musical culture that defined a generation. All these energies were just songs?”

Shweka’s review becomes a manifesto when he declares that the book is still written as if it is 1904 when Rav Kook wanted the secular Israeli artist and novelist to become to become part of the holy religious renewal. Rav Kook saw secular literature as heresy, hence the need for orthodox literature. However, today our lives and thoughts are immersed in literature and film. And more importantly, we now recognize that the literary impulse is fundamentally beyond the closed religious world. Even the novels of Agnon, Rav Sabato, or even Emunah Elon are based on the categories of Western aesthetics, the emptying of certainty and dogma, and a personal psychological perspective. Hence, the question of which movies and novels have a positive or negative content does not need rabbis but aesthetic education. The chapters should not have been on leisure activities but on the nature and context of the formation of cultural understanding and aesthetic sophistication (Makor Rishon, 10/08/2012) .

In contrast, Haaretz gave the book to the Haredi journalist David Zoldan, one of the first graduates of the new Nahal Haredi program and author of The Fate of the Haredim, who castigates the book from the Haredi perspective.For Zoldan, the book’s approach is characteristic of the Beit Midrash “Tzohar,” which is basically the traditional approach of religious Zionism through the ages, in that it often prefers human laws over the laws of the Torah.”

Many of the questions related to leisure culture arose only in recent years mainly due to technological development. But Zoldan thinks that Rabbi Stav has brushed away problems by creating new clear lines. If there are problems with modesty, then his solutions are too easy: you can allow the viewing of the film and just close your eyes at the problematic scenes.

For Zoldan, Stav’s malicious hand changes the law and threatens to destroy the Jewish tradition.Conversely, Zoldan thinks that there will be those, especially traditional or secular Jews who will welcome this book.

But these three book reviews are  not where the story ends; popular culture has become the fault line in a much bigger cultural war. In 1997, Rabbi Zvi Tau led a schism in the Merkaz world against the integration of a teachers college that used Western pedagogy and basic geography. Rabbi Tau is completely anti-Western culture and with the return to the land, he believes religious Jews should cease to have any connection to Western culture. He considers Western culture the same as the pagan Amorites that needed to be driven from the land. He thinks we are blinded by west – the same way we were blinded by communism. Rabbi Tau also believes that life is entirely about the collective and the family unit, while individualism is Western showing the West’s selfish, greedy, and cruel nature.

Rabbi Stav’s attempt as head of Tzohar at allowing Western culture, leisure, and individualism cuts at the core of Rav Tau’s approach. Much of the opposition to Rabbi Stav comes from the followers of Rabbi Tau as a form of cultural war. At the same time, these followers of Rabbi Tau fear a schism in Religious Zionism if a Chief Rabbi would be in favor of Western culture such as higher education, individualism, and leisure. Such a Chief Rabbi would situates them as the polar opposite of the rabbinate, one side seeking integration with western culture and the other side driving out Western culture. A Merkaz Harav or Haredi Chief Rabbi would keep the broad status quo in Religious Zionism because they would be pragmatic and not be intrinsically in favor or opposed to Western culture.

This cultural split between Rabbis Stav and Tau goes back 30 years to when the senior Rabbi Tau asked his students at Merkaz Harav to interfere with the concert where they played Handel’s Messiah. The then 23-year-old Rabbi Stav said this was not the way to act and was not allowed to attend further classes by Rabbi Tau.

Currently, the followers of Rabbi Tau inconceivable that a candidate for the chief rabbinate admits to having gone to movies and to having read novels with racy graphic scenes such as the Israeli author Yochi Brandes’  Melakhim III and “haPardes shel Akiva.” On the tension of the students of Rav Tau and Rav Stav- see here   And see the discussion at these two blog posts about the tension- Rav Tzair and Minim. Here’s a general interview with Rabbi Stav on other topics.

Finally, Rav Ovadiah Yosef, who has publicly  opposed and insulted Rabbi Stav, is a big fan of the female Egyptian vocalist Umm Kulthum and permits listening to recordings of female singers; he only forbids the attendance at their live concerts. (Even Bob Dylan thought she was great, really great!) The press cites that he objects entirely to Rabbi Stav’s watching films (and one recent article adds that he objects to Rabbi Stav’s seeing no problem with any and all touching of women when not for affection).  Raising the question of how does one adjudicate between radio and cinema. Is it hearing as opposed to seeing?

I am less interested in politics and want to return to the cultural questions which our overtaking our era.  In America, we have greater use of pop culture even from the pulpit. It fills our lives and serves as Torah for many Orthodox rabbis for whom anything used to serve Torah is OK. The issue will keep coming up and may lead to division in the future.  In the meantime, you may want to listen to this wonderful NPR documentary about Umm Kulthum, especially since we do not even know who is Rabbi Stav’s favorite pop singer.


7 responses to “Rabbi David Stav on Popular Culture– Bein HaZmanim

  1. There are three different strategies here: Rav Tau (as was already pointed out a number of years ago by Rav Benny Lau) has a sectarian understanding of “the chosen” who have to protect pristine Emuni beliefs and practice – regardless of consequences. Rav Ovadyah (as Shlomo Fischer described in an essay) has a “broad church” conception and Shas can attract different levels of religious observance. However, there is absolutely no dialogue between the levels: a Shas supported may go to a soccer game after shul on shabbat, but this will be ignored by his rabbi. Rav Stav is trying valiantly (despite the critique from the left) to build a bridge between the torani concept of halacha and the practices of the broad modern orthodox (dati-leumi) community. If there is alrealy a school for filmaking under dati-leumi auspices – can one ignore the fact that movies are a major part of culture for many observant Jews? Rav Stav refuses to ignore – and this is what may cost hims becoming Chief Rabbi

  2. Mordechai Y. Scher

    Regarding your rhetorical question, “did anyone in Bnei Akiva ask…” – the answer is yes. Of course they did. That was a large part of what prompted Shmuel Katz to write K’doshim Tehiyu. Back then (late 70s, early 80s) there was much discussion about mixed youth groups, activities, etc. in the yeshivah and the community. Rosh Hayeshivah, Rav Tzvi Yehudah, opposed but tolerated mixed activity, be it in the classroom or youth group. That was a factor in founding the Noam school. It was a factor in discussing the propriety of mixed Bnei Akiva branches vs. separate Ezra activities.

    Rav Tau has a strong pietistic inclination, and that is in following with Rav Tzvi Yehudah’s personal pietism, and Rav A. Y. Kook’s, too.

    I think part of the schism is false. Traditionally, Mizrahi Zionism was a people’s movement. It was oriented to the man and woman in the street, the marketplace, the kibbutz and moshav. The emphasis on piety and scholarship in the yeshivah (very much so in Mercaz Harav) sometimes leads one to forget that for all the preference of piety and scholarship; the Torah was given to create a society. Sovereign societies are not made up of only, or even primarily, hachamim. They are made up of people with different abilities, talents, and spiritual achievements. I am afraid that some, not all, of Rav Kook’s continued following have lost sight of that key notion. One can argue that masechet damai is a b’diavad; but it is also Hazal’s recognition of the real society that Torah is meant to function in. The same is true for many other areas of halacha and how Hazal dealt with such dilemnas. Any rav outside the beit midrash must lead the community that really is out there.

    And then of course there simply are honest differences of opinion. No one can really mistake Rav Hirsch’s path for Rav Kook’s and vice versa. There is much room for mutual admiration, but Rav Soloveitchik blazed a somewhat different trail than Rav Kook did.

  3. I was not talking about co-ed or not, but whether one should go on a tiul or listen to music.
    Kedoshim Tehiyu is historically a very important work for the change in Bnai Akiva.

    • Mordechai Y. Scher

      I think you will find the parties falling on the same sides of the fault lines in all these issues. The issues aren’t so distinct, as they are part of a continuum of concerns to be religiously and culturally addressed. I also think that the pietistic vs. more ‘common’ inclinations drive much of the schism. This is only my on sense of things from being part of a community.

  4. Interestingly Rav Henkin takes a similar view to r’ stav in touching women without chiba regarding shaking hands.

  5. Re: that usage of pop culture “may lead to division in the future.”

    There are many factors driving division between segments of Orthodox Jewish society. I suspect that the lines along which leisure time would divide the Orthodox, are also being drawn by other factors.

    So even if this difference could somehow be resolved, I doubt it would much lessen the divisiveness.

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