It is the week of Chanukah, and I should be happy, full of hallel and hodaah, but the truth is that I am feeling down and even a little depressed. I am usually an optimistic person. I like to see the glass as half full, but over the past week, a confluence of incidents sent me into a tailspin.
By way of introduction, if there is anything I don’t like to write, it is a Chanukah article with a depressing message. In fact, a quick perusal of previous articles I have written for Chanukah shows every one of them to have an upbeat message. I have spoken about Chanukah being a “golus Yom Tov,” a Yom Tov that is uniquely suited for us to connect with, a Yom Tov when a little bit of light can banish so much darkness, a Yom Tov when Hashem, as it were, comes down to us, even though the Gemara tells us that the Shechinah doesn’t descend to below ten tefachim, and so on.
I have discussed the power of the Chashmonaim and how they refused to be deterred by teva and by the naysayers.
Sadly, this year, I personally feel deterred by the teva that seems to be engulfing our community and swallowing us up.
It started at davening one day last week. I was not able to daven with my regular minyan, so I went to a different place to daven. Perhaps I should have been looking in my siddur, but at one point, I was looking around and I noticed something. In the middle of davening, even in the middle of Birchos Krias Shema, I noticed the zombie face and zombie eyes of a person – and not only one – looking at the screen of his phone, scrolling. What was he looking at? I assume it was some foolish joke or cartoon that he had been sent. Apparently, when the sound or buzz of yet another message comes in, we are so distracted, so “not there,” that like dogs on a leash, so many of us are pulled to our devices with an invisible pulley that seems stronger than a thick chain.
So many of us have become prisoners. This is not an exaggeration or a hyperbolic turn of phrase. It is the sad and tragic truth. A large percentage of our community of chareidim l’devar Hashem are prisoners. Real prisoners to our phones and devices. Nothing is sacrosanct, not davening, not learning, not talking to our spouses, not focusing on our own children. These are children for whom we would spend millions of dollars if their lives were in danger, yet they can’t even get more than thirty seconds of our undivided attention and focus. Is that not prison? Is that not enslavement? Even the Mitzriyim couldn’t think of a more potent way to enslave us.
Those zombie faces that I saw as they were pulled to their devices are what I cannot get out of my head.
The New Normal or Just Normal?
That was just the beginning of the week. A little later, I received several periodicals, freebies that are primarily advertising circulars. Thick and glossy – the talent for compelling graphics in our community is admirable – they were filled with numerous Chanukah ads.
As I turned page after page, I realized that consumerism in our communities is so powerful that if you would ask a child or a teen in today’s world what Chanukah is all about, he could not be blamed if he answered that it was all about gourmet donuts and meat boards!
I enjoy tasty food, a piece of meat or a donut as much as the next person, and certainly, Chanukah mesibos are part and parcel of Chanukah and should be. Nevertheless, something is happening. There is something deeper, pervasive and scary going on.
What we are seeing is the legitimization of a lifestyle that is the antithesis of everything for which a Torah Yid stands.
Let me ask a question. Why don’t our publications publish ads featuring people dressed in a way that is totally in breach of hilchos tznius as set forth in the Shulchan Aruch? Why? Because they know that there will be a backlash. They know that our community will not tolerate such images, such a breach of a clear halacha as dictated by the Shulchan Aruch.
Can I ask a question? A groaning meat board with more than ten cuts of succulent meat, highlighting the color, the “marbleizing,” the oozing of gravy that would put the matamim that Eisav enjoyed to shame…is that shameless pursuit of one more fantasy to tickle one’s well developed palette not a nevalah? Why is that breach tolerated and lionized in some quarters of our community? It is obscene. There is no more charitable word that I can think of.
These displays of unfettered pursuits of gashmiyus at a level of “sophistication” that would have been simply unheard of or even unthought of as recently as ten years ago, or even five years ago, are the new normal. A teen today doesn’t even think of it is a “new” normal. It is just normal.
Do we realize where we are? Where we are going? Ads for “encrusted” and “infused” cuts of meat and steaks that cost $40 and $50 a pound are in our publications. We are putting the Yevonim to shame. I am almost certain that even Antiochus couldn’t get his hands on a charcuterie that any bochur can get if he knows the right party to crash.
Why are we not equally ekeled, or disgusted, by that shameless show of indulgence as we would be disgusted by, and would rightfully protest, reprehensible images? This is not a kedoshim tihiyu issue. It is far worse. It is a nevalah b’Yisroel, nothing less, and we have to say it the way it is. Again, I am speaking about the shameless way it is promoted, not about what meat one eats in the privacy of his home.
The Dubai Avodah Zarah
Now for the third depressing incident of the week. Many “frum” news outlets were reporting about weddings last week in…Dubai, of all places. These weddings are extremely upscale affairs featuring well-known singers, roshei yeshiva being mesader kiddushin, and every indulgence that you can’t even think of. Top it off with white-robed, kafia-wearing waiters obsequiously serving the Jewish masters of the affair…
How do we unpack so much at once? Yes, it is wonderful that there is peace with more Arab countries, but rabbosai, are hotels in the Virgin Islands, the Swiss and Austrian Alps and the French Riviera not enough for us? Now we have an unending stream of visibly frum Yidden going to Dubai, Bahrain and who knows where else. Have we forgotten the pereh adam, yado bakol…? Do we now have to add the threat of assimilation with Arab nations to the problems that we already have?
Furthermore, we are in the middle of a pandemic. Is the only message that we have absorbed that we now have another venue to make an upscale wedding, publicizing to the whole world how we indulge in every comfort and desire while making the umos green with envy? Really? Is that all we have learned from this killer pandemic?
From the Privacy of One’s Home…to Publication
The truth, however, is that all these three things are inextricably connected and intertwined. It is davka now, on Chanukah, that we should and must talk about them.
There is a natural progression and “normalization” process transpiring that explains how have we fallen so far so quickly.
It starts with social media and all the “groups.” Sadly, there have always been people who pursue unbridled hedonism, even in our community, but what they did in their private life, by and large, remained private. Today, wherever you go, someone is there with a phone taking pictures and videos. The first time I saw a man taking a picture of a “plate” at a chasunah, I was horrified. Now, admittedly, I don’t bat an eyelash.
These images of obsession with self-indulgence make their way around the groups, where it is even more normalized and it becomes less shocking for anyone who has a Yiddishe hergesh. Then it starts to show up on what are ostensibly “frum websites,” and when they are even more normalized, they begin to appear in frum print publications. The more responsible frum print media outlets have a very difficult time maintaining standards, as the bar is collectively lowered and people get accustomed to the “new normal.”
What is the final stop? These items, whether they are bottles of wine worth hundreds of dollars or cuts of meat that until recently you never heard of, become so normalized that they end up being served at the parlor meeting for a mosad, while the speakers lecture about the beauty of hachzokas haTorah.
It is fascinating that frum newspapers and publications were established some 100 years ago by the greatest and holiest gedolim to combat the corrosive influence of the Jewish (Hebrew and Yiddish) publications of the Haskalah that tried infiltrating Jewish homes by bringing the spirit of the street in through their publications. Now, everything has been turned on its head. Those very frum publications are themselves being used as vehicles to usher in a culture of unfettered hedonism, symbolized by Yovon, into our communities.
The Big Question and the Leadership Imperative
How are we supposed to bring up children who are ovdei Hashem in this environment when everything about it screams Yovon?
In the past, Klal Yisroel faced tekufos in which the hashkafah of the street was the antithesis of Torah hashkafah. The period following the churban of Europe comes to mind. During that time, in Eretz Yisroel, the avodah zarah of Zionism was everywhere. In America, the avodah zarah of getting ahead in gashmiyus, building a comfortable life for children, and being moser nefesh to get them into college was prevalent.
In Eretz Yisroel, the Chazon Ish and several other gedolim set the tone, and with their principled leadership, they changed the entire way of thinking of our community. In America, it was the likes of Rav Aharon Kotler, the Satmar Rebbe, and others.
The nisyonos they faced were perhaps not less than those that we face, but they were strong, principled leaders who refused to give in to the prevailing attitudes and fought for the truth at great personal and institutional expense.
Rabbosai, perhaps more than anything else, we have a leadership void. We need strong, principled and fearless leaders to finally get up and say it like it is, doing whatever it takes to facilitate a change of attitude.
Klal Yisroel is starving for leaders to guide us. There is a massive silent majority that is disgusted by the obscene culture of consumerism and indulgence that is threatening to drown us in the yam of taavah.
We so need our Matisyohu to fearlessly declare, “Mi l’Hashem eilai.” I guarantee that tens of thousands will answer that call if it is uttered fearlessly and with conviction.
We have been hijacked by a vocal, glossy, shameless minority. It is time to fight back.