What’s an Am Ha’aretz?

We live in a society where everyone has an equal say in everything, from the most trivial matters to the most sacred. As a byproduct of our democracy – where free speech is (or was) considered sacred – there is nothing stopping an uneducated, uninformed drunk from giving his two cents on any matter he may so desire. Not only does he have an opinion, but he has a vote, which carries real weight and lifelong consequences. The fact that thousands – if not millions – of voters can name vacuous stars of popular culture yet cannot name or identify their own vice president, senator, defense secretary, etc., or explain what those people stand for (as has been amply documented), does not preclude these self-same voters from voting for those people and positions.

President Ronald Reagan once told a humorous anecdote about an American and a Russian (from Communist days) who were conversing. The American says, “In my country, I can go to the White House, get right in front of the president, bang on his desk, and shout, ‘Down with the United States and its president!’”

Unimpressed, the Russian responds, “I can do the same thing. I can go to the Kremlin, get right in front of the prime minister, bang on his desk, and shout, ‘Down with the United States and its president!’”

Be that as it may, the fact is that the liberal trend of our democracy has created – for better and for worse – a society where everyone has an equal say and an equal opinion regardless of whether he or she is in fact qualified to weigh in on the subject in question.

As with everything else, this trend has penetrated our once-insular frum society. For years now, and growing progressively worse, people completely unqualified and uninformed feel no qualms about spouting off on any and all subjects they might fancy. Worse is that they have a ready audience in the form of print or online sensationalist magazines and similar media looking to make a buck from advertising. The fact that their content is questionable at best and subpar or outright wrong and damaging at worst is viewed as completely beside the point.

We have become inured to the fact that some topics are sacrosanct, some areas sacred, some subjects too precious and important to allow for any sensationalist individual to play with and pervert at whim. We, too, have been influenced by the all-American liberal notion that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion and value-judgments. Of course, nobody comes right out and says that they are trampling on what has been sacred or recognized as basic decency in our circles for years. Everything is paraded as being “timely,” “current,” or in sync with the latest studies and most up-to-date ideas.

(Any irony to the fact that the yeshivishe/heimishe/frum community is now using virtually the very same explanations and expressions as has been used by the Reform, Conservative and Centrist movements in the past for accepting what has for years been considered unacceptable seems lost on most people.)

An esteemed member of one of the most respected circles in frum society – we’ll call him Reb S. – was recently speaking about how immorally corrupt and dishonest secular entertainment has become. In virtually every film, show, book, game, etc. of today’s secular society (about which hopefully most of us know almost nothing), at least one character is an out-rightly immoral or perverted individual. This is because today’s media and entertainment world is pushing these immoralities and perversions.

To the excuse that such people do indeed exist and therefore – in the name of realism – are simply being portrayed, Reb S. derided, “Even according to their own statistics, such people are not found nearly in proportion to the way they are being represented in popular culture. If they claim that one of every five families, for argument’s sake, has a member with the perverse character traits they portray – be it murderous, criminally inclined, immoral, unstable, etc. – why does virtually every single family or group in popular culture portray someone which such perversions?”

A powerful argument.

Someone who was standing and listening to Reb S. – we’ll call him M. – challenged him. “Do you get the _____ magazine in your home (an ostensibly frum magazine)? Do your kids, teenagers and wife read it? How about the ______? It comes free. Do you throw it out or does it come into your house?”

Reb S. seemed puzzled. What did these “frum” publications have anything to do with what he had just been saying? Yes, he does have them in his home, Reb S. acknowledged, but what does that have to do with anything?

“I challenge you,” replied M., “to find me virtually a single issue of any of these publications that does not feature a family, a situation or a story of ostensibly “normal” frum families whose members are hidden psychopaths, control freaks, religiously challenged, emotionally unwell, or from a broken, unstable or unsuitable home. So you’ll tell me, ‘Well, these things do exist and we can’t shove them under the carpet.’ Perhaps. But having responsible people deal with these things and not ‘hiding them under the carpet’ is not the same as sensationalizing them in popular frum culture and having every frum kid, teen and adult imbibe a weekly diet of sick middos, negative traits and the breaking of all bounds of normalcy and sensitivity.”

“Besides,” M. continued, “as you just said, if, for argument’s sake, people claim that one of every five frum families has perversions or irregularities – even if one of every three families have them – why isn’t there virtually a single normal, healthy, frum family or situation in any ‘frum’ serialized story, article or book nowadays? So if it’s wrong and disgusting for secular society to push perversions and abnormalcy through popular culture and entertainment in this way, why is it okay for frum society to do the same?”

Reb S. had no answer and in fact later confided that he decided that many of these publications indeed do not belong in his home.

One is hard-pressed to explain why certain families go to extreme lengths to get their children into the “best” chadorim and Bais Yaakovs, priding themselves on keeping standards even higher than their most frum neighbors, and then bring material into their homes whose standards are far below what would be discussed or taught in the most “open-minded” schools.

• • • • •

As we’ve explained at the outset, people no longer subscribe to the idea that what we read about and immerse ourselves in should in fact be approved by a knowledgeable Torah authority, or at least be backed by an experienced, mature, and responsible individual. Nowadays, anyone can say what they want, express whatever opinion they feel, and make any claims they desire. A rov with sterling middos who has been immersed in Torah for over thirty years and is well-versed in all of Shas, poskim, and thousands of teshuvos can say one thing, and any ignorant, unrefined individual can write a letter, publish an article, or take out an ad claiming that studies show differently, and in our eyes it’s a “debate.”

The rov said this way and someone wrote a letter against it. He said, she said. And I think that this one is right. Or maybe that one. Whatever. I haven’t decided yet.

Who says I have a say in the first place, you ask? What do you mean? This is America. Everybody has an equal say.

It is questionable whether there is anything one can say or write that would bring about real inner change in a born-and-bred American, this author included, to truly make us understand that our opinions are at times actually subservient to others. We’re not even speaking only of daas Torah, but simply of recognizing that others – who are more experienced, knowledgeable, and involved than us – often just know better and have a more legitimate opinion than we do. Subservience to others is, sadly, foreign to our entire outlook and upbringing.

However, perhaps we can understand that our own minds should recognize the folly, the inexpediency, and the crass ignorance with which we portray ourselves when we apply any sort of equivalence between a legitimate opinion or idea and a vacuous one. For example, suppose somebody is speaking to you about Jewish individuals who have left their mark on world history and culture in the last century or so. He lists Albert Einstein, Leon Trotsky, Hank Greenberg, Benjamin Disraeli, Karl Marx and his brothers…

Is this man entitled to his opinion of which Jews affected history? Why not? If we take his opinion seriously, though, we’re showing ourselves to be utter fools. After all, though Karl was Jewish (son of a meshumad), and so was Groucho and his brothers, this fellow clearly hasn’t the foggiest idea of what he’s talking about. So for our own good, if we don’t wish to be the butt of the “What’s an am ha’aretz?” joke, we may wish to be more discerning in considering what and whose opinions we read and take seriously.

It’s the same thing with so many other areas of life. Does any ignorant or uninformed individual have a right to express his opinion or put out a publication or an ad featuring any opinion he or she may believe in or desire? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Would an intelligent person give any credence to such opinions, feelings, sensitivities, ideas or hashkafic sentiments?

You decide.

At times, the subject matter is subtle, and it’s not always easy to recognize the truth. More often, it seems, the opinions expressed are almost laughable when one but knows a drop of the real facts. Someone once wrote a whole thesis questioning the age-old “assumption” that a life immersed in opulence, physical trappings, creature-comforts, and the pursuit of wealth is incompatible with ruchniyus, sensitivity to others, and maturity. People subsequently “agreed” or “disagreed” with this idea. Overlooked entirely was the fact that many volumes containing over thousands of years of the teachings of the Torah, Chazal, and our sages tell us clearly that the two are incompatible.

One may forgive anyone the temerity to disagree with “age-old assumptions.” That’s what gives people kicks these days – the sense of power in feeling they can buck the trend and know better. Ignorance and am ha’aratzus, though, are not as easy to overlook. The point isn’t that these people aren’t entitled to their opinion. The point is that they clearly do not have even a basic grasp of the very subject matter they claim to be discussing.

Another example: One hears of people who have never finished even one tractate in Shas proclaiming that the most respected gedolim and roshei yeshivah of the greatest and most prestigious yeshivos over more than half a century have erred in allowing and even encouraging their students to generally not consider marriage before 23, 24, or older. How do they know that what has been accepted by generations of gedolim and talmidei chachomim is in error? Well, they say, “it says clearly in this or that Mishnah, halachah or Rambam to the contrary.”

One can only shake one’s head in wonder. Does anyone have a “right” to argue and advertise as they wish? Perhaps. Does anyone think, though, that the greatest minds and most erudite and knowledgeable gedolim and roshei yeshivos for over half a century did not know, or overlooked, a Mishnah or a Rambam?

“Oh my, Rav Shach must have forgotten this clear Mishnah! And Rav Aharon probably didn’t realize that the Rambam says not like him! I mean, look! Here it is! It says so straight out. Whoops, I guess generations of gedolim and roshei yeshivos forgot what I know. It’s a good thing I saw it. Boy, would Klal Yisroel have been misguided if I hadn’t pointed out this clear-cut Mishnah…”

Does anyone have a right to think that? Maybe they do. This is America, a free country. One can only think of the guy on the album, though. “What’s an am ha’aretz? Exactly!”

All sorts of people – qualified or not – opine and postulate regarding the issue of wives working to support their husband’s limud haTorah. Does everybody have a right to his or her opinion? Could be. Still, when one reads statements such as, “The entire concept is a creation of this or that recent sage or generation,” or, “It never was this way until recently,” one can only laugh.

Whether one has the “right” to believe, argue, or make a case one way or another, the facts are that the Rishonim tell us that women supported their husband’s limud haTorah already in Bavel, and the Vilna Gaon writes that Chava was created to support Adam in his limud haTorah.

These are merely random examples that come to mind. The intention is not to bring up or debate these particular topics, but to illustrate that, more often than not, popular or hot topics or debates are not so much a question of right or wrong, or how you do or do not feel, but simply of whether one is missing crucial information and facts that would render the entire “debate” simply irrelevant.

So unless one does not feel foolish giving credence to the opinions of someone who may not be able to tell you whether Shlomo Hamelech or Yam Hamelach was the better king, perhaps – just maybe – we should think twice before deciding which publications, opinions, ideas or hashkafos we should be allowing into our homes, our minds, and the fabric of our children’s and teenager’s consciousness.