Do You Know What Your Daughters Are Reading?

Since my novels and short stories have found a wide readership in the religious Zionist community in Israel, I am periodically asked to speak to students about creative writing. Unfortunately, our youth, and many of our educators, do not know what Jewish literature is all about.

Tzvi Fishman

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Since my novels and short stories have found a wide readership in the religious Zionist community in Israel, I am periodically asked to speak to students about creative writing. Unfortunately, our youth, and many of our educators, do not know what Jewish literature is all about.

A while ago, I accepted an invitation to speak at one of the respected girls high schools, called ulpanot, in Israel. Rows and rows of young teenagers, not much older than my daughter, sat facing me, undoubtedly eager to hear stories from Hollywood. I couldn't help but notice that a fair number of the girls were dressed in colorful, tight-fitting garments. Painfully, I recalled the warnings of our sages regarding the great damage that immodesty brings upon Jewish women and upon the Jewish Nation as a whole, but I had not been invited to speak on that subject. Keeping my gaze pinned on the ulpana's rabbi, I began the lecture by asking what novel they were presently reading for school.

One of the girls called out, The Slave.

"The Slave?" I stuttered. An archive of old movies and novels flashed through my brain in fast-motion until the sordid story of The Slave came into focus.

Could it really be that these innocent, pure daughters of Israel were reading a tale so filled with smut that it caused me, a former Hollywood screenwriter, to blush just thinking about it?

True, the book's author, Isaac Bashevis Singer, knew how to put words together with the skill of a symphonic composer, but The Slave bordered on cultured pornography. With a fair share of Torah-bashing thrown in. The whole book centers around the lusts and guilty passion of a Jewish peasant for a forbidden gentile temptress.

"I don't believe it!" I exclaimed. "The Slave? By Issac Beshivas Singer? You mean to say you read erotic novels in literature class?"

Looking around, I noticed that the teachers who were sitting at the side of the hall appeared to be somewhat nervous. After all, there was no telling what a baal t'shuva [returnee to religious practice] from Hollywood might say.

"What's the matter with The Slave?" one of the girls called out. "So what if some passages aren't very modest? There are a lot of important messages in the book."

I paused. The truth is, I wasn't prepared for a debate on the merits of Singer's writings. It was at least thirty years since I had read the book and my memories of it were extremely vague.

"Let me give an example," I said. "In a salad, there are many nice things. Ripe tomatoes, fresh lettuce, crisp green peppers, tasty olives. But if there were a few insects in it, would you eat it?"

"It isn't the same at all," the girl protested.

"Why not?" I asked. "A Jew has to guard not only what he puts in his mouth, he has to guard what he puts in his brain. If you read about sex, you are going to think about sex. It is as simple as that."

A burst of chatter erupted throughout the hall. The rabbi was smiling. At least the evening wasn't going to be a bore.

"Singer won the Nobel Prize," another girl added in defense of the book.

"So did Shimon Peres," I responded.

That won me some chuckles. Nevertheless, I was disturbed. The combination of the tight-fitting blouses and the books these girls were reading told me that something was rotten in the education of these Jewish girls, especially since my very own daughter was heading to a girls high school like this one in the upcoming year.

For the next hour, I tried to get across to these young students that there was a difference between true Jewish literature and stories like The Slave that just happen to be about Jews. At the end of the evening, I approached the head of the school and asked him how he allowed his students to study such trash.

"I haven't read the book myself," he answered defensively. "I have heard there are problematic things in it, but I have not read the book."

I did a little research and discovered that The Slave is studied in the literature classes of many fine religious-Zionist high schools. I confronted several school administrators, including several well-known rabbis, and they invariably answered, "I am not familiar with the book."

Naively, I wrote a letter to the Ministry of Education, to the Director of the Department of Religious Education. He answered that:
  • He hadn't made up the list of books for the graduating certificate in literature. It had been complied years before.
  • The book was not required reading. Teachers were free to choose any book from the list.
  • All things considered, there were many important themes in Singer's writing that were worthwhile studying.
One thing is certain. I would not want my daughter to read a book like The Slave, no matter how many prizes it won. When my novel Tuvia in the Promised Land was being translated into Hebrew, I took it to a rabbi to clarify a question that was bothering me. In the English version, there was a kiss between Tuvia's daughter and one of the free-thinking Zionist pioneers. Even though, in an immediate act of Divine retribution, the seducing rogue gets stabbed in the back by an Arab, I wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing. For an American reader, even a young one, a kiss is nothing, no more than drinking a Coke. But for my Israeli ulpanot readers, I didn't want to write something that wasn't modest according to the strictest Orthodox standards.

The rabbi took out a Mishna Berurah and read the law in the Shulchan Aruch ("Laws of Shabbat" 307:16) that forbids the reading of erotic literature since it arouses the evil inclination. The Shulchan Aruch cites the book Sefer Emanuelle as an example. This novella was a romance written by a rabbi who wanted to attract a popular audience. By today's standards, Sefer Emanuelle would be considered a bore, but still, it was banned by Jewish law. Thus, from the standpoint of Jewish law, reading a book like The Slave, which arouses the yetzer hara (evil inclination ) from beginning to end, is certainly forbidden.

"But if there isn't any romance in my novel, no one will buy it," I protested.

The Torah sage nodded his head. "That's a problem," he agreed. "But you have to write with the Almighty in mind and not worry about sales."

On another occasion, I approached a Halachic authority with another question. A film producer had asked me to write a screenplay about a religious man who is stricken with lust for a girl from a non-religious kibbutz. Like in The Slave, the tormented hero ruminates "to sin or not to sin" throughout half of the book, before giving in to his passion. "Could I write the screenplay?" I asked.

"Maybe, if the heroine is ninety years old and not very pretty," he said with a grin.

The fact is that novels or movies with erotic themes arouse the evil inclination and pollute the mind. The nation of Israel is called upon to be a holy nation. Just as we have to be careful what we eat, we have to be careful what we read and see. Licentious images and imaginations poison the purity of the Jewish soul. The mental pictures conjured up by novels like The Slave corrupt and desensitize our spiritual beings, alienating us from the Torah.

For someone who writes, the question becomes: How does one go about creating true Jewish literature, or true Jewish cinema?

The answer can be found in the writings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook. In a letter to the newly-founded Bezalel Academy of Arts in Jerusalem, Rabbi Kook praised the school for its important contribution to the nation's revival. Nonetheless, Rabbi Kook warned that great care should be taken to keep art within the clearly-defined borders of Jewish law.
Our nation has always related in a positive and pleasant way to the artistic beauty manifest in man's creative works, but this must also be limited. Even in the more exalted and loftier matters, we are cautious of drunkenness and excessiveness. (Letters, 158).
Similarly, in his introduction to Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs), Rabbi Kook explains the importance of literature to the development of the nation.
Literature stands waiting to express all of the spiritual concepts that are hidden in the depth of humanity's psyche. As long as one thread of man's inner being is still hidden and lacking expression, it is the duty of art to reveal it. (Olat HaRiyah Part 2, pg. 3)
Thus, literature's task is to explore the depths of the human psyche and provide the vehicle to bring man's inner spiritual being to expression. If this is so, then the girl from the ulpana rightfully claimed that The Slave serves the important function of bringing man's inner desires and conflicts to light. But Rabbi Kook goes on to teach that not every stirring of the soul is fitting to parade in the open, albeit under the banner of "literature."
However, those hidden matters through which mankind is bettered not by expressing them, but by burying them, a spade has been provided to dig them a hole and cover them up. And woe to the person who uses his tool to do the opposite, to uncover the refuse and stink of mankind. (Ibid. See also the essay on Shir HaShirim and Rabbi Kook, by Rabbi Uzi Kalheim, in his book Aderet Emunah)
Rabbi Kook takes his metaphor of the spade from the Torah:
And thou shall have a spade among thy weapons, and it shall be when thou shall ease thyself outside, thou shall dig with it, and shall turn back and cover up thy excrement; for the L-rd thy G-d walks in the midst of thy camp, to deliver thee, and to give up thy enemies before thee; therefore, thy camp shall be holy, that He see no unclean thing in thee and turn away from thee. (Devarim, 23:14)
Just as soldiers must keep their camp holy, so too writers and filmmakers must use their creativity to uplift the world and not to pollute it. Certain subjects are better left buried. Pornography, no matter how pretty or cultured it comes, should be buried like excrement in the ground.

Does this mean that writers are forbidden to write about love? Not at all. But in doing so, writers must exert great self-control and caution. Everything depends on the subject you chose and the manner in which you tell it.

Detailing every glance, touch and physical yearning, the way Singer does in The Slave, fires the imagination and sexual inclination. The writer is using his pen (or "spade," in Rabbi Kook's metaphor) to uncover the unbridled passions that are better kept out of the mind of young readers. Allowing our children to study this type of prizewinning trash is like feeding them sweet-tasting poison. The love between a man and a woman is a fitting subject for literature, but such intimate matters should not be portrayed with the same moment-by-moment excitement as a sportscaster broadcasting a basketball game over the radio.

While literature must have its fences like anything else, no one is coming to ban it. In his classic, Orot, Rabbi Kook emphasizes the vital role of literature in bringing redemption to the world.
Literature will be sanctified, and writers will also sanctify themselves, and the world will rise up and recognize the great and gentle power of literature that will raise up the spiritual foundation of the world in all of its exaltation. (Orot, "Orot HaTechiyah", 37)
It is interesting that Rabbi Kook does not say that the Torah will lift the world to this exalted spiritual level, but rather literature. The masses find the pure intellectual reaches of Torah difficult to grasp. Most people are motivated by their feelings, which influence their thinking and beliefs. It is here, in the deep workings of the psyche, that literature can illuminate and uplift the spiritual foundation of mankind.

For Israel to return to its true Torah culture, all writers, not only writers from Hollywood, must become ba'alei t'shuva. As Rabbi kook writes:
Out of the worldly, too, will emerge the holy, and out of the brazen liberalism will also emerge the beloved yoke of the Torah. Golden chains will be woven and will arise out of the poetry of free thinkers, and a luminous penitence will also arise from the secular literature. This will be the great wonder of the vision of redemption... which will culminate in a penitence that will bring healing and redemption to the world. (Orot HaT'shuva, 17:3)
In the meantime, I advise parents to open your teenagers' school bags and find out what your children are reading.