What are your thoughts on “being sheltered (from the “non-Jewish world)”? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? What’s the halacha?
I’m afraid that this is an area that leaves the realm of halacha and enters that of meta-halacha.
You may be familiar with a famous quote by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. In the 1964 case of Jacobellis v. Ohio, he said that he couldn’t define obscenity but “I know it when I see it.” Halacha can be like that sometimes. There’s a Yiddish aphorism that states that, while you won’t find any text that explicitly prohibits putting a cat in the aron (the ark where the Torah is kept), it is nevertheless inappropriate to do so. Similarly, I have heard it said that a woman’s shirt can be long-sleeved, high-necked and loose-fitting but two strategically-placed rhinestones can make it completely immodest. So not everything in halacha is necessarily spelled out in black and white.
Here’s a perfect example: Leviticus 19:2 tells us, “You shall be holy….” That seems pretty clear until you try to quantify it. How does one go about being holy? Rashi cites the Midrash Rabbah that it means to separate from sexual immorality (kind of specific) and from sin (an awfully big parameter again). While there may be a lot rules when it comes to keeping kosher or Shabbos, they are fairly straightforward; when it comes how to “be holy,” it’s a lot more subjective. I can’t give you an exhaustive list of “holy” behaviors but, like Potter Stewart with obscenity, there are certainly behaviors that we can tell are unholy when we see them.
Another example of such a commandment is found in Leviticus 18:3, “You shall not follow their practices…” (“their” referring to those of other nations). Again, Rashi provides some context from Talmudic and Midrashic sources but even the traditional explanation of “circuses and stadiums” is bewildering because nowadays Torah-observant Jews definitely go to circuses and stadiums. One can only assume that “circuses and stadiums” meant something different to those who lived in the era of the Roman Colosseum and gladiatorial combat. Nevertheless, we are left with vague parameters as to what it means to follow other nations’ ways.
With all this in mind, let us consider the issue of being “sheltered.” I think we can agree that downloading porn goes against “you shall be holy,” but how steamy is too steamy of a love scene in a TV show? How much language is too much language in a movie?” How about listening to songs about baby having back or putting a ring on it? We have entered the realm of shades of gray where judgment calls must be made and people are going to disagree.
Similarly, what about when it comes to following other nations’ ways? If I were to wear a black shirt with a white collar to signify clergy status, I think we would all agree that would qualify as following other nations’ ways. But what if I wear a suit and tie? Or jeans and a T-shirt? Or if women wear pants because they’re accepted as a female garment in our culture?
One more example: Christmas has become highly secularized but I think we can still agree that observing it qualifies as following other nations’ ways. I take it as a given that the same applies to Halloween, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day and Mardi Gras (all also overtly religious holidays despite the way in which they may be celebrated today) though I have received some pushback on these. But what about Thanksgiving and New Year’s? How about Independence Day? Again, there are going to be shades of gray and differing opinions.
I have focused on being holy and not copying other nations’ way but there are other commandments that come into play, like not following our eyes to give into our baser urges and not inquiring into foreign philosophies (see Numbers 15:39). So we see that there may be a good basis to shelter oneself.
On the other hand, there is a long tradition of combining Torah values with the world around us, to one degree or another. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch popularized the idea of “Torah im derech eretz,” the synthesis of Torah with the world around us. This idea originates in the Mishna (Avos 2:2), where derech eretz refers to a career. The Maharal (on Avos 3:21) expands the idea of “derech eretz” beyond simply earning a living and the Rema (the Ashkenaz gloss on the Shulchan Aruch) specifically permits studying areas of knowledge other than Torah, drawing the line at things that would be considered heretical (YD 246:4).
With all this in mind, we can certainly understand why there are communities with stricter parameters that dress the way their ancestors did in Europe, don’t have Internet access or television in their homes, don’t celebrate secular holidays and minimize the secular studies portion in their schools. And there are also going to be communities with looser parameters that dress pretty much the way everybody else in town does (albeit with yarmulkes, tzitzis and conforming to the laws of modesty), do have Internet access and television in their homes (though they set their own boundaries as to what they and their children may watch), celebrate some secular holidays and take the secular studies in their schools more seriously.
So, what does halacha say? It depends who you ask. Different communities are going to have different standards and none of them are necessarily “wrong.” There are certainly areas that are black and white but these issues have many shades of gray. It’s important that we find our own comfort zones – hopefully in consultation with our own rabbis, teachers and mentors – and that we not cast aspersions on those who may have chosen other shades of gray.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent