Dear Jew in the City,
Can Orthodox Jews watch TV and movies?
Thanks for your question. The obvious answer, based on simple observation, is that Chareidim (i.e., “ultra-Orthodox” Jews) are unlikely to partake of television and movies, while doing so is quite common among Modern Orthodox Jews. A review of the literature on this subject, however, skews heavily to the negative because the responsa literature largely doesn’t reflect the Modern Orthodox practice.
Following are some of the authorities who spoke out against television:
As strongly as these authorities objected to television, it appears not to be an absolute prohibition. After all, the Lubavitcher Rebbe said that it’s futile to try to limit children’s viewing to so-called “innocent” shows, and yet Chabad started hosting telethons during his lifetime. (The first Chabad telethon was in 1980 and the Lubavitcher Rebbe died in 1994.)
Rav Gavriel Zinner (Nitei Gavriel, Hilchos Yichud) writes that those who watch television have a presumption of promiscuity vis-à-vis the laws of seclusion (yichud). That’s pretty strong, but it’s important to note that he differentiates between those who were raised with a television in their homes (who presumably don’t know any better) and those who were raised understanding what a danger it is to propriety. I think this is an important distinction.
Rav Ovadia Yosef, who spoke strongly against television in general, did allow “turning a blind eye” when it came to providing one to the elderly or infirm shut-ins (Shu”T Maayan Omer 12:4, 70).
Rav Chaim David HaLevi ztz”l, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yaffo, was an outspoken opponent of television and movies, regardless of a show’s content. His primary concern was bittul Torah – the time spent being idle rather than engaged in Torah study (Shu”T Asei L’cha Rav 4:47). Despite his strong objections to television and movies, Rav HaLevi permitted a former yeshiva student to go to the cinema with his wife for reasons of shalom bayis (peace in the home). There was an important proviso: the selection of movies had to be vetted to ensure that there was no inappropriate material (ibid. 1:63).
So there are a number of leniencies and extenuating circumstances, which is noteworthy, but none of these seem sufficient to explain the widespread practice among the Modern Orthodox. Are we all just wrong? Or willfully ignorant?
I think it’s noteworthy that Yeshiva University – the premier Modern Orthodox institution – offers a Media Studies minor that “allows students to focus on the interpretation, history, and artistic production of both traditional and emerging media forms, including print journalism, literature, film, television, and the internet.” So there must be more to this.
Before we get to TV and movies, let’s talk about books. To be honest, halacha (Jewish law) isn’t too crazy about novels, either. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 307:16) says:
Secular stories, romances and books about wars may not be read on Shabbos. They are likewise prohibited during the week because it is a gathering of scoffers and it violates the prohibition against turning towards falsehood. Romances have the additional problem of arousing one’s passions. Those who wrote them, those who copied them, and certainly those who published them have caused the public to sin.
Seems pretty clear against literature, doesn’t it? And yet, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein – a rosh yeshiva and the son-in-law of Rav Soloveitchik, widely considered the most preeminent Modern Orthodox authority ever – held a PhD in English Literature from Harvard University. He wrote:
“Some feel that, inasmuch as ‘Torah is the best merchandise’ (in the words of the Yiddish aphorism), why should anyone devote any time at all to anything but the ‘best merchandise?’ In one sense, this notion seems eminently sensible. But do we really conduct ourselves in this way in all areas of life? If someone says he wants a piece of bread and butter, do we tell him, ‘Fool, why bread and butter? What’s more important? Bread! So why put butter on the bread? Take two pieces of bread!’ Of course not.”
Rabbi David Stav, chief rabbi of Shoham, permitted one to watch movies as long as one shuts his eyes during “problematic scenes” (Bein Hazemanim, p. 208).
Rav Shlomo Aviner, another contemporary authority, writes that TV is simply a device, like a pencil (with which one could potentially write words of gossip and slander) or a table (on which one could potentially serve non-kosher food). The danger lies not in the device, but in what one does with it (Tehor Sefataim).
So how did we get here?
We previously discussed how Modern Orthodoxy embraces secular studies that were traditionally shunned. A colleague of mine, a rabbi with decades of experience at RIETS (Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary), explained that this idea applies not only to education, but also to recreation. Modern Orthodoxy sees potential value in music and literature. (I’ll let each reader decide which music and which literature has value and which doesn’t.) The same can be said of cinema and television. According to my much more learned colleague, the difference between the ultra-Orthodox and the Modern Orthodox when it comes to visual media is not so much halachic as it is attitudinal. In other words, if I might be permitted to differ with communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, the medium is not necessarily the message.
It has been brought to my attention that Chareidi communities create appropriate media content aimed at their own constituencies. To be honest, I’m not sure how they play it without TVs. (Maybe they have PCs without Internet? Or portable DVD players?) I don’t know how ubiquitous it, but it definitely exists. This is another example of monitoring content rather than rejecting the relevant technology outright.
So, as we have said, Chareidim are unlikely to own TVs or go to movies. Modern Orthodox Jews very well may. But even according to the lenient views, that doesn’t make it a free-for-all. It’s important to vet viewing content not only for one’s children, but also for oneself. And, as always, for questions of practical halacha, ask your own rabbi for guidance.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube