“Battling the Contemporary Abominations”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, Moses once again encourages the people of Israel to put their faith in G-d. He assures the people that this trust will guarantee the successful conquest of the land of Israel and that every aspect of their lives will be blessed.

The people’s loyalty to G-d, says Moses, will cause all the nations of Canaan to fall before Israel. G-d will deliver the people of Israel and confound their enemies until they are utterly destroyed. Once again, Moses warns the people, in the name of G-d, to eliminate all vestiges of idolatry and to make sure to burn the carved images of the idols in fire. Graphically concluding, Moses says (Deuteronomy 7:26), “V’lo tah’vee to’ay’vah el bay’teh’chah,” and you shall not bring an abomination in to your home, you shall surely loath it and you shall surely abominate it, for it is something banned!

Although in the literal sense, this verse clearly forbids the bringing of any idolatry into a Jew’s home or possession, R’ Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809, one of the most influential Chassidic leaders in central Poland and the Ukraine) homiletically explains that this prohibition forbids arrogance from penetrating a Jew’s home or personality. Basing his interpretation on a verse in Proverbs 16:5 that states: “Toh’ah’vat Hashem kol giv’ah layv,” All who are haughty of heart are an abomination before G-d, R’ Levi Yitzchak cleverly includes arrogance among those things that must be excluded from a Jewish home, since self-worship is a form of idolatry. Declares Rabbi Levi Yitzchak: “One who is arrogant, worships himself instead of G-d, and like the idolaters, seeks to displace G-d and replace Him with somebody else.” (Cited in The Torah Treasury, Artscroll, p. 476)

Homiletics aside, there is a very clear literal meaning to the Torah’s proscription of bringing an abomination into one’s home. Since the early 1950s, with the proliferation of television in homes throughout the world, there has been a raging debate concerning the dangers of exposing children to the programming that appears on this wondrous technology. It has been estimated that close to 70 to 80% of entertainment in the United States consists of sex and violence, and it has become a virtually established fact that there is a direct correlation between children who see tens of thousands acts of violence on television annually, and the gratuitous violence that has infected our society. [See box that follows] It is a sad commentary on the country, which is hailed as “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” that over 2 million Americans are now in prison in the USA, and that over 6 million Americans are under the correctional supervision of the criminal justice system. What is the root of the evil that stalks our country?

Television is a medium that has many wonderful qualities and can, potentially, have a most meritorious effect on society. But much of television programming has been reduced to trashy and cheap fare. In the early days of television, broadcasting was free. Now of course many people pay a small monthly fortune for the “privilege” of subscribing to cable TV, digital TV or satellite TV. Given the far coarser programming that is aired on subscription TV, it is almost like begging the sanitation department to dump the garbage in one’s living room every day, and paying $30-50 a month for that “privilege.”

And now a new “abomination” has entered our lives. Surely the internet brings many benefits and blessings to our civilization. But, the negatives of this cutting-edge high-tech medium can surely be equated to the worst of ancient idolatry, where human sacrifice was a regular part of the ritual. The internet porn industry is raking in billions of dollars and tens of millions of people are spending countless hours watching. Surely the economic productivity of nations throughout the world is being negatively affected by the internet. It has been reported that 30% of users of online dating services for singles are married. Trying to control the internet and the television with parental control devices is almost futile. Even more than television, the internet seems to be rapidly speeding out of control, and taking a good part of our civilization with it.

For decades many rabbis have spoken out passionately against television and have cautioned parents about allowing their children to watch television, even when supervised. Campaigns have been mounted to get parents to “Dump the TV.” More recent campaigns have been launched against the internet. There are religious schools that will not accept students whose parents have televisions in their homes. Although these restrictions seem authoritarian and quite primitive, they appear to be making more and more sense as our society steadily advances toward “Never-Never land.”

Although many of us find it hard to see the parallel, it is fallacious to think that there is no idolatry today. No less than the battles faced by the Israelites of old, we today are facing a battle for our own survival and the survival of our children’s souls. Just as the ancient Israelites had to make sacrifices in order to fight off the all-enveloping influences of idolatry, so must we forcefully declare war on these very basic evils that are chipping away at our morality and our humanity.

May you be blessed.

A 2001 Kaiser Foundation study found that 10% of all television shows depict couples engaged in, starting, or just finishing sexual intercourse. In half of those cases, the parties had no relationship with one another prior to having sex. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average teenage television viewer is exposed annually to more than 14,000 sexual references, innuendos and jokes, many quite explicit.

On MTV, 60 % of the clips portray sexual feelings, 31% present people in sexually provocative clothing, 27% include sexually suggestive movements, and 5% portray sexual sadomasochism.

The amount of TV watched (particularly MTV) was found in one study to be the best predictor of teenage sexual activity and the number of partners. The more TV a teenager watches, warns the American Academy of Pediatrics, the less likely he or she is to view nonmarital and extramarital relations negatively. That may offer one clue to the difficulty so many people today have establishing long-lasting, committed relationships.

TV advertising portrays human beings as little more than bodies for attracting other bodies, and has left teenage girls despondent about their own. By fourth grade, most American girls are already dissatisfied with their body shape. Dr Anne Becker, a Harvard anthropologist, found that only 38 months after the introduction of TV to the Fiji Islands, where big was previously considered beautiful, 15% of teenagers were vomiting to control their weight.

The impact of visual images has been demonstrated in numerous studies of the effect of TV on violent behavior. The average American child is exposed to 12,000 murders, rapes and assaults on TV annually. The link between the degree of exposure to TV violence and subsequent violent behavior, the US Surgeon General declared in 2001, is as strong as that between smoking and cancer.

Two University of Illinois psychologists concluded that the amount of television watched at age eight is the best single predictor of violent behavior at 30. And a team of University of Washington epidemiologists, in a transnational study of the rates of violence, found a consistent pattern of sharp spikes in the rates of violence 10 to 15 years after the introduction of TV.

(These statistics on the negative effects of TV watching are all culled from Lawrence Kelemen’s excellent book To Kindle a Soul.) Cited by Jonathan Rosenblum in the Jerusalem Post, May 22, 2003