[Crossposted in full at Hirhurim]
Modern Orthodoxy VS. Fun, Or “Why So Serious”
However, I believe that what Rav Blau is complaining about is deeper than the issue of TV – whether watched for value or the pure pleasure of it. I believe Rav Blau inadvertently exposed a very serious lacuna in Modern orthodox thought – the complete lack of intrinsic value attributed to leisure in general, and fun and play in particular.
For those who disagree with me, I invite you to take a look at leading publications, blogs and books of Modern Orthodox thinkers – left, right and center. Check out the discussions and read the histories. You will notice a recurring theme – an obsession with intellectual and “serious” issues, and a complete lack of attention to either popular culture or leisure in general. “High culture” – the fine arts, philosophy, science, politics – these are OK. Comic books, TV shows and sports – not OK.
Much like the issue of sex ed, pop culture and play are simply not a part of Modern Orthodox thought. At best, they are tolerated, to help get rid of stress or as a natural impulse of children that will eventually disappear. Ideally, a la Rav Blau, Jews should spend their time studying deep things, thinking deep thoughts and constantly maintaining a degree of ideological-psychological tension that is very high.
A la Rav Blau, Modern Orthodoxy is very much a religion by intellectuals, for intellectuals, with little room for enjoyment or development of other aspects of life such as music, sports and games. There is little place for just “living” outside of the MO “mission”. I believe Prof. William Kolbrenner summarized this point very succinctly when he suggested replacing the term “Torah U-Madda” with “Torah and Chaim” (Torah and Life). We should have “conversations” with all the parts of life, learn them, enjoy them, cherish them.
More than that, as Benjamin of Tudela has pointed out in a comment, we need to stop dividing the world into only “good and “bad” things. There are many phenomena in the world that are simply neutral. Furthermore, oftentimes “bad” things can contain “good” elements and vice versa, as any religious defender of secular Zionism can tell you. A sense of proportion is key.
I suppose Rav Blau would counter that this attitude is the same that has lead to the reviled “edutainment” phenomenon. However, I submit that this would be to confuse the symptom for the cause. People – children, teenagers and adults – have an instinctive and healthy need for play (that is not tied to “Seriousness”). Play not only relieves stress but is proven to allow people to grow and develop psychologically and intellectually at any age.
“Edutainment”, then, is a flawed answer to a true need. We need better ways of handling play, not forcing “seriousness” down our students’ throats 100 or even 90% of the time. Rather than seeing it as either a sworn enemy or a tolerated pest, we would do well to study and understand play as a natural phenomenon of life. Sometimes people really do need to shut off their brains, overheated from 24 hours and 7 days a week’s worth of “mission, mission, mission”. Sometimes Shabbat really does need to be an actual day of rest.
Perhaps Rav Blau is concerned about the isolating effects of the TV/internet. But play is not confined to these things. Give your kid the Dangerous Book for Boys or the Daring Book for Girls. Encourage sports or play board games or cards. Come to think of it, play among MO adults should also be encouraged. Just because we’re grown-ups doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have fun.
Sir Ken Robertson said that the present Western educational system (ourselves included) is designed primarily to produce university professors (or Rabbis) who “live inside their heads”. We would do well to abandon that monochromatic model, and embrace our bodies, ourselves and life in its entirety.