Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Lure of Literature


For the benefits of being an objective observer, I will not reveal who I am. But suffice it to say I have read a wide range of religious and secular literature and here are my musings.
There are several issues that arise while reading any texts that may seem to conflict with traditional Jewish values.
A)        The explicit and implicit sexual references.
B)        Behaviors and words that are base and inappropriate (i.e. sadism and swear words).
C)        Ideas that run contrary to basic Jewish beliefs.
I will try to dissect each reason and ascertain whether they are legitimate concerns.

When one argues the perils secular of literature one of the first problems raised is "the explicit and implicit sexual references". What exactly is the problem? Most probably the advocate will note that reading these sort of fantasies and scenes will cause the casual reader to start having forming images in his mind which are deemed forbidden. This is a valid argument that one cannot avoid. It would be audacious to think that one can read "Fifty Shades of Gray" and not picture in his mind these debased scenes. However, it is important to note that the mere mention of certain anatomical areas of a male or female does not categorically bar the permissibility to read. Is there not an entire tractate in the Bavli which discusses the rules of a Menstruant? Is not the Song of Songs replete with references to passion, love, and romance? It is clear that the issue is not the mere mention which is problematic, but rather the author's goal to elicit sexual arousing feelings which exclude the reading of a book. Therefore, a distinction should be made between reading a James Patterson mass fiction novel (which is probably a problem) and a Herman Wouk masterpiece.

I now turn to the second reason "behaviors and words that are base and inappropriate (i.e. sadism and swear words)". This is usually more applicable to what we allow our children to read. Simply put, the more one is exposed to violence and decadence the more one becomes desensitized to its horrors. While the mature adult will be able to discern evil from good, the younger reader is vulnerable to become accustomed, and even tolerant, to depravity. Additionally, exposure affects the viewer/ reader. We may want to deny this, but it is clear that the more one reads literature filled with curse words and degeneracy the more the reader themselves adopts these practices. Therefore, a distinction should be made between reading Shalom Auslander (which is probably a problem) and reading a Holocaust memoir (filled with violence but productive).

The final reason is most taboo. To actually mention that something might be a problem because of the ideas and values it contains runs contrary to most truths we hold to be self evident. But how can one justify reading Atlas Shrugged or the Fountainhead? Are they to say that this is in line with traditional Jewish values? Can one claim that Infinite Jest would fall within the values of the mosaic tradition? Is possible to claim innocence after reading a Christopher Hitchens diatribe or a Richard Dawkins or a Sam Harris…. The list goes on!

The written word is a powerful tool, one that should be reckoned with and utilized. But one must remain loyal to traditional values and be honest with themselves. Or at least try.   

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