In High Dudgeon Over HD

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I can’t say that I didn’t find the YES commercial insanely funny. That is not to my credit. There is so much mockery of Torah, of traditional values in the clip that by right, a sense of revulsion should have eclipsed the humor. In short order, yet another reaction set in – a sense of sadness that to some extent we bring this kind of reaction upon ourselves.

The commercial shows a musically-accompanied machaah/ protest riot by a large number of Chassidim, up in arms over the availability of 42” high definition television in Israel, which of course is exactly what it is attempting to sell to the secular public. The protesters are superbly choreographed dancers (who seem to be doing their thing in lower Manhattan rather than Kikar Shabbat), upset that the new apparatus will allow even more detail to be seen of abominations like “shiksehs.”. Depending on the version you watch (there are several circulating), you might see the video preceded by a chasid applying wall poster decrying the insult to ארץ הקוידש (sic).

Nothing all that unusual so far. What saddened me – beyond the seemingly unbridgeable rift in Israeli society between religious and secular – were some of the other touches. The commercial did not spare its Israeli viewers a liberal sprinkling of Yiddish and even more of English. It capitalized on touch Israeli nerves by using the word toeavah over and over, as well as the phrase תזדזע ארץ הקודש. But it also assumed that Israelis would be quite familiar with “It’s against the Toirah,” and “You’ll all burn in hell,” both in English. Why should these phrases be so familiar to Israelis?

Meshech Chochmah in Parshas Bo (on Mishchu u-kechu lachem) explicates a rather strange Gemara in Pesachim that collects the sounds made by the drivers of different animals to get them to move. Why would the Gemara concern itself with such triviality? R Meir Simcha explains that in our pursuit of self-improvement, we need to differentiate between issues that grow out of our animal nature, and those that stem from faulty intellectual grasp. The latter need to be addressed by insight and sophistication; not so the former. The animal instincts within us should be dealt with the similar to the way a donkey driver calls to his charge: with a simple sound, repeated again and again. In controlling the beast within us, the repetition of a simple pithy phrase will be most effective. To tame our anger, for example, we might repeat Chazal’s epigram to ourselves: “Whoever is led to anger is as if he worshipped avodah zarah.

More complex issues, though, need more nuanced treatment. Yet, we often find people in the Torah world today using predictable stock phrases, seemingly without regard for proportionality. Everything – smaller offenses as well as larger ones – is a toevah, will send you to hell for eternity, will brand you an apikorus. Very few things are “not recommended,” or not appropriate for bnei aliyah. They are all “assur.”

I have seen too often the fallout from using verbal overkill, from branding the inappropriate “assur” rather than leveling with people and urging them to refrain from what might technically be permitted, but is not in the spirit of the Torah. The technique may work for most (but clearly not all) members of an insular and disciplined society like haredi Israel, but it does not work as well in open societies, or even ones with walls, if those barriers are semi-permeable as they usually are in the West. Teens in particular are resentful of being told that something is absolutely prohibited, only to find out later that there are others who permit the same activity. Feeling manipulated, the next step is often much more serious transgression.

Many Israelis are poisoned against any kind of Torah restriction, no matter how it is phrased. The appeal of this commercial, however, suggests that even the secular public can detect that there is something wrong with the abuse of words, with the proliferation of exaggerated condemnations, with shrill and angry denunciation of too many things. We should stop and think what impression the same words have on our children – or even upon ourselves.

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31 Responses

  1. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “In short order, yet another reaction set in – a sense of sadness that to some extent we bring this kind of reaction upon ourselves”

    I would term the advertisement “tragicomic”. R. Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz felt that non-Torah ideologies needed an element of truth in order to exist, and tried to show his students how that germ of truth had been distorted(Artscroll biography, pg 197). Here too, notwithstanding that the commercial shows the sorry state of some of the public’s perception of Charedim and possibly Torah itself, thus, sadness, there can also be an element of truth about a group’s partially self-inflicted foibles which results in any humor. In any case, it is gratifiying that YES has apologized for it.

    “The technique may work for most (but clearly not all) members of an insular and disciplined society like haredi Israel, but it does not work as well in open societies, or even ones with walls, if those barriers are semi-permeable as they usually are in the West”.

    I personally find myself more convinced by a “moderate” presentation, defined as one which attempts to see some complexity in an issue, even as it argues in favor of a particular point of view. I think that nuance is most effective in arguing Torah causes, or that of a particular hashkafa.

  2. a k says:

    Is there a link to the ad somewhere other than youtube? I have stopped going to that site.

  3. Naftali says:

    The add was taken off the air after being shown for 2 days and YES issued an apology. Certainly more clever than most ads, but given the charged, humorless Israeli environment YES should have known better.

  4. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    #27 — Can we have the link please?

  5. Lishmah says:

    Wehn you link to the commercial from the article on utube, one very quickly finds a a long series of videos entitled “this is why ppl hate the Jews”. It seems to be shot somewhere in Israel with some chareidim arguing with secular Israelis over something. The sad thing is that it was shot by some christian group visiting and is now on utube. Talk about airing our dirty laundry…

  6. Jacob Haller says:

    Shmuel wrote

    “The message that I came away with was ‘stick it to the Charedim by buying a HDTV'”

    At first that idea sounded too far-fetched but then again, it wouldn’t be the first time utilizing the manipulative marketing tool of enticement with “forbidden fruit”

    Anyone out there care to remember “Ladies, please don’t squeeze the Charmin!”

  7. He Who Remembers says:

    Steve Brizel-
    You don’t know what is happening. We live in a very abusive environment, mediawise. You seem not to realize that anything goes for Rush Limbaugh, Imus, Jon Stewart. If not for the writers’ strike, this surely would have made the Stewart show.

  8. Mark says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,

    Interesting article and while I don’t deny that “crying wolf” is never helpful, I’m not sure I agree with you that it is the reason that the Hareidim are being satirized. It could be – but it’s just as likely something else which reflects more positively on them that you allowed for.

    Could it be that they’ve been pilloried by the secular press so many time over the years regarding issues that weren’t all all the way they seemed that by now, anything making fun of Hareidim is considered fair game? Could it be that the secular animus for Hareidim [some perhaps legit and much of it not so] renders the Hareidim easy targets for any type of gross portrayal?

    IOW – Hareidim can certainly be over the top in their rhetoric [as can most Israelis BTW] but this ad is not based on that. Rather, it’s based on a secular Israeli attitude that incessantly casts Hareidim in the absolute worst light possible and makes them an easy target for villification.

    I don’t know if I’m right, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

  9. michoel halberstam says:

    I sometimes think that incidents like these should actually encourage us to rethink whether we have not gone too far, whether we have not failed too often to understand the thinking processes of our fellow Jews. We have become accustomed to the Machaa, which means a protest. It’s message is “I don’t like what you’re doing, because the Torah doesn’t like it. ” However, The real issue is not whether we are charged to let others know we disapprove of them, but whether we are charged with educating others to appreciate the way we feel, and to recognize that maybe they have gone a little too far from their roots. If this second approach is correct,then maybe our protests have been in the nature of overkill, and unfortunately we are reaping the fruit of out labors.

    The world in which we live does not like religion in general. It resents being told what to do, and it does not respect us. There is not much we can do about most of those things, but respect can be earned. If we fail to earn it, it is too easy to blame this on everyone else.

    In a very real way, we appreciate the humor in a commercial like this because many of us understand very well the feelings of those at whom it is aimed. That doesn’t mean that we are sympathetic to the “Freyeh” but it does mean that we wish we had an effective voice to speak to them in.

  10. moshe s. says:

    People are over-analyzing this commercial. The Charedim made a mistake by protesting it; it helps their public image better than anything else. It’s funny, it’s humanizing, it portrays charedim as leibedike dancers doing the hora in the street. It takes the bite out of the threat that people see in charedim.

  11. Calev says:

    “…even the secular public can detect that there is something wrong with the abuse of words…”
    Are you surprised that secular people have common sense – not to mention sensitivity and intelligence? A boss who tells his workers that every task is urgent soon loses the respect of his employees who discern quickly that some of those jobs are minor and can be held over to another day. The result is that the manager’s inability to prioritise leads his staff to make the decisions he should have made – rightly or wrongly.

  12. Ori says:

    Chaim Davids, if this was a commercial for something that chilonim consider to be sleazy, you’d be right – showing charedi protests against it would indeed be a case of resistance. But this isn’t it. Very few chilonim consider TV inherently sleazy (as opposed to having sleazy shows – just like a bookshelf may have sleazy books on it). Few chilonim even know that charedi households do not have televisions as a matter of principle.

  13. Steve Brizel says:

    I thought that the commercial was hysterical and would have made great Purim Torah but there is no way that such a commercial, that parodies an ethnic or religious group, would ever be seen on American TV.

  14. Moishe Potemkin says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein – Wonderful article. We would all do well to remember that people can be both sincere and wrong at the same time, and that neither trait obliterates the other.

  15. Yehoshua Mandelcorn says:

    This video must be viewed as a 3 dimensional Pashkivel (wall poster) which can be used to debate both sides of any issue or to sell a product. The Pashkivel is a weapon of choice made possible by the invention of the printing press. Once you know the “buzz words” you can use them to argue either side of any debate. Regarding a certain parade in Jerusalem, Pashkivels were used on both sides to push their point. I do agree that this powerful weapon should be used very sparingly, and that it is not a primary way to teach about Judaism.
    On the lighter side we do need to come up with some creative Pashkivels for Purim to poke fun at such issues such as Global Warming. They will need to reviewed first by a special Bais Din created to approve Pashkivelim. Last year there was one against teaching basic arithmetic!!!

  16. Toby Katz says:

    “I can’t say that I didn’t find the YES commercial insanely funny. That is not to my credit.”

    It IS insanely funny. Maybe we Americans are a little corrupted, but it totally cracked me up. And thank you for providing a link, and not just a verbal description.

    BTW it seemed to me that though they were mocking charedim, the mockery didn’t have the venom you sometimes see in Israel. It was good-humored, even sort of charming. These charedim can dance!

  17. Toby Katz says:

    “I can’t say that I didn’t find the YES commercial insanely funny. That is not to my credit.”

    It IS insanely funny. Maybe we Americans are a little corrupted, but it totally cracked me up. And thank you for providing a link, and not just a verbal description.

    BTW it seemed to me that though they were mocking charedim, the mockery didn’t have the venom you sometimes see in Israel. It was good-humored, even sort of charming. These charedim can dance!

  18. Chaim Davids says:

    If this article is trying to make the point that the Charedi world of Israel is being too vocal, it’s a dead miss.

    By the way, how sad that the author starts out confessing that he found the ad so funny. What in the world is entertaining about satire of Torah values?!

    But let me make my point. He’s dead wrong in how the charedim are coming across.

    If the frei people are so much getting our message that they make fun of their sleaze from our standpoint, then great. We are getting through to them.

    You have to go deep into psychology to understand this point. It may not be obvious at the start. There’s a concept called “resistance.” When someone “resists,” which is to say, overstates his claims, it is a dead give-away that he’s really very unsure of his position.

    The concept was made famous by “the lady doth protest too much.”

    If the non-religious feel good about this ad, then we are indeed succeeding. We are making the point and getting to them. More, more protests!

  19. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Re: “sky is falling”. This is what I call the Chicken Little approach to yiras shamayim (fear of heaven). We know intellectually that this is not what being a religious person is about. But on a daily basis, in education and intercommunal relations and in raising our own families we have to learn to be a little more self-aware at the moment when it counts. Otherwise we lose.

  20. Jewish Observer says:

    “There was no concern that YES would be seen as insensitive, irreverant, politically incorrect, andti-traditional, or anything else other than creative, humurous, and original.”

    – Theory: so called chilonim might allow themselves license re: religious because as jews they understand that, at some level, they are mocking themselves. they don;t dsee themselves as a differen “min” than religious.

  21. shnmuel says:

    I can best describe myself as on the borderline between charedi and Centrist. When I first saw the commercial I was not revulsed nor humored but angered. The message that I came away with was “stick it to the Charedim by buying a HDTV”. That the manufacturers and marketeting gurus can think of no better selling point for their product is the real “toyeivah”

  22. dr. william gewirtz says:

    Very well said! A post with no one disagreeing – is the Moshiach supposed to come on Chanukah?

    Like all well designed commercials, there is much subtlety that speaks to diverse audiences. The slightly yiddishized Hebrew spelling and the (mis)pronunciation of Toevah was hardly accidental.

  23. Avigdor says:

    R. Adlerstein — thanks for an excellent and interesting post.

    I can’t say that I didn’t find the YES commercial insanely funny. That is not to my credit.

    Your two sentences triggered a question about the Jewish understanding of humor. Is there anything inappropriate about finding inapproprite humor funny?

    There are several different types of humor, but one type (the one here) is exaggerating a particular characteristic. We recognize the underlying characteristic and find the exaggeration funny.

    When the underlying characteristic is unflattering, there is as aspect of cruelty to the humor. When the underlying characteristic is flattering, there would be an aspect of kindness to the humor. (For example, imagine a similar ad parodying charedi Jews by showing extreme acts of chesed.)

    But our reaction to the joke — finding it funny — is not a volitiational act. We just find it funny. In this sense, I think of humor as part of our yetzer hara. Having it is not bad, and sometimes can be good. If it were not for the yetzer hara, people would never make rubber chicken, whoopee cushons, or build comedy clubs. : )

    The question for us is what do we do after we have found something funny. (And what you did was quite appropriate: focus on the underlying characteristic and see if people can improve.)

    Is this a reasonable understanding of humor?

  24. Ilan Feldman says:

    What disturbed me the most was the fact that the chareidim, arguably passionate, committed and religiously devoted people, have somehow become seen as a caricature of themselves. There was no concern that YES would be seen as insensitive, irreverant, politically incorrect, andti-traditional, or anything else other than creative, humurous, and original. The chareidim have lost such credibility that those who would never parody blacks, Ethiopians, homosexuals, housewives, or environmentalists can parody chareidim with impunity. Doing so will sell more televisions.

  25. Yoel B says:

    it also assumed that Israelis would be quite familiar with “It’s against the Toirah,” and “You’ll all burn in hell.” Why should these phrases be so familiar?

    Maybe because sometimes it should be, but isn’t, understood like “divrei Chachamim b’nachas — nishma’in”

  26. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    Beautiful comments. Anything to lower the shrill nature of our debate is helpful.

  27. Dr. E says:

    Sounds exactly like the story of the boy who cried wolf (“yesh Chachma bagoyim–ta’amin”?). For years, non-Chareidim have been doing parodies of the Kol Koreh/Cherem approach to Yiddishkeit (and not just for Purim, either). The dictum of “divrei Chachamim b’nachas nishma’in” has apparently fallen out of favor among those today who think they know better than Chazal.

    The hyperbolic, sky-is-falling Zeitgiest which characterizes much of what goes on invariably leads the well-deserved mockery that we have seen. This time, the secular corporate world is the one which has capitalized on this for marketing purposes; ironically, the bit is probably viewed as more hilarious by Bnei Torah than the secular. [not that we would chas veshalom be enticed by the recent price-drop in big screen Hi-Def TV’s :-) ]

    Now, the big debate will be whether to issue a formal ban of HDTV, the Internet, or Youtube. Some papers have probably reserved space in next week’s issues for the full-page ads.

  28. Ori says:

    Many Israelis see the Torah as primarily a list of restrictions, either “you must do this” or “you can’t do that”. This is true even for some Chiloni Israelis who are very interested in personal growth. This attitude, naturally enough, poisons their attitude towards Judaism.

    It is very difficult to combat this perception in the chiloni camp. I assume you would not want it to grow within Torah Judaism. I assume you’d rather have Jews who are imperfect and acknowledge themselves as imperfect, rather than Kofrim (= heretics) who couldn’t care less about what the Torah says about their behavior.

  29. Sultan Knish says:

    True, but the problem lies in the ‘blurring of the lines’ in which minchag becomes halacha and a community or chassidus’ own bans become treated as absolute. Those who learn in depth understand the gray areas but too many list things as black and white and when every poster and letter makes extreme claims, compares everything to avodah zara or a yeharog ve’al yaavor, there is no longer any balance or understanding of what is truly wrong or what is simply not done by us.

    The erosion of any moral framework begins when there’s no more hierarchy of aveirot

  30. Jewish Observer says:

    “That is not to my credit. There is so much mockery of Torah, of traditional values in the clip that by right, a sense of revulsion should have eclipsed the humor”

    – don’t discredit yourself so fast. as you correctly state later in your essay the satire is not aimed at Torah but at its misuse.

  31. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I agree with your post completely. (Wow, no criticism!) In our circles (dati-leumi-yeshivish-mitnachalim) we say “lo b’rucheinu” (not in our spirit). That may be ringing with a bit of arrogance. I hope not. But the everything is forbidden attitude is something we try to fight against. In our community girls wearing pants under skirts got the trafe treatment until it simply was worn down by a lot of realistic people in the community. The rabbis have stopped fighting it, and rightly so.