My Three Sons Meet the Haggadah’s Four

Question: The last number of weeks have been marked by three spectacles — the Schiavo saga, the funeral of the old pope and the investiture of the new one — that have riveted public attention in a manner that few events are capable of. What else do these stories share?

Answer: Together, they demonstrate that the harm wrought by television viewing extends beyond the well-documented damage to mind and heart caused by exposure to the gratuitous violence and lasciviousness that fills the TV schedule. At this late date, the evidence for this latter form of harm is so mountainous and compelling that the decision to take a sledgehammer to one’s “family entertainment center” need not, in the least, be predicated on religious principles; a healthy parental impulse to protect one’s kids, no less than that which beasts in the wild feel for their young, more than suffices. For those just back from Samoa and a 35-year break from Western popular culture, Lawrence Kelemen’s To Kindle a Soul does an admirable job of bringing together the data on television’s wide-ranging and severe depredations.

But these recent media happenings reveal more insidious ways in which the Fourth Estate represents a fifth column in the home. One of these ways is specific to Jews and, one assumes, to other non-Catholics: People who in their wildest dreams wouldn’t enter a Catholic church have, astonishingly, brought that church and its rites into their own sacred precints, their homes. Not just any church nor just any rite, mind you, but ceremonies fairly matchless in their entrancing pomp and elaborateness, replete with centuries-old rituals possessed of a solemn gravitas that the Ipod generation can only envy.

There are, of course, actual halachic proscriptions on viewing scenes of this sort. But we need, too, to query further: what does the fascination with these goings-on say about us, and do to us, as Jews? Some, well meaning no doubt, would respond that such viewing is of no consequence. It is at this point that the pope story connects with the by now long-forgotten Schiavo tale, and in a way that ought to make the pernicious reach of television’s tentacles a source of deep concern for decent people of every creed or none at all.

For so long as the nation’s fleeting attention was held by the events at a certain Florida hospice, kids in media-saturated homes were exposed to the nationally televised spectacle of a woman being starved to death in installments . As Peggy Noonan observed,

And those who are still learning–our children–oh, what terrible lessons they’re learning. What terrible stories are shaping them. They’re witnessing the Schiavo drama on television and hearing it on radio. They are seeing a society–their society, their people–on the verge of famously accepting, even embracing, the idea that a damaged life is a throwaway life.

Our children have been reared in the age of abortion, and are coming of age in a time when seemingly respectable people are enthusiastic for euthanasia. It cannot be good for our children, and the world they will make, that they are given this new lesson that human life is not precious, not touched by the divine, not of infinite value.

Noonan makes her point from the perspective of one opposed to plug-pulling, but it could be made with equal relevance to those on the other side of that debate. It will not do for those sincerely convinced of the ethical correctness of plug-pulling to protest that, au contraire, our children are learning an important lesson about “human dignity.”

That’s great as a talking point on Crossfire, but it’s also a self-delusional disconnect from reality. Anyone prepared to get real about how our kids’ minds work will admit that what they saw on the evening news for three weeks in March was not a high-falutin’ “lesson about human dignity”; it was, plain and simple, a woman, her eyes open, her parents at her side, being denied the basics of human life: food and water. Repetitive viewing of that ob-scene, sans the sophisticated spin, cannot but be bad for the soul.

This is part of a broader point that needs to be made, and that deserves its own elaboration, about the breathtaking psychological dissonance that masquerades as modern acculturation when it comes to the basic human truths of how we are influenced by what we see, hear, say and do. Torah, Rav S.R. Hirsch was wont to say, is far more concerned with anthropology than with theology; that is, its overriding purpose is to teach clueless humans what makes them tick, not why and how G-d acts as He does. And, oh, how very desperately are we moderns in need of an anthropological primer on that subject.

Arriving late onto history’s stage comes homo modernis, consumed with self and particularly proud of his acute psychological insightfulness — and, indeed, insightful he is, with respect to all but one: himself. He loudly proclaims that even children need not be damaged by incessant submersion in a contemporary culture that is perhaps peerless in the history of man in its treatment of man as naught but a sophisticated animal.

He insists that our children are as fully capable as we are of sorting through all the mayhem and hypereroticism in which we are awash to extract precious lessons about life’s meaning, relationships and character-building. This recalls Michael Medved’s anecdote about the movie executive who, with a straight face, hailed the socially redeeming qualities of a particular blood-and-gore-filled “action” film by pointing to a five-second shot in mid-film where the camera zooms in as the hero buckles on his seatbelt upon entering his car for the umpteenth chase scene.

How to respond to all this? As is true anytime one is confronted with an advanced case of self-delusion, holding your tongue to give the speaker’s vacuous words a few moments of silence to bounce off the walls and back toward his ears may be a good start. And if your knowing look of incredulity actually elicits some glimmer of self-awareness in your interlocutor’s eye, you might then take the conversation one step further and shockingly suggest, in the Torah’s name, that as regards susceptability to influences we are, in fact, all children.

This, the Mussar masters teach, is what underlies the pedagogic techniques for which the Passover Haggadah is justly renowned. We marvel at the Sages’ educational progressiveness in using numerical groupings, tactile experience, question-and-answer format, offbeat ritual intended to elicit curiosity and all the rest, all just to reach the children — without it dawning upon us, in our hubris, that we are the children they’re desperately trying to get through to.

The Four Sons, far from being the cartoonish figures depicted in every Haggadah from Maxwell House on down (or is it up?), are Everyman. Each of us is so very wise in our intellect, but in our emotions, animal drives and our suggestability we are, by turns, an amalgam of simpleton, an entirely clueless child and, yes, with more than a tad of the wicked son in each of us as well. The Oxford don of today will emote, will lust, will remain suggestible not a whit differently than the Enlightenment savant of 200 years ago and the Athenian agoranik before them both. Unless, that is, he — and we — are prepared to undertake the hard work of character development, to peer beneath the conscious into that frightful realm of the subconscious whence our decisions emanate, to begin to tame “the aborigine within.” Hmmm, now why does it seem to me that that phrase wouldn’t have been nearly as well-received as that “child within” mantra of some years ago?

We’ve ranged rather far afield here, so I’ll now get off this cyber-soapbox and finish up some of that leftover Pesach food. Anyone in the mood for a chocolate macaroon?

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10 Responses

  1. Godol Hador says:

    You are probably correct that man is no more moral today than in the past. You are also correct that there is a lot of harmful stuff on TV. However sheltering ourselves and our kids entirely from the outside world doesn’t work either. They end up rebelling far worse at the slightest taste of the forbidden fruit. Allowing your children to watch some part of the Pope’s funeral, but then educating them on the meaning of Catholic rites and beliefs and why we don’t do that would be more valuable than simply forbidding them to watch at all. What is needed is a balanced approach. I didn’t get that sense from your article.

  2. Sholom Simon says:

    I like to think I take a balanced approach. My kids (oldest is 12) watch some TV with parental supervision, and my son’s biggest thrill (as self-reported) will be the May 19th opening of Star Wars III.

    But I have never, ever, yet let them watch the news on TV — what’re’ya kidding me? It’s full of trash.

    One obvious current example: you’d think the most important thing in the world that’s happened over the last week is a runaway bride.

    OK, so perhaps when they are older, the Lehrer report — but no way would I let them watch network news (national or local), or FoxNews or CNN or etc.), and as everyone knows, local news is even worse.

    They get their news from other sources.

  3. Edvallace says:

    Godol Hador,

    “However sheltering ourselves and our kids entirely from the outside world doesn’t work either. They end up rebelling far worse at the slightest taste of the forbidden fruit.”

    I don’t believe it is possible to “shelter” our children nearly as much as you suggest. I’ve never had a TV in my life and I believe that I, and my children, can figure out that we don’t agree with Christianity etc. There are so many opportunties to confront the world out there that we certainly need not invite more of them into our homes.

  4. Gil Student says:

    I am not disagreeing about the destructive nature of televisions, but I would like to point out that just about every news magazine had pictures of the popes etc. on their covers for 2+ weeks. I found that particularly disappointing. I simply wanted to have no exposure to that and ended up having to avoid news magazines and newspapers as well for that period.

  5. Hanan says:


    You’re right its impossible to shelter our children too much. But the problem is that most (charidi) parents go to the ends of the earth to shelter (“protect”) their children from anything. It doesent end with TV, its anything that doesen’t have a stamp of approval from the rabbanut. At the end, its like what Gadol Hador says, they just end up rebelling. That has far worse repercussions for them than any Terri Schiavo or pope story that is on TV.

  6. Toby Katz says:

    I don’t see that children who grow up without TV are more likely to rebel than children who grow up with TV. That’s ridiculous. (Yes, I do have a TV, long story…)

  7. Hanan says:

    We dident mean TV specifically, but, the attempt of shielded them to an excessive amount from the outside world. TV is just an example of the many thing that parents shield their children from.

  8. Rebbe says:

    Wow! So much highbrow rhetoric (what exactly is an “agoranik”?) just to make the point that TV is bad. I don’t think you’ll find many self-respecting parents who will argue with that proposition. (Though TV might very well be welcomed by aborigines as a way of bringing their children into the 21st century. To the extent you consider that to be regressive, what do you have against aborigines in the first place?) However, I do believe the specific examples you adduce as being even more “insidious” than the standard “gratuitous violence and lasciviousness that fills the TV schedule” are in fact far less so and may well be representative of TV’s redeeming fare.

    The issues presented were serious, real life issues confronting the world at large. These are precisely the issues that our kids should be exposed to so that we might educate them as to the proper Jewish, Torah based response. We cannot possibly hide our children from these issues as they are very much part of the real world and may very well impact them in the course of their lives. Certainly, with advances in medical technologies, critical, morally ambivalent end of life issues will become increasingly common and we will all have to deal with them. Why not use the Schiavo case as a springboard for that discussion.

    Obviously, I’m not talking about having your three-year-old watch imagery that is beyond his/her grasp, but for a mature teenager some very intelligent discussion can and should ensue.

    The images of John Paul’s funeral and Benedict’s investiture pervaded every form of media, not just television. We cannot possibly hide them from our children, nor should we. Our children will, no doubt, encounter peoples of other religions in the course of their daily affairs. Certainly, when they go out into the business world they will interact with Catholics, Muslims and yes the occasional aboriginal agoranik. (I see them all the time, they’re everywhere, they just don’t know they’re aboriginal agoraniks!) If you chuckled at the preceding, it’s because you’re culturally aware, either that or you simply have a sixth sense about these things. Of course, the very title of your piece is a giveaway to your own time spent in front of the boob tube. And lest you plead ignorant whence I speak, asserting that in fact you really do have three sons (as I know you do), then am I to assume that the website moderator is responsible for the telltale italics.

    The point is that when asked by our gentile colleagues, “Hey, what did you think of that funeral?” I don’t think “Huh, what funeral?’ is not going to be the appropriate response.

    Besides which, the Torah itself is chock full of graphic depictions describing all manner of idolatrous decadent service, sexual deviance, murderous intentions and vindictive behavior – both on the part of its heroes and villains. This is because they too emoted and lusted along with the rest of humanity. And yet through these struggles, we are taught right from wrong. Should we censor the salacious parts of the bible as well as being “bad for the soul?”

    The Torah is about living in this world, confronting it with all its myriad problems and showing how to rise above and live a better way.

    But, I too am getting far afield and could go for one of those macaroons right about now…

  9. Bob Miller says:

    Avoiding (nearly all) American news magazines and newspapers is just as good a thing in general as avoiding TV.

  10. Gil Student says:

    “Avoiding (nearly all) American news magazines and newspapers is just as good a thing in general as avoiding TV.”

    My brother-in-law set up an eruv in his neighborhood and had R. Nota Greenblatt, the Gadol Ba-Torah of the South, come to check and validate the eruv. When R. Nota arrived, he mentioned that he had read the sports pages on the train. “What is someone like you doing reading the sports pages?” He answered that he frequently arranges Gittin for non-observant Jews. He follows sports (and said that every rabbi in the South should) so that he can have something about which to speak with these people so that they are comfortable with the rabbi.

    Presumably, in other areas or for different people it would be politics or the stock market.

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