Thursday, August 1, 2013

Navigating the Dangers of Western Culture

I'm at the end of a very extended family vacation. During the course of our vacation, we used some of the family time for leisure, and some for enrichment (which was also usually leisurely as well). One morning we awoke in New Jersey looking for something to do, and we decided to head to the Jersey shore to walk the boardwalk, play some games - generally have a nice time. Sounded good.
As soon as we got there, my teenage son took one look around and said, "We can't stay here. The women are walking around in their underwear." I'm not entirely sure what I was thinking, because he was clearly right. I took a short stroll to see if there was any way to get near the boardwalk without over-exposure to the locals - there was not. I immediately agreed with my son, and told him that we would not be staying at the shore. We take great pains to try and help our children choose the media that they watch carefully, and it makes no sense to protect their eyes from a screen and then expose them to the same images in the flesh (literally!) We quickly drove away, and ended up taking a wonderful, impromptu family hike at a nearby nature trail. In the end, it was a far better day than we would have had at the shore.
Several weeks later, we planned a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I have an appreciation for late European Impressionist painting, and wanted to expose my children to the amazing collection at the Met. (By the way, the admission prices at the Met are just suggestions. You can pay whatever you want to get in.) Yet, I knew going in that the museum visit would similarly expose my children to multiple images of (a) naked people - mostly women and (b) idolatry. I'm not sure why, but the naked women were more personally troublesome to me than the idolatry, while halachically, the avodah zarah is probably worse. In fact, as soon as we arrived we joined a tour of "master paintings" which took us to a number of Christian oriented paintings that were clearly used for religious purposes. It just so happens that in my daily morning Rambam study I came across the following halachah:
צורות שעשו אותן גויים לנואי, מותרין בהנאה; וצורות שעשו אותן לעבודה זרה, אסורין. 
One may benefit from images that the nations made for beauty; Yet images made for the purpose of idolatry are prohibited.... (Laws of Idolatry 7:8)
As we entered the museum, I described to my sons what they were about to see, and even mentioned the famous quote from Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter about the difference between art and pornography. Still, while Judge Potter might distinguish between the two, I doubt that the Shulchan Aruch makes any such distinction.
As we made our way through the museum, it was exactly as we expected: wonderful paintings, photographs and other works of art, surrounded on all sides by statues, paintings and other works of idolatry, religious symbolism, and naked bodies (of men and women). We eventually did make our way to the French Impressionists, and it was as good as I remembered. I really like those paintings, and especially a famous sunflower painting by Monet (my personal favorite. I know - so cliche - but it really speaks to me).
At some point, my kids had had enough, and as we left the museum, I felt that they at least got a sense that art is something greater than magic markers and crayons, and has the power to convey great beauty. At the same time, I find myself torn: exposure to any form of culture brings a risk, as most "kosher" culture (paintings of sunflowers) is surrounded by a great deal of "treif" culture. Is the opportunity to experience the good worth exposure to the bad? Most rabbis would probably say "no." Knowing this, I still took my family to the Met.
Was it worth it? What were the costs? I'm not sure that I know how to answer this question.