The YU Beacon, a relatively obscure literary journal, earned itself some free publicity by publishing an article last week about a nocturnal tryst between a Stern College student and her boyfriend in a hotel room, after which she feels a deep sense of shame when she realizes that he doesn’t love her and just used her. It’s unclear whether it was fictional or non-fictional, an actual event or wishful thinking. But the scandal made national news, especially when the student council stripped the Beacon of its funding, if you call $500 a semester funding or money to offset the cost of Diet Cokes and Twizzlers consumed while assembling the journal.
But now they’ve gone too far. This week, they published an account of a Jewish leader, righteous and decent but grieving over some family tragedies, who catches the eye of a courtesan at the crossroads and hires her services. When he unable to pay cash up front, the wench takes some of his property as a pledge and then disappears. But at the end of the story, the nobleman saves her from certain death by owning up to his moment of weakness. Another sordid tale ostensibly with a moral message…
Wait, that wasn’t the Beacon – that was the Torah in Parshat Vayeishev and the episode of Yehuda and Tamar! And the light of the Messiah entered the world.
So what do we make of these stories? The media focused on its obsession – freedom of the press and censorship – and whether Modern Orthodoxy is too modern – when, to me, the real story was elsewhere. How do we discuss sensitive, delicate, even prurient matters that are important? In fourth grade, we just skipped over the story of Yehuda and Tamar; that’s one approach. It doesn’t work well. How can you transmit values when the subject matter, or the application of those values, are taboo, and unmentionable? Granted, despite the anonymous author’s best efforts, the average beer commercial on television is more risqué and suggestive than this short story; and granted, I can see why the “Yeshiva” side of the YU ledger was offended. I can also accept both sides of the argument on whether l’chatchila it was appropriate to print; but b’diavad ? It might have been a great public service, if the suitable dialogue is engendered.
There is, unfortunately, a seamy corner of the Jewish world that we would do well not pretending that it does not exist. It exists – it exists because the culture is that decadent, and because young people looking for love, attention and respect often seek it in the wrong places and in the wrong activities – and they wind up without love or respect, although they do capture the attention, temporarily at least, of the exploiters and predators.
It exists in our colleges – whether YU or Stern and certainly in secular colleges – and it exists in the holy Yeshivos where only men learn, and where we presume, falsely, that they are shielded from the world’s tawdriness. They are, for the most part, but not entirely, human beings being human beings. It exists in our high schools – with young men and women pretending they are adults having real relationships, and even teachers, administrators, and Rebbeim acting inappropriately and sometimes criminally. It exists in the self-styled holiest neighborhoods of Lakewood and Borough Park, and it exists in the self-styled modern, sophisticated neighborhoods like Teaneck and the Five Towns. We usually are forced to deal with it when we hear of arrests for abuse and molestation – dozens in certain communities in recent years – and when we learn that some of our teens and young adults have lost all sense of boundaries and propriety. We ignore it at our peril.
We ignore it because we are uncomfortable talking about it. We would rather skip this story of Yehuda and Tamar. We would rather believe that our children going off to high school and college are as pure and naïve and innocent and darling as they were at their Bar/Bat Mitzvot. We would rather that the Messiah descends from Heaven in a chariot than have him born as a result of this dissolute rendezvous.
The Torah conceals little about human life from us – and we are forced to reckon with Lot and his daughters, Yehuda and Tamar, Zimri and Cozbi, and later with King David and Bat Sheva and a host of other stories. I too was scandalized, until I actually saw the story – an effective if contrived way to raise a pressing social issue with a challenge at the beginning and a lesson at the end. “How Do I Begin To Explain This?,” the title, introduces the anticipation and the excitement – but the story ends with the ill-disguised indifference felt by the man towards his trophy-person and the self-loathing of the women – now forced to do the “walk of shame” for selling herself so cheaply, ‘a “stupid mistake.” As Rav Kahana said in the Gemara in a not-unrelated context: “this too is Torah and I have to learn it” (Berachot 62a).
Ultimately, the problem rests not in censorship or permissiveness, but in failures of education and parenting – a failure to transmit our values and to convey our way of grappling with desire and gratification. We have to overcome the fear of discussing those very issues that can be the most troublesome but in the long term the most spiritually rewarding. It is only the areas in which we struggle that true spiritual greatness emerges.
If it causes one woman to retain her dignity and say “no,” the article was worth it. If the discussions of the seamier side of Jewish life cause even one young victim of abuse to turn to his/her parents and then immediately to the police, then the discussions were worth it. And if we debate amongst ourselves the propriety of the Torah’s inclusion of the story of Yehuda and Tamar, then we will not only fail to understand how the moral greatness of Yehuda and the persistence of Tamar were indispensable for the destiny of Israel – we will also not perceive how amid all the tumult and sadness and recriminations surrounding the event, “G-d was busy as well creating the light of the King Messiah” (Breisheet Rabba 85:1), that will soon illuminate all of mankind.
This article was posted first in Rabbi Pruzansky’s blog and was re-posted with permission.