Rabbi Kagan and the Four ‘Fanatics’

Chabad Classics: Four individuals with diverse backgrounds sat down with shliach Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Kagan a”h to explain their ‘radical’ stances on non-Jewish media and literature.

By Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Kagan, a”h; reprinted from Perspectives Magazine, Teves 5775

Author’s note: Places, names and dialogue are fiction. Incidents are all factual.

Chaim’s Story

Chaim. A Lubavitcher BaaI Teshuva from the sixties. Gentle. Quiet. Decades ago, a graduate student of philosophy; today, an accountant. Chassidish. Perhaps a little too serious.

Chaim is a member of a Chabad community somewhere on the West Coast. His four-year-old daughter, Bayla Rochel, attended the Chabad day camp for the first time. One trip was to the local public library. Chaim was distressed, and said so. The day camp director was incredulous, staring at Chaim with disbelief in his eyes. “What a fanatic.” 

I visited Chaim. “Explain yourself. Surely the public library is about the most children-friendly, innocuous place on earth. What upset you?”

Chaim smiled ruefully, fingering a corner of his long blond beard. “Yes, I know what you mean. I doubt if I will ever be able to explain it to them.”

“Let me tell you about it: I came from work last week and noticed my delicious little Bayla Rochel standing at the dining room table wiggling her hips rhythmically, pigtails flying, chanting ‘hokey, pokey, turn all around’.

“Curious, I asked, ‘what’s that tune?’ Eyes shining, Rochele told me — with her usual exuberance — how their group in day camp had visited the library for today’s trip. The nice lady had sat all the children down and told them a story. Then, she had put on a record and taught them how to dance to the music, singing, ‘hokey, pokey, turn all around’. 

“I confess, I was taken aback by the depth of my revulsion. I sat down in the armchair to think it through. Why did I feel such a sense of outrage? After 20 minutes of deep contemplation, I found myself grinning at the paradox: It was davka my secular education that enabled me to find the appropriate words.

“How would an anthropologist say it? Perhaps like this: It was the tirst – and highly effective — alien invasion of Bayla Rochel’s culture-system. My pure, eidele, impressionable baby had been implanted with several messages;

“… that a public library is a kosher place for a Chassidishe Little boy or girl to visit. It must be: otherwise the familiar, trusted Lubavitch counselor from day camp would not have shepherded them into the place,

… what is more, a public library is a pleasurable, ‘fun place,’

… that a non-Jewish librarian instructor is an “okay” role model and authority figure, 

… that non-Jewish music is a legitimate entertainment form — and so is goyish dance.

“And here comes that paradox again. It is precisely because of my secular background that I can truly appreciate what a public library is — particularly in terms of chinuch.

“A public library is a repository of all kinds of legitimate wisdom and useful reference works that can be utilized for purposes of Torah and Yiddishkeit. But it is also the repository of every conceivable kind of literary filth and perversion, presenting to the reader every variety of philosophical and theological corruption.

“Having once received this early childhood ‘okay’ message, the child in later years might well pay visits to the local library — without even thinking of asking her parent’s permission. For an impressionable, unaccompanied child to enter those stormy waters, is, from a ruchniyus standpoint, literally taking her life in her hands!”

Chaim sighed. With pain evident in his eyes, he said — just a little too quietly — “As for the potential harm from the other ‘messages’ about goyish music, dance and authority figures. I am sure I don’t have to explain that.

“And to think of it, all of that in just one forty-five minute visit to the friendly, innocuous, public library!”

Bracha’s Story

Her name is Bracha. Mother of six. A former teacher, and a stalwart n‘shei activist in the east Canadian community which she calls home. A summer-school learn-and-play half-day program was organized by the cheder (frum, of course; in fact, chassidish.)

One day during the pre-Tisha B’Av Three Weeks her ten-year-old Yossi’s class was treated to several videos. A story on the Beis Haimikdash was followed by … ‘Lassie.’

Bracha was dismayed, and voiced her concerns. “You can’t be serious!” was the principal’s amazed reaction. “Don’t you know that Lassie is just the story of a little boy and his dog; a children’s classic; totally harmless. I hate to say it, but this is simply fanaticism.”

I dropped by to chat with Bracha.

“Well, at least my husband understands; he is with me all the way on this. He tells me the Gemara looks with great disfavor at dogs, that the rearing of dogs was altogether forbidden in Israel because of their unwholesome nature.

“As for me, ever since I was young I’ve always had a deep sense of unease about the number of dogs that are found in our cities and streets. I asked my grandparents how it was in Europe. They told me that dogs were tolerated as farm dogs, guard dogs, or watch dogs — always housed outside the home; treated humanely, as Shulchan Aruch requires, of course, but never regarded as anything more than… an animal.

“How does that ad go? ‘You’ve come a long way, baby’. We sure have! Look how wide and deep is the abyss between our old traditional yiddishe attitude to dogs — and the modern American outlook, in which dog-involvement has reached near cultic proportions.

“It is considered normal human behavior to run with dogs, hug them, kiss them, let them sleep on and in beds and couches, and literally (yes, literally) treat them as a member of the family! I confess I find such standard American man-dog behavior to be not merely un-chassidic and un-Jewish, but also un-human. It is repulsive arid nauseating; one more symptom of a sick society. 

“I think of the Rebbe’s exhortation to keep images and pictures of treif animals away from children. Then I think about my cheder yingel staring transfixed at the big screen, captivated by the wonderful, warm, moving story of a little boy and his very special relationship with his best friend — a dog

…and I shudder.”

Chaim Zalman’s Story

Chaim Zalman stood his ground calmly. His friends at the Lubavitch Shteebl in the large New England town surrounded him, eyebrows raised. “Come on, Chaim Zalman! You don’t really mean to say that you don’t get any newspaper at all?”

“Nope,” replied Chaim, “I used to, but I canceled my subscription years ago. Can’t say that I miss it. As a matter of fact, I don’t let any magazine, periodicals or books from non-Torah sources into my house.” The other men exchanged knowing glances. Obviously, Chaim Zalman was one of “them.”

I went to see Chaim Zalman, and we had a long talk in his homey, cluttered study/guest-room, surrounded by his seforim with the pictures of the Rebbeim Looking down from the walls.

“True, I’m a shliach. But I don’t think that has anything to do with it. After all, my background is identical to so many of us. I’m fairly young, and was born right here in the United States.

“Although I don’t go around speaking about it (it’s not popular, as I’m sure you’ve noticed), I truly believe that every Lubavitch chossid – not just shluchim – should have my attitude about newspapers, magazines, and that kind of stuff. How much more so if he is a talmid of one of the Rebbe’s yeshivos, be it Tomchei Tmimim, Achei Tmimim, Morristown, Hadar Hatorah, or wherever.

“But, the sad truth is, that for years I myself used to get the daily paper, because I convinced myself that it was necessary for me to sound like a ‘regular’ informed, intelligent American to the people I’m trying to draw closer to Yiddishkeit. I managed to persuade myself that I should be ‘up’ on current events, politics, sports, etc. After a while it became habit, a daily routine. 

“The change began when I noticed my boys starting to look at the paper with more interest. Lubavitch Yeshiva bochurim reading a newspaper? I knew that wasn’t right.

“I began to look through the pages with a new, different perspective: ‘What kind of a chinuch effect would this article, photograph or ad have on my boys?’ I couldn’t fool myself. I began hiding the newspaper in my bedroom as soon as it came, but the guilty feelings increased.

“I had this nagging thought, ‘Surreptitiously hiding the newspaper might be sending a not-so-subtle negative message to my children. Might they not be thinking, Tatty reads something that Lubavitch Yeshiva bachurim should not be reading.’

So I canceled the subscription for the daily, leaving just the weekend edition. After all, I had to have some contact with the outside world. But along with the Sunday newspaper came the Sunday newspaper magazine in full color. That magazine always had to be bidden from the boys because it was full of ads for clothing etc., that would not exactly win a Beis Rivkah prize for tznius, if you know what I mean.

“Finally, something triggered my FF – ‘Feh Factor.’ One Sunday the heavy newspaper arrived, complete with Sunday magazine, featuring in full color on its front page an article about a certain perverted ‘alternate life style.’ With a ‘Feh!’ of sheer disgust, I dropped the whole newspaper into the garbage can in the driveway, and canceled my subscription. I’ve never looked back.

“Interestingly enough, a couple of months later, I received an amazing reinforcement for my decision, A private meeting was called to discuss a certain communal problem. About six of us, all Anash, met in one of our homes in the evening.

“Our host was ‘one of us’; he was a born Lubavitcher, a Tamim, and in tune with chassidishe ideals in all matters – including Chinuch. He apologized for the house being in disarray, the kinderlach had just gone to sleep. We all laughed; when we had left our respective houses a few minutes earlier, they hadn’t looked any better, we assured him.

“After a few minutes of small talk, we moved over to the dining room table and sat down around it to begin our meeting. As we leaned over the table, we became embarrassingly aware that the daily newspaper was opened to its middle page, spread across the table — displaying a huge double-page photographic advertisement for underthings which, thirty years ago, would have been banned as pornographic.

“Without fuss, I quietly folded up the newspaper and tossed it onto an armchair. Everyone was a little red-faced — except our host. He had seen the ad, had calmly watched me fold up the newspaper, but was utterly insensitive to the inappropriateness of that display on the table of a chassidishe house!

“Boy, did that ever make me think! What kind of insidious literary influences were being absorbed, unknowingly, by myself and my family, in my own house? How many immodest photo-messages were lodging themselves inside our consciousness — courtesy of advertising? 

“You know what the chevra answer? ‘Ach, it’s just an ad! I mean, no intelligent person pays any attention to those things!’ Right. That’s why the advertisers spend millions.”

The sun was shining a little too strongly through the windows. Chaim Zalman reached up to close the shutters, then settled back into his chair and looked me straight in the eye with a certain quiet, yet fierce, determination.

“I had no idea how far it would go. I discovered that everything — I mean everything needs scrutiny. When I was a kid, I was once browsing in my non-religious uncle’s library and I pulled out a book, a history of Jews by Graetz. I hadn’t the faintest notion who the author was, but I was interested in Jewish history books.

“I randomly opened the book to somewhere in the middle, and the first phrase that caught my eye (amazing that I have never forgotten it!) was, ‘…the Zohar, that book of falsehoods…’ I slammed the book shut and shoved it back into the shelf vehemently. I was so thankful that Hashem had shown me the nature of the book at one glance. 

“Decades later, in fact, just a few months ago, I had a similar experience. I always review the books for my Chabad-House library here. One that was highly recommended to me was ‘Chassidic Tales of the Holocaust’ by Professor Yaffa Eliach. I was told by a fellow Lubavitcher chassid that the book was marvelous and a hundred-percent kosher, and that Mrs. Eliach was herself completely frum.

“I opened the copy at random, and the first story I read was entitled, ‘PUFF….’ It was only a page long, but it was enough to have me pack the book up and send it back to the publisher. Any impression that might have been left by that story on a visitor to Chabad House would be one-hundred-percent negative and one-hundred-percent unkosher from a Torah-Mitzvos point of view!

“But wait! You think you’ve heard it all? Listen to my experience with American Baby magazine.

“Yes, you heard me right. American Baby. Surely the gentlest, most harmless magazine which is mailed, free of charge, to mothers right after the birth of their baby. Okay, I had never allowed women’s magazines in the house. Again, the tznius issue. Particularly when my boys reached their teens. But American Baby? For heaven’s sakes, surely nothing could he the slightest bit wrong with that purveyor of toy advertising, baby furniture and medicines, with articles on the latest in diapers.

“Well, one day I’m idly leafing through the latest issue, and I come across an article by their most frequent contributor, Dr. Terry Brazelton, a nationally renowned pediatrician. The article informed me as a parent that the only way to ensure a balaned normalcy of bodily attitudes in my children was to expose them to the adult anatomies of the opposite gender at an early age. Specifically, he recommended that young children take showers with their parent of the opposite gender.

Chaim Zalman leaned forward aggressively in his seat. “All right, I’ll accept the title ‘fanatic’. Let them call me what they will. But you tell me honestly, does material like that belong in the house of the Rebbe’s chassid?!”

Leah’s Story

Leah groaned. Chayale fidgeted uncomfortably in her lap, reminding Leah that her feeding was soon due. Glumly she stared across the room at her father, still glowering, with his pipe clamped too tightly in his teeth.

“Daddy, it’s just no use. You’ll never understand.”

“Darned right,” growled her father. He pulled the pipe out of his teeth and jabbed the air with it for emphasis. “It was all I could do to understand why my oldest daughter, a brilliant young woman, graduated from Barnard, should become so enamored with religion.

“But okay, that was a long time ago. Mother and I have learned to make peace with your strange new lifestyle. After all, we have always been proud Jews ourselves, and we remember our parents and grandparents fondly. So we put up with all this nonsense of your living in a bad area in Brooklyn, and your abandoning culture and music and literature in favor of your Jewish studies and your Rebbe.

“But to send your children to a school where they don’t teach English, Math or Social studies, that’s criminal, just plain criminal!”

Leah made as graceful an exit as she could. Standing up, she said nonchalantly, “Dad, we’ll have to talk about it another time; we really have to get back to New York now. The traffic is soon going to get bad, and Chayale needs a feeding.”

I decided to make one final visit, to Leah, on a sunny Monday afternoon on Montgomery Street in Crown Heights.

“My husband Yaakov works as a systems analyst. He just bought me a computer with a good word-processing program on it. He’s trying to encourage me to get back into writing, which I’ve abandoned since my Barnard days. I’m excited about it.

“I think one of the first papers I’m going to write will be ‘Cross-Cultural Blindness.’ Intriguing title? Well, what I mean is the blindness of one culture towards the validity of another. More specifically, the refusal of one culture to recognize the existence of another culture’s educational database.

“My father — zol zein gezunt — is a prime example of that blindness.

When I was in Machon Chana I once heard a story about a census in Czarist Russia more than a century ago. The only people who could be co-opted into becoming census-takers were pretty low on the societal totem pole. Sure, they had to be able to read and write so that they could fill out the census questionnaires, but most of them had only a rudimentary education beyond that.

“One such dolt came to the house of a great rav in a rural Russian town. The rabbi was immersed in an intricate and difficult problem in halacha. Piled up in front of him on the table were several Gemaras, a Yoreh Deah, a Rambam, etc. He spoke no Russian. When the census-taker came to the door and called out, ‘Is anyone home?’, the rav didn’t hear him for two reasons: his super-immersion in his Torah quest, and his automatic tuning-out of the Russian language.

“After a few increasingly irritated shouts of ‘anyone home,’ the angry census-taker stomped through the house looking for someone to answer the questionnaire. He burst in on the Rabbi, lifted his clipboard, and asked gruffly, ‘How many people live in this house, and what are their standards of education?’ Needless to say, the Rav did not answer.

“The fellow asked the question a second time in a raised tone of voice. Again, no response. Finally, after yelling the question one last time, he furiously filled in the questionnaire himself: ‘One old man — illiterate.’

Leah smiled, “I think I’ll begin the paper with that story. I really love it. Here is this peasant census-taker whose level of culture and education—judged by the standards of any civilization—was so far beneath the rav’s that you couldn’t even measure them on the same scale. Yet, because the rav was deficient in one minute area of knowledge — Russian language — the peasant classified him as ‘illiterate.’

At that moment the honk of the Ohoiei Torah school bus was heard outside and two excited little children of about 4 and 6 burst into the room, bubbling over with the day’s events in Cheder. “Gutteh kinderlach; Gei in kich un vash gut op di hent.” Noticing my surprise at her fluent, barely-accented Yiddish, Leah said proudly, ‘Hey, that’s my culture! Right?” I heartily concurred.

After giving the kids cookies and milk, Leah sat down and continued: “Okay, now I’m really going to impress you. I’m going to roll out all my credentials. My degree was in education, and what is more, because of my anger at my parents’ attacks. I’ve thought this through dozens of times, but because of kibud av and the utter futility of talking to my Dad, I’ve never been able to get it out of my system. So here goes:

“I believe that you can explain our limudei-kodesh-only education system to any honest intellectual — Jew or non-Jew — who has no ax to grind, and you can do so without even mentioning Torah or Yiddishkeit!

“Let’s take a good look at the basic definition of education. Break it down, analytically, to four components: One, transmission of information; two, enhancing intellectual acuity (i.e., training the mind to think, analyze and learn); three, character and morality training; and four, functional training (teaching the ability to communicate, to ask directions, to make correct change in the store, etc.).

“It would be universally agreed by students of education theory that the first three components of education are the most important ones. Analyzed from that perspective, how well educated are my children at Oholei Torah?

“Criterion One, they are absorbing a veritable mass of information, quantitatively far more than I ever absorbed in my early years in the finest private schools.

“Criterion Two, training of the mind. Amazing! Absolutely gevaldig! You ought to be here and observe my older kids, especially the eight-year-old, when their cousins (non-frum, who attend public school) of the same age are over for a visit. It’s awesome to see the veritable abyss between their maturity levels in terms of intellectual capacity, including the ability to reason and to learn.

“Criterion Three, morality and character training? No comment is necessary.

“That leaves Criterion Four, training for function:

“It is precisely because I’m a college grad with a major in education to boot, that I get so infuriated and frustrated at shortsighted individuals who say my children are ‘uneducated’ because their English language skills are weak. If they would say, ‘the children are functionally hampered in society,’ they would at least be playing fair.

“I would willingly agree that this is the case, but it doesn’t bother me in the slightest, because it is only a temporary condition. When the kids get older they do marvelously well in society. Perhaps, years, ago, you couldn’t argue this point, because you had no successful young adults to whom you could point as examples of Oholei Torah graduates.

“But today, there are dozens of shluchim scattered through the U.S. and Canada who are graduates of Iimudei-kodesh-only chadorim. They address groups publicly, they teach difficult texts (like (Gemara or Chassidus) in competent English, they have all the arithmetic knowledge they need to wrestle with the Chabad House’s ledgers, and some of them even write commendable prose! They picked up all those functional skills later, with no problem.

“As I said, my father just won’t hear any arguments. I’ve tried to use simple analogies. For example, I asked my Dad (by the way, he’s a physicist and extremely well educated,) ‘What would you think if you met an elderly Chinese scholar who had been immersed in intellectual pursuit all his life and had a phenomenal mind, a calm disposition and a thoroughly reasoned and seasoned philosophy of life — but had never heard of any of western culture?

“This great venerable Chinese sage had never heard of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, nor of Julius Caesar nor of Thomas Jefferson. Paine, George Washington or the entire western European experience?’ 

“When I press him on this he just mumbles and won’t give an answer. But the sad truth is that my father’s cross-cultural blindness is so bad that he probably would not recognize the genuineness and validity of the Chinese scholar’s education or culture, simply because he could not relate it to his own.

“Isn’t it about time that all of us who have selected traditional cheder education for our chasidishe kinderlach stand up tall and straight and proclaim to the world (particularly to our own friends on the block), our children are the most highly educated and cultured that any society would produce!”

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  1. He tells me the Gemara looks with great disfavor at dogs, that the rearing of dogs was altogether forbidden in Israel because of their unwholesome nature. Can someone tell me where it says about rearing dogs being forbidden? I heard that this was dangerous dogs .

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