The Beacon

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? 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 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.

But 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 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.

12 responses to “The Beacon

  1. Very thought-provoking… thank you for sharing!

  2. Upper West Side Mom

    Wonderful and insightful article! People like to pretend that interaction between genders only occurs in public schools or in co-ed modern orthodox day schools whithout realizing that it is everywhere from the most secular to the frumest of black hat yeshivot and Bais Yaakov schools.

    Rather than assume that it happens elsewhere, parents and schools and even shuls, need to realize that it is an issue everywhere and they need to try and effectively deal with the issue at hand. In today’s day and age where average children have their first sexual interaction while in elementary school, it is ignorant to think that there is no interaction among frum jewish singles, no matter what there age, just because they are frum!

    I hope that your article helps in opening up a realistic dialogue.

  3. Just curious: How do you recommend teaching the story of Yehuda and Tamar to a young child?

    • THAT is a good question. There are three elements of the story that would be difficult for an 8-year old to internalize, including yibum. Perhaps the best idea would be not to learn pasuk by pasuk, but to discuss the age-appropriate issues raised – alienation from family, death and loss, human weakness, and then – especially, because it is the essence of the story – Yehuda’s acceptance of responsibility that Tamar was right and that he was wrong. And how that moment of personal greatness on his part – which saved Tamar from certain death – led to the founding of the monarchy of Israel and the Moshiach himself. The emphasis on personal responsibility alone is worth the whole discussion.
      And I am certain that educators will have even better ideas, although even today, there are yeshivot that simply skip the story.

  4. Great response. I agree. However, the argument was not that this aspect exists in out life and to deal with it it needs to be addressed and not shunned. The argument in the secular world was that premarital sexual relationships are normal and acceptable, and this article is ridiculous in its shameful display of an acceptable action.

    • Actually, the article was quite clear that it was the women in question who felt the shame after it was done. That itself is good musar.

      • Correct, which I thought was great, and extremely important. The outside ridicule of the article is patricularly in the shame. That is was garnered so much attention. My secular college classmates were mocking this aspect of shame for an action that is so everyday.

  5. Since I have often disagreed vehemently with you in the past, I feel it incumbent upon myself to give a big, hearty, yasher koach when you get something right. Well said!

    The only tweak that I would give (and I acknowledge it as a minor nit-pick) is blaming the tawdriness of society as being the primary factor involved. The sexual desire, and the capitulation of frum people to it, predates modern society, and we do ourselves no favors by pretending that everyone in pre-WWII Europe (or in talmudic or biblical times) was a complete tzadik in these matters. Modern society presents several unique challenges in this regard, true, but (as you accurately note) sheltering oneself from it does not guarantee any success.

  6. Yashar kochacha to Rabbi Pruzansky for addressing the issues that are usually not talked about. As a parent of children old enough to engage in these activities, I can only hope that they have enough information to navigate the real world, and by now have strong enough values to know which lines just cannot be crossed. I am saddened when friends tell me that one of their children is starting to slide off the derech. And I am upset when rabanim who claim to be our leaders deny that these problems exist, or solve everything by assering (prohibiting) the internet.

    All those who have come down on the anti-Beacon side would do well to read this blog post.

  7. I view this situation from the perspective of a halachah-compliant kohen.

    If a Jewish girl has the most intimate kind of physical relations with a Jewish man, then she remains permitted to marry a kohen, but only bidieved.

    If a Jewish girl has the most intimate kind of physical relations with a non-Jewish man or her father or her brother or a married man, then she is forbidden to marry a kohen, and if she does marry a kohen, then her sons, grandsons and great-grandsons are NOT kohanim, and her daughters are forbidden to marry kohanim, and any Jewish girl who has the most intimate kind of physical relations with her sons, grandsons or great-grandsons are NOT allowed to marry kohanim.

    Widespread immorality is a disaster for the marriage chances of kohanim.

    Midrash Tehillim for Psalm 16, Paragraph 1 of 8:
    The Holy One Blessed Be He does not call any righteous person HOLY until he dies, because of the Evil Inclination torments a man in this world.

  8. I might not have published it myself l’chatchila, but b’diavad it has its value. (Indeed, I heard through the grapevine that as a result of the article, one young woman saved herself from sin.) The event at YU was different, in that it de-emphasized the feelings of shame, guilt and the sin itself in order to plead for acceptance of the lifestyle. In that Rav Twersky is correct. Here, had the article simply reported the event without comment or judgment, or described it glowingly, the two cases would be analogous. In fact, the author was quite explicit in her self-loathing and guilt after she realized she had been used.

  9. Is it necessarily a bad thing for somebody who is/was nichshal in this sort of thing to have a “support system”? All genuinely frum people struggle with these sort of issues on one level or another, at one time or another, and knowing that others struggle could be very encouraging for a person plagued by guilt and feelings of inferiority over his mistakes.

    The challenge is teaching youths the importance of living a halachic lifestyle, while also conveying the message that it’s normal to make mistakes and when it happens he/she is still precious before Hashem and it’s not the end.