Modern Orthodox TV-Free Living -Contributed Anonymously


Rabbi Chaim Jachter’s Note:  I wished to share the following thoughts of a TABC parent for Chanukah, a time of celebrating our separation from the prevailing culture.  The views presented here do not necessarily reflect my views or the views of the TABC administration.   

            Surprise is one of the reactions we receive from our friends when we tell them that we have a TV-free home. We are a modern orthodox family in Teaneck with children in local yeshiva elementary and high schools and very much enjoy living in the epicenter of modern orthodoxy.

As children, we each grew up in the 1960s in modern orthodox homes with televisions. We spent many, many hours, particularly on weekends, watching situation comedies, sporting events (one of us!) and drama shows with little or no parental supervision or participation. While we regard much of that time spent in our youth as innocuous, albeit largely wasteful, we are not sure to what extent our values and opinions are affected by all of the television we watched in our youth. 

When we first married, we chose not to have a TV because we perceived it as a force which would use up our precious spare time. We did not (and do not) have a religious problem with the concept of watching television and we went to the movies at least once a week and enjoyed them. After we had our first child, we decided to buy a television at the impetus of the one of us who spent much time at home alone with our infant. As our family grew and our children began to watch television, we felt it was a legitimate, if inane, form of recreation for them. 

Our children grew through early childhood years and entered elementary school. We took great delight in watching their cognitive achievements as they learned to analyze Pesukim, decipher and translate Hebrew words, solve increasingly difficult math and science problems and read and understand good juvenile literature. We were aware of the fact that the television they watched inhibited much of the critical thought processes that was so encouraged in school but we kept the television in our home. 

As our children grew, we paid closer attention to the nature of television.  We took note of the growth of cable television (which we have never subscribed to but watch at friends’ homes or in hotels when traveling).  We understood the effect of the exemption from many FCC restrictions as to language, nudity, sex and violence that many cable stations utilized.  We realized that these aspects of cable television had perforce influenced network television.  We believed that network television had been constrained to continuously increase the “shock” level of its programming (and advertising) in order to compete with the even less-restrained cable television.  Although we discussed the possibility of discarding our television, we chose not to do so for several reasons.

The amount of time spent watching was relatively small as our children almost never had time to watch during the week because of school obligations and we were usually at home to oversee the weekend watching.  Moreover, living in Teaneck, we felt that since the overwhelming majority of other families owned televisions and regularly allowed their children to use them, we would be depriving our children if we denied them access to TV.  If our increasing opposition to television was so strong that we were willing to do away with the TV, we reasoned, we were being unfair to our children to live in Teaneck and should have lived in Passaic… or perhaps Monsey… or certainly Lakewood or some other community where television ownership is not the norm (we suspect that the last-named community alone fits that category).

As our children approached and went through adolescence, our thoughts on television continued to evolve.  We realized that our ability to control what our children watched was increasingly diminishing.  Moreover, this was happening precisely at the time when our children’s cognitive development was reaching its most intense phase.  We wanted to encourage our children to develop a life-long habit of recreational reading but we saw TV as a potential category-killer for our children’s free time.

With respect to political and social issues (far beyond the portrayal of Israel in news programs), we realized that TV plays a strong, even overpowering, role in forming public opinion.  We did not want our children to be force-fed TV-based opinions without the opportunity to ponder alternative views, which TV seldom provides.  More ominously, we perceived TV as “pushing the envelope” with regard to its portrayal of  violence and of  risky and unacceptable behavior, particularly in adolescents.   We always joke among ourselves about how each of us has seldom if ever seen a drawn handgun and neither of us has ever seen a person shoot a gun.  It usually takes 4 minutes or less of flipping channels to see gunshots.   We were concerned with the increasingly frequent portrayal of teens as sexually active and the increasingly graphic depiction in television shows of adults engaging in sexually promiscuous behavior and infidelity.

We were ready to make a bold move but we did not want to leave Teaneck and the community whose values we largely agree with.  As we have said, we have never viewed the act of watching TV as per se prohibited and we and our children enjoy movies regularly.  We needed to approach the matter of discarding the TV in a way which would be fair to our prior practice, our children and our community.  We decided on the following solution which our children agreed to:  We threw away our television antennas which, in the absence of cable television, denied us almost all reception of network television.  We “invested” in the latest version of one of the popular video game systems and purchased a large projection TV and a DVD player (in addition to our existing VCR player).  With this concededly expensive array of gadgets, we are able to enjoy state-of-the-art viewing conditions for the DVDs and videos we rent while exercising control over what we see.

We are proud to report that the results are favorable.  We feel that our children have benefited from the change we have made, in spite of their occasional complaints regarding the absence of television in our home and their insistence that this article remain anonymous to those of you who don’t already know who we are! In addition, while our children have firmly stated that we are the only family in the world, at least the world that they are familiar with, that does not have a television, every once in awhile one of us meets someone from another modern orthodox family in Teaneck, Englewood, Riverdale, etc. in a similar situation, namely no television channels, but a set-up that allows them to watch videos and DVDs, and play X-Box or Play Station.

We often listen to our friends complain about this or that aspect of TV and respond with our experience which we now share with you readers.  To be honest, quite a number of women have told us they are most eager to make their home television free, but their husbands will not consider it, particularly because of the sports shows they would miss.

We believe that the pervasive and all-encompassing nature of TV is such that, even as modern orthodox Jews who pride ourselves in our openness to outside culture, we are best off denying ourselves this addictive aspect of our culture.  We do this not in order to emulate the “right wing” or the “black hats” and we continue to maintain that a more open-minded approach is far preferable to that espoused in those circles.  However, we believe that to maintain our open-mindedness we must limit if not eliminate this domineering influence particularly when the medium, unlike the Internet, has so little probative value to outweigh its negative features. 

Nonetheless, we are well aware of the fact that we are not holier than any of our peers.  We are cognizant of the negative influences that are present on the Internet, although we make an effort to know what our children access online.  Furthermore, we recognize that the majority of movies that our children see do not exemplify good values.  Still, at least there is more control in viewing videos than in television viewing, and, if nothing else, there is likely to be much less time spent watching videos than viewing TV programs.  The most important factor, we feel, in imparting good values to children, regardless of what type of media they have access to and to what extent, is communicating those values to them through our words and actions.

We know that in a Torah journal it is proper to anchor our thoughts with words of Torah.  There is very much that has been written against TV-watching by Haredi rabbis, much of which is harsh or even offensive.  We will suffice with the Devarim Hayotzim Min Halev that we have written and with the concise statement of curriculum in the Mishna in Kiddushin 1:10: “Kol Sheyeshno a) Bamikra b)Uvamishna c) Uvderech Eretz Lo Vimheira Hu Chote Sheneemar ‘Vehachut Hameshulash Lo Vimheira Yinatek.”  We have focused on “Derech Eretz” and the way in which TV distorts one’s perception of the world at large.

We hope that by reading our views, you and your families will revisit your own attitudes towards television. In addition to the personal benefits we reap, we will regard our efforts as even more worthwhile if our community and our schools become more cognizant and receptive of families without TVs while continuing to respect all points of view.

The Haftarot of Chanukah by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

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