Alt+SHIFT: Avraham Stav’s Pop-Culture Criticism

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online | February 23, 2023

Alt+SHIFT is the keyboard shortcut allowing us quick transition between input languages on our keyboards—for many readers of TRADITION that’s the move from Hebrew to English (and back again). Yitzchak Blau continues this Tradition Online series offering his insider’s look into trends, ideas, and writings in the Israeli Religious Zionist world helping readers from the Anglo sphere to Alt+SHIFT and gain insight into worthwhile material available only in Hebrew.

This column will go on break next week, as we resume our “TRADITION Questions” series, and will pick up again in a few weeks.

R. Avraham Stav teaches at Yeshivat Mahanayim and, despite his young age, has already authored several sefarim. In the weekend magazine section of Makor Rishon newspaper, he performs the unusual task of a rabbi writing criticism of popular culture including movies, television shows, and rock music in his Bikoret Tarbut” column. In a refreshingly honest and amusing story, Stav relates how his mother once said to him: “Surely you don’t actually watch the things you write about.” When he asserted that he does, his brother said: “Yes, but people think that you are truly interested in this film or that television series. They don’t understand that you just want to provide cultural analysis for what others are watching.” Stav responded that, actually, he is genuinely interested in the material. Not too many rabbis readily admit their enjoyment of popular culture.

R. Avraham Stav

His column often provides a fresh angle on well-known movies or shows. In the finale of Seinfeld, the four friends sit in a jail cell, as narcissistic as they were when the pilot episode aired. Stav contrasts this with Darth Vader and other characters who undergo self-improvement and grow over time. According to our author, encountering others enables a person to see the world through fresh eyes and perform acts of loving dedication. For Vader, an intimate moment with his son Luke sparks the transformation; for others, love for a spouse does the job. Not coincidentally, the Seinfeld quartet remains single and cannot think beyond themselves, unlike their counterparts in Friends who almost all get married by the series conclusion. Stav connects this insight with the need for the Kohen Gadol to be married in order to perform the Yom Kippur service.

Fantasy and magic receive their due place. In analyzing the Harry Potter series, Stav notes how we mock the credulity of Xenophilius and Luna Lovegood for their belief in conspiracy theories and in non-existent creatures while praising the rationalist intelligence of Hermione Granger. Yet, ultimately, Xenophilius’ newspaper, The Quibbler, accurately reports on Voldemort’s return while the mainstream paper, The Daily Prophet, denies it, and Xenophilius himself correctly identifies the Deathly Hallows. Occasionally, thinking out of the box and bucking the consensus actually lead to the truth. R. Stav cites a passage from Rebbe Nahman preferring the naive simpleton to the wise man who denies every ideological position. 

I add that a parallel idea appears in R. Tzadok HaKohen’s Tzidkat HaTzadik (259). He identifies Yitro with excessive credulity – the midrash says that Yitro tried every form of paganism – and Amalek with excessive skepticism. One midrash on a verse in Proverbs (19:25) portrays Yitro as a peti and Amalak as a letz. R. Tzadok writes that Yitro has hope since he can eventually arrive at a legitimate belief whereas the cynical Amalek stays barricaded behind a barrier incapable of discovering truth. 

Stav addresses The Lord of the Rings as well (inevitable for one with his tastes in pop culture!). On the edge of the fire in Mount Doom, Frodo’s inability to cast away the ring indicates that we cannot rid ourselves of evil so easily. Throwing a scapegoat off a cliff does not magically free us from temptation. Gollum biting the ring off of Frodo’s finger symbolizes how entrenched the possibility of wrongdoing lies within each of us. Getting rid of it involves cutting off a part of us. Indeed, in a letter, Tolkien wrote that the biblical scapegoat helped inspire the idea for Frodo’s trek.

Perhaps I am receptive to Stav’s pop-culture criticism because I know him to also be a man of substance, who has the credentials and wherewithal to produce serious scholarship and Torah study; see, for example, his essay, “Progressivism and Conservatism in the Thought of Rav Kook,” TRADITION 54:4 (Fall 2022). When we know someone is capable of doing the heavy lifting of serious thought and learning, we should take note of his forays into other areas as well. We may find them to possess depth that is not immediately apparent on the surface because their message may be occluded by their medium. 

Additionally, Stav tells some excellent stories about his rabbeim. He reports that R. Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, was once invited to speak at a rabbinic conference, at which a previous speaker harshly castigated the world of Yeshivot Hesder. When invited to respond, R. Lichtenstein rose to the podium and began: “I have what to say, but this was not the topic I wanted to talk about and I will speak about my planned topic.” R. Mosheh Lichtenstein, who was the source of the anecdote, advised Stav to take initiative in advancing goals rather than always responding to the provocations around us. 

Another worthy insight comes from an anecdote about R. Yuval Cherlow, who was stationed in Lebanon during the 1982 World Cup; the army arranged for the important games to be shown on tape delay. To save time for Torah study, R. Cherlow looked up ahead of time in the newspapers when the goals occurred and would temporarily interrupt his study and show up for those moments. As the tournament progressed, he lost interest in the goals. One of the other soldiers explained to him: “You are missing the entire story, the building frustration from countless chances before the goal, the rising tension that grows until it breaks in a moment. This is not the way to watch soccer; you might as well just learn Torah.” Peak experiences derive their power from the minute mundane moments that precede them. 

Those who know me understand that I am not the biggest fan of popular culture. Yet I wholeheartedly assert that R. Avraham Stav’s analysis of carefully selected examples makes a genuine contribution to our communal discourse. 

Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City, is an Associate Editor of TRADITION.

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