Chaim Strauchler Tradition Online | November 2, 2023

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What is it?

We mourn the horrible murders of over 1,400 of our brothers and sisters in Israel. We tell their life stories to preserve their memories and to comfort their loved ones. We attempt to see each of them as the unique divine image that he or she was. Yet, around the world, videos of their murders are viewed with both horror and odd fascination. Why doesn’t halakha forbid this objectification?

Why does it matter?

Terror has an objective: when military goals cannot be achieved, terror tries to degrade the national will of an enemy specifically through horror. It is not simply killing innocents, but doing so in the way that generates the most fear in the hearts of the adversary’s population. For the terrorist, the gruesome murder of young children and the elderly is not a “bug” but a “feature” of such attacks.

Hamas recorded its crimes and shared them for these nefarious purposes. Leveraging social media, they successfully spread their violence beyond the Nova Music Festival.  Kibbutz Nir Oz, and the sites of their other atrocities. Jews (and others) continue to consume these violent recordings and images—welcoming Hamas’ “media content” into their minds and souls. The Torah forbids certain food, idolatrous material, and the proceeds of specific sins. Yet, no poskim forbid the viewing of violent media. Why not?

The Torah expresses an understanding of the power of the human image when describing the prohibition to allow a felon to hang from a tree overnight.

You must not let the corpse remain on the stake overnight but must bury it the same day. For an impaled body is an affront to God: you shall not defile the land that your God is giving you to possess (Deuteronomy 21:23).

Technology allows for the preservation of the degrading images of the human body that have little parallel in the past. Should not such recordings also reflect the concerns raised in the Torah?

The Haftez Hayyim writes that the laws of evil speech address not just the speaker but also the listener. Information affects the person. Does this logic not hold true for the visual image as well?

What questions remain?

A liberal education champions the pursuit of all knowledge. We teach young people to understand perspectives other than one’s own. How should such a perspective integrate the pernicious effects of certain information on the consumer of that information?

Biologically, we are wired to sense threats. Our fight-or-flight instinct watches constantly for such signs. News media has long understood the value of advertising stories that will inspire fear in their viewers. How can we properly internalize the threat to our people and our individual selves, while not playing into the plans of our enemies?

A critical component of Holocaust education is the preservation and dissemination of physical evidence of the Nazi’s crimes. Yet, these images and materials often demean the victims. That impact is played out not only on the human person as an ideal. Historic media preserve images of specific real people in the midst of their dying while nothing remains of their unique living. How do we honor those people as we preserve evidence of their murderers’ crimes?

Fictional images and videos of violence desensitize a society to violence. It often demeans the human person, as well. How does fictional violence affect how we see and internalize images of real violence? As we bear witness to the events of October 7 in the State of Israel, how can we motivate humanity to deeply feel this depravity and to anathematize this terrible cruelty?

Chaim Strauchler, an associate editor of TRADITION, is rabbi of Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck.

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