This Shabbos, I was 0-for-2 in private discussions I had in shul following davening. Before I addressed a bar mitzvah boy, I opened with the following question to the audience: Imagine if David Duke, of KKK fame, succeeded in becoming a Republican congressman, G-d forbid. He then decides to visit South Africa. The South African government rejects his entry on the basis that he is a notorious hate-filled racist. Would anybody in the world have a problem with the decision of that country to keep that harmful person out? Would Republican colleagues have rallied behind him? Would there have been a threat to our bipartisan relationship with South Africa? The answers are obvious, as is the point. I did not need to spell out what I was driving at.
Following davening, a highly intelligent member of the shul, who usually sees things differently than I do politically, told me, “You know, Rabbi, I do not agree with you on this one.” I wasn’t surprised, but I was quite curious how he could possibly differ with what I said. He explained that he feels Israel should have let the anti-Semitic Democratic Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar into their country. Everybody has the right to be heard and disputed. He felt indeed that South Africa should let David Duke enter should the occasion arise. By the same token, he is dead set against liberal colleges that don’t let conservative voices be heard. He even went so far as to say that if Duke wanted to speak at Yeshiva University, they should let him do so. (Somewhat of a precedent does exist for that: YU’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law did let notoriously anti-Semitic Jimmy Carter have an audience a few years ago.)
Now I truly like this fellow, and I admire his intelligence for many reasons. So I did not want to argue much with him – especially since I might have lost. But I did tell him that, as much as I ardently disagree with him, at least he is consistent in his outlook.
Then came issue #2. Somehow, after my discussion with my first friend, I got into a discussion with a different young shul member about Woodstock. Although I did not address the 50th anniversary of Woodstock publicly, I did tell him that, in my opinion, Woodstock is responsible for the complete breakdown of values that we experience in our country to this very day. My friend was incredulous that I could say that. Woodstock, in his mind, although he was likely not yet born at that time, was nothing more than a collection of the greatest rock performers of the time. Not much more than that. All the rest was media hype. He was adamant about that. “Rabbi, you know I love you, but you are not right on this one!”
I have one advantage over my younger disputant: I was a high school graduate when this wonderful gathering took place, and my recollections are quite clear. Although I was in Israel at the time, just beginning my yeshivah studies, I did follow all the reporting. Maybe there was some media hype; but the message of that insane festival of rock music, open use of hallucinatory drugs, and free promiscuity while wallowing in mud was clear: “We are done with the establishment. Anything goes. Just do it because you want to.”
It was from there that all strictures relating to issues of decency and modesty began to fall. Dress codes we rendered archaic. Four-letter words became acceptable in polite company among both genders, something hitherto reserved for males. Crack cocaine and heroin invaded all levels of society. The entertainment industry gradually dropped all codes of restraint. If you wanted to do it, you did it. Period.
The difference between then and now is that then it was considered revolutionary. Now, it’s the norm. The Chazal (Sanhedrin 64b) expressed it succinctly, as only they can: “Our forefathers knew very well that avodah zarah – idol worship – was devoid of any meaning. They only practiced it as a rationale to commit public adultery.”
I remember the mashgiach in Kerem B’Yavneh, Rav Chaim Lifschutz zt”l, a trained psychologist and graphologist, told me about a friend of mine from high school who knew very well how to learn but was living on the fringes and was looking to enroll in the yeshivah. “If a boy comes here and he is wearing bell bottoms (a style of jeans that kids wore then to look cool), I can tolerate that. But if he comes in wearing jeans with ripped knees, he is showing that he has no respect for the establishment. That I will not tolerate.” Eventually my friend realized what he was projecting and changed his way of dress. Today, as the saying goes, he is a rosh yeshivah in Israel and quite a talmid chacham. Really.
This atmosphere of “just do it” became pervasive. The Beatles, the first to express anti-establishment defiance with their “Moe”-like haircuts in the mid-1960s, changed their style of music, as well, in the late ’60s and early ’70s. When they first started, they were a wildly popular rock group from England with standard love songs that I need not enumerate. Around Woodstock, their music changed radically. “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” became their repertoire. Nobody knew what the songs were all about, but they didn’t have to. Whatever. Just sing it and feel it.
It is my contention that John Lennon, the most talented of the Beatles, fell as a victim of his own making. On December 8, 1980, a deranged person named Mark Chapman mortally shot Lennon multiple times while outside his house together with his wife. In essence, Chapman had no reason for killing Lennon. He was even a great fan of Lennon. But he killed him simply because he wanted to. You want to do it, do it.
Today, we have graduated into a society that has no respect for centuries-held norms. The institute of marriage between a man and woman has been turned on its head. The definition of one’s gender has gone through a complete and insane change. The sanctity of life as we knew it is done with. Ironically, the same people who reject the notion of capital punishment on the grounds that every human life deserves to live, no matter how evil, are the same ones who support late-term (and even celebrate post-birth) abortion, killing the most innocent of human beings. We have encouraged graphic murder, mayhem, blood, and gore to become part of the Hollywood entertainment culture. Videos depicting every type of violence get absorbed into our kids’ bloodstream.
So go ahead and scream for gun control. We’ve been hearing that since the murder of Robert Kennedy in 1968. If it were up to me, we should ban all guns except for the police and the military. But that is unlikely to happen as is gun control affecting the mass murder rate in this country. Until we treat human life, its meaning, and its values as sacred again, we will continue to be treated to cheap slogans as the means to protect cheapened life.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.