A New York prosthodontist, who has treated many well known supermodels, said that models can spend up to one hundred thousand dollars to try to get the right smile. He comments, "I'd say that about 90 per cent of the top supermodels have had dental implants put in because they want to have the perfect smile."
Teaching Judaism in a culture obsessed with objectifying bodies--usually those of women--in which the daily rigours of cosmetics, skin care, hair care, and fragrances are religious rituals in their own right, has its challenges. As external panache replaces internal integrity as the currency of choice, the ability to persuade young Jews that the soul is the most important part of the self is under increasing fire.
What does one call a Jewish celebration where twelve and thirteen year old girls parade in absurdly immodest clothes and their male peers practice their best adult lewdness? In many cases, unfortunately, a contemporary bar or bat-mitzvah party. Disregarding Yeats' lament in "Sailing to Byzantium"--"That is no country for old men"--the parents are off dancing to the latest Billboard 100 hit, turning yet another Jewish spiritual rite into one more mindless Dionysian spectacle. Little wonder their children follow suit.
Adam, a 13 year old boy who held his bar-mitzvah party at L.A.'s famous Whisky a Go Go, had this to say about his Jewish coming of age: "The bar mitzvah scene is really glamorous. I mean, for kids that can't afford it or are not as fortunate, I guess they are out of luck. People usually spend between 15 grand- 15 grand being the lowest, really low - to 90 grand. I had a glass blower and carnival games, lots of them. I had a sweatshirt maker, a make your own video game. I had dancers. I had a steel drum band during the appetizers. I had faked stuffed lions and parrots. I felt really good after the bar mitzvah, and I was getting a lot of play with girls."
It is possible that Adam had mastered an ironic sense of humour when he concluded that "my parents know that money ruins kids," but somehow I don't think so.(For those who think I'm making this up, I commend you to the May 25, 1997 edition of The New York Times, with the added bonus of a picture showing Adam dancing at Whisky a Go Go with a woman who is, shall we say, scantily clad). Woe unto us who had to make do with a Torah reading and a modest lunch. What we seem to have missed.
For all the talk of spirituality that has flooded the media in the last fifteen years, it is the way one looks and how much one is carrying in the wallet that seems to be our primary educational message to the next generation. Not everyone is like Adam, of course, and there are parents who are very responsible about delineating between reality and Play Station. But somewhere in all of this we seem to have lost our way, and the corrosive effects of stressing appearance and wealth make their way past every denominational border.
In a famous passage, the Mishnah stipulates that the laws of forbidden sexual relations may not be discussed in the presence of even three people. But in the fantasy land of the West, it would seem that there are very few nooks and crannies left in which to avoid the topic of sex, least of all in education. As our society trumpets frank expression as a virtue, today's teenager and even preteen communicate, dress and act out in a realm where their emotional maturity cannot possibly catch up to the movie feigned romance and theatre of body talk in which they are enveloped.
Despite what our dinner party interpretations of Freud suggest, sex is far more than an innate urge. How one thinks and acts in this domain is to a large degree influenced and compelled by the culture in which one abides. Commenting on the longstanding halakhic obligation for married couples to engage in such relations at least once a week, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein insightfully notes that because of the sexually charged atmosphere of contemporary culture, "a woman feels desire and erotic passion more often than once a week." This "feeling" is seemingly inhaled from the very air we breathe; sex in Rav Moshe's formulation becomes a cultural construction. Nobody absorbs this on a visceral level more than our children, who are unwittingly swayed and catapulted into believing that they should be joking and talking about--if not having--sex, and at earlier ages. Naturally this does not apply to all of our children, but noone is immune from the whiff of innocence lost.
So dealing with the reality of our children's immersion in a sexually drunk world has thus become a major component of religious education. Any careful investigation of Jewish sources replaces the "hole in the sheet" mythology--frankly, just another excuse by ignorant people to bash the tradition--with a rather sophisticated, pragmatic and sensitive rendering of human passion. Judaism has much to say about how we and our children should respect our bodies and the seed of life contained within them. We must impress on our children, not just by word but by deed, that there is a better and, ultimately, a holier way to think about sex and relationships. Without fear, and with empathy, we must take back the night.