A couple of Sundays ago, our 9 year old was watching a football game on TV. Seemed like a reasonable activity in between several things that had been scheduled for the day. I sat down next to him, and within minutes was confronting a “parenting moment”. The first beer commercial after the time-out went straight to the edge of the legal limit, in targeting the libido in order to sell its product. It was all at the family-friendly hour of 11 in the morning (Pacific Time) on network TV, as a father and son were bonding over a ballgame. Shoot.
It’s not like I don’t live in the world. Or that I believe that my kids never see billboards, or magazine covers in the checkout line. But those are “out there” in the world that our kids already know is a mixed moral bag. But the commercial was “in here”, in the sanctuary of our Jewish home, the place where we still insist on the difference between “appropriate” and “inappropriate” words and images.
Of course you and I can complain from today till tomorrow, but nobody at the NFL, Budweiser, or Fox is interested in hearing it. We know it’s our own job to talk with our kids about this. And you’d think that it actually shouldn’t be too hard for us. After all, we go all the back to Leviticus in abhorring promiscuity, and our traditional Jewish literature extols the virtue of modesty all over the place. In theory, we have all the right language and religious/moral categories to carry on the conversation. Yet in practice, we struggle, procrastinate, and sometimes just can’t figure out how to have the conversation at all. After all, it’s not as if we believe that sex is dirty, or that beauty isn’t part of God’s creation (with apologies to the closing verses of Eshet Chayil). The conversation is nuanced, which is to say, difficult.
And unfortunately, we’ve compounded our problem by absolutely murdering the one value-word that we always do seem to have at the ready. “Tzniut” (modesty) is the word we instinctively want to say, but we’ve tragically succeeded in emptying the term of any value content at all. It’s become an adjective – strange all by itself, since it’s actually a noun – with which to describe the length of a sleeve or the height of a neckline (and confined only to discussion of women’s apparel, never men’s). The term is equal in actual moral content to the word “k’zayit” (the “olive-size” minimum amount of matza that one must eat at the Seder). To battle the NFL et. al. we need to be deploy a different religious vocabulary, reviving the use of solid, traditional terms like human dignity (“kavod habriyot”) and image of God (“tzelem Elokim”). With these, we can initiate and frame a discussion that truly captures our religious ethic, one that truly addresses what’s wrong with that beer commercial and the value system it’s built upon. And as an added bonus, if we leave “tzniut” alone for a while, the next generation will be able to reclaim it for the powerful religious word that it is.