For the sin of checking out

The clock is ticking. The horn is sounding.

The time of soul-searching is fast approaching.

Now is the time for us to resolve to stop taking our children and grandchildren into soft-porn palaces.

This is not a joke. Before us now is the arduous process of looking deep into our own natures in search of our failures and foibles, and into our hearts in search of ways to correct our found faults.

Sadly, though, we likely will miss some important errors, because we are not even aware they are errors, much less that they require correction.

Taking our children and grandchildren into soft-porn palaces is one such error. This error is hard to recognize because it hides behind a deceptively inoffensive name, thereby lulling us into ignoring the danger within.

That inoffensive name is “supermarket,” and specifically the area known as “the supermarket checkout counter.”

That is where you will find copies of such mainstream publications as Cosmopolitan, bedecked with scantily and suggestively clad women and such headlines as “Hilary Duff is Back and Kicking [expletive deleted],” or “Sex So Hot You’ll Need to Crank the A.C.,” or “Sex and Love. ’Tis the Month for Kinky Qs, Dating Secrets, and the Love You Want.”

Side by side with these are the not-so-mainstream publications, literally called “supermarket tabloids,” with such headlines as “Britney Aborts Baby,” or “Jen’s New Body Revealed,” or “Al Gore Sex Attack.”

We also bring soft porn (and some not so soft porn) into our homes for both the children and us to see. We may buy them at a local newsstand, or have them delivered to our front lawns. These are called tabloid newspapers. They purport to report the news, but any news they have is buried among a sea of sexy photographs and salacious headlines. A recent New York Post headline, for example, was a poorly disguised wish that admitted child sex offender Jared Fogle be gang-raped in prison. The newspaper often uses clever wording to sell itself.

We may simply turn on the television and watch, say, a Pepsi commercial. One, some years back, stands out in its suggestiveness. It featured Britney Spears, Beyonce, and Pink, dressed in chain-mail miniskirts and halter tops (and very obvious pushup bras), shaking their bodies to abandon to the tune of “We Will Rock You.”

A current commercial, for the satellite service provider Direct TV, features Sports Illustrated swimsuit models with almost nothing covered, standing on a beach in provocative poses, with a white horse nearby. A West Coast fast-food chain actually depicted a seemingly naked model walking through a farmer’s market, praising an “all natural” burger.

The situation comedies we allow our children and grandchildren (and ourselves) to watch all too often rely on sexual situations to get laughs. Even some of the cartoons our children watch resort to this, especially ones involving superheroes. Wilma Flintstone may have worn a miniskirt, but you never got to see every detail of her body. Today’s cartoonists leave nothing to the imagination.

Admittedly, calling supermarkets soft-porn palaces is way over the top, but have we, as individuals and as a community, gone to the managers of these stores to complain that our children should not be subjected to such so-called point-of-purchase displays? Have we, individually and communally, suggested that these displays could be placed in a less noticeable area in the store, where children will not be subjected to them?

The store expects to make money from placing such items at checkout counters. That is the whole point-of-purchase point. Would they be so willing to keep such material at the counters if it meant losing business?

Why do we even have subscriptions to publications that use sleaze as a draw? There is only one reason a Rupert Murdoch, say, publishes what he does— because people buy what he publishes. The same is true of the supermarket tabloids, such as the Enquirer or the Examiner.

The First Amendment is sacrosanct and must remain so. More to the point, we should not blame the purveyors of such materials. We need to blame ourselves for encouraging them by giving them a market.

We tend to think that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are all about how we as individuals can reform ourselves in the coming year. We tend to ignore the fact that we do not live in a vacuum. There is a broader world out there, and how we behave all too often is influenced by that world.

We also tend to forget we have the power of the purse to change at least some of what we see as wrong — and that we have the obligation to do so.

“Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt on his account,” the Torah commands in Leviticus 19:17. We cannot sit back and ignore wrongs or make the excuse that it is someone else’s problem. It is not someone else’s problem; it is our problem.

In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 54b, we are taught something remarkable. The Torah (including in this week’s parashah) insists that only the guilty be punished for their misdeeds. But, says the Talmud, “Whoever can turn aside his household [from doing wrong] but does not, is seized for [the crimes of] his household; [if he can prevent] his fellow citizens [from doing wrong, but does not], he is seized for [the crimes of] his fellow citizens; if [he can prevent] the whole world [from doing wrong, but does not], he is seized for [the crimes of] the whole world.”

Put another way, wrongdoing involves the person who did the wrong and the person who did nothing to prevent the wrong from being done.

“The righteous person gives direction to a neighbor,” the Book of Proverbs teaches (see 12:26).

Supposedly, Edmund Burke put it this way: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

This High Holy Days season, we need to resolve to “do something.”

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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