PUT DOWN THAT SMARTPHONE AND LISTEN: PART 3
In previous installments I summarized the chapters of Rabbi Ori Cohen’s book, Tools in the Hands of Our Tools, which deal with the social, psychological and spiritual damage caused by the electronic media, particularly the smartphone. Rabbi Cohen concludes that while the media revolution attacks the essence of humanity, the culture of Israel with its emphasis on the inner life, on thinking, and on morality is at the center of the target. Even Israel’s political cause is less “photogenic” than that of our would-be destroyers.
The final part of Rabbi Cohen’s book addresses the question what to do about it.
This part begins with a chapter entitled “The Illusion of Progress.” The first thing we need to do is to shake off our acceptance of “progress” as something inevitable that needs to be submitted to. We need to return to the Jewish definition of progress as “whatever advances the redemption of humankind and the world.” This does not mean rejecting all inventions, but rather evaluating them in the light of human values, the central goal of “the perfection and realization of the tselem elokim in the world.”
At the center of our striving must be not technological sophistication but the rectification of the will. Once rectified, the will can make use of the tools that can be made to serve its purposes. Those that can’t will have to be discarded, and Rabbi Cohen believes that the smartphone is one such. We must learn to distinguish between tools that we can safely use and those that will shape our consciousness in an undesired direction. One thing is certain: we need to “bury the smartphone.” This in itself would be an elevation and purification of the will. In the psalm, “depart from evil” precedes “do good.”
On the positive side, we should work with renewed vigor to strengthen the vision of Israel’s destiny to build a land that will represent justice and morality through prophecy, kingship, the Sanhedrin, and the Temple. “The best cure for the plague of the media is absolute immersion in the culture of the Beit HaMikdash, and enthusiastic study of all branches of the Torah.” We must counter the culture of kishuf (technological witchcraft) by strengthening our expectation of the real miracles of the redemption.
By doing this we may, just possibly, learn how to make genuinely progressive use of technology. “First of all we must restore to Israel the nature it has lost, as individuals and as a society, to grow in purity, to form the personality in the light of Torah, and only then will we be able to make proper use, with perpetual caution, of these apparatuses.” Very few individuals today are on a level where they can use the media without being damaged by them. Therefore we need to establish “nature preserves” in which children can be reared according to the Torah, which means denying them, insofar as possible, all access to the media.
Rabbi Cohen ends this chapter by emphasizing, once again, that the struggle with the media is basically the struggle with the culture of Edom, of Rome, which is materially impressive but hollow, without real substance. In the fight with Esav’s angel, Yakov wins! Rabbi Cohen cites numerous passages to the same effect.
The second chapter in this section is entitled “Practical Recommendations.”
The first part of this chapter is addressed to individuals. Here, Rabbi Cohen accepts that there are certain devices or applications that are not communication media but simply useful aids – example: Waze – and that can be used without danger. The problem lies in separating them from the rest.
Computers, tablets and smartphones should not be used for praying or learning. To the extent that electronic devices have to be used for communication, this should be limited to immediate practical matters (“I’ll be five minutes late”). Personal conversations should take place face to face, in letters by surface mail, or at most by telephone. (In an earlier chapter Rabbi Cohen described the phenomenon of parents keeping in constant touch with their children via SMS but never really talking with them, and having difficulty getting their children to talk to them.)
Different rules should apply to different age groups. Children should not be allowed to use cell phones before the age of 12 or 13. From 12 or 13 on they may be allowed to use simple cell phones only.
When a person has finished their education and found regular employment, it would be appropriate for them to have, in addition to a simple cell phone, an instrument that would have email and certain useful applications like Waze, Moovit, and CamScanner. (No games, no “What’s-App” — in a previous chapter Rabbi Cohen devoted a few scathing pages to that particular little demon – and no internet.)
Access to the internet should be possible only in public places, through computers on which the internet would be filtered. Internet stations should be set up like ATM machines and should be accessible only during business hours. Wherever possible, parents should avoid having a computer in the home. If they have to have a computer, it should be a laptop that can be put away, not a desktop computer.
One should avoid participating in social media, or if at all, only for business advertisements.
Owning a television set should be considered as forbidden. Rabbi Cohen is also against comics because of their emphasis on the visual.
On the positive side, we should make a determined effort to cultivate the things which the media have caused us to neglect.
In the previous chapter Rabbi Cohen gave us a list of human qualities and behaviors which in the age of the media have become rarer: “warmth of heart, innocence, tenderness, refinement, curiosity, heart-to-heart talks, tranquillity, concentration, love, courageous friendship, contentment with little, humility, joy, fear of Heaven, inner world, a sensitive heart, childish enthusiasm, ringing laughter, modesty, clean air, fresh food, good poetry and literature, quality music that is not “noise,” artwork that is human….” Now, he suggests that we should go back to books, concentrate on Torah learning, go for walks in nature without cameras, develop the fine arts, cultivate friendships (face-to-face), do chesed, seek out physical labor, write down our feelings, keep a diary, write letters in handwriting, talk with older people…
In the second half of the chapter, Rabbi Cohen formulates recommendations for the community, or as he calls it “Three Stages of a ‘Plan for National Rescue.’”
Stage One is “education,” and the basic demand is removal of all smartphones and tablets from educational institutions. They should not be used as educational “aids,” and students should not be allowed to bring them to school.
Stage Two is “regulation” by law. Rabbi Cohen cites the initiatives of some gedolim in this direction. Rabbi Kanievsky shlit”a ruled that anyone owning a non-kosher smartphone should be disqualified as a witness, a judge, a kashrut supervisor, a balanit or a shochet. The Rashlatz, the Gri Rabbi Yosef shlit”a ruled that anyone having an iphone or the like transgresses numerous commands (not to pass through a place where he may see forbidden sights, not to turn to idols, not to let iniquity dwell in his tent, not to bring an abomination into his house, not to sit in a session of scoffers, not to go after his heart and his eyes, to guard himself against any evil thing, to follow the teachers of the generation, and more).
Everything must be done to raise public consciousness on this subject. Rabbi Cohen emphasizes that the struggle must be led by great scholars with pure hearts and clean hands and must be waged with great ahavat Yisrael and against the screen culture, not against persons.
Stage Three is “technology.” Once the dangers of communications media have been recognized, we will need computer experts to develop devices that will avoid these dangers and leave only the useful aspects of computer technology, those that can help us to manifest the will of HaShem in the world, once our own will is purified.
In his conclusion to this chapter, Rabbi Cohen calls for “an idealistic movement for the preservation of the tselem elokim and the nature of Israel,” the members of which will guard their children from the dangers of the media, and these children will grow up to be examples for the rest.
The last chapter, entitled “The Counsel of G-d is Supreme,” invites us to contemplate the ultimate meaning and end of the struggle. It begins with a quotation from HaRav Kook:
“Hindrances were not created in the world, whether spiritual or physical, in order to hold things back, but to strengthen more and more, through the hindrance, the flow of light, the greatness of life in its highest purity.”
Hindrances are meant to call forth from the good the strength needed for the struggle.
What should give us strength for the struggle against the media is the awareness that in this struggle we are moving toward the perfection and redemption of Israel and the world.
Rabbi Cohen issues a warning:
“I have no intention of ‘raising the sparks from uncleanness.’ I don’t understand such mysteries…The problems are inherent in the very nature of these tools, they are evil and harmful, and there is no spark of good in them. Evil must be wiped out, that is what it was created for.” The culture of the media cannot be “converted,” “kashered,” or “filtered.” “The need for the good that must be born out of this crisis should only intensify the struggle against the evil.”
Rabbi Cohen believes that the good will be manifest in the world in the following ways:
1. “The good is known from its opposite” (the Maharal). Thus in opposition to the externalized media culture, we shall rebuild “a steadfast and constant inner world,” an “absolute dedication to truth in modesty and quiet.” In opposition to the “fire of the masses” we shall build “the essential self of each person, in fidelity to his inner nature.” In opposition to the flood of irrelevant information, the growth of true wisdom. In opposition to the culture of “instant,” a slow and deep development. In opposition to “globalization,” development of the unique nature of Israel as the heart of humanity. In opposition to visual culture, deepening of abstract thought. In opposition to horrible promiscuity, cultivation of modesty and fear of Heaven. In opposition to solitude – the building of a ideal society built on fear of Heaven and seeing the good in everyone.
2. Once the Temple is rebuilt and the nations are learning Torah from Israel, the will will be refined and we may find wonderful uses for things which we now have to put aside.
3. The current crisis is proof positive that without the light of HaShem and His Torah there is no possibility of normal life. The belief in materialist “progress” is shattered. Humanity is bound to see this and turn to our light as we realize our destiny.
Following this, there is a section of “appendices” containing articles by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner and others.
In these three posts I have tried to extract the broad lines of argument from a book that is rich in examples and detailed insights. Everyone who can read it should, and it should be translated into English.
Just two thoughts in response.
First, I promised to mention again that antiquated relic – POETRY. Rabbi Cohen does say we should cultivate the fine arts including poetry. Poetry is one of the chief sufferers from the media revolution. Furthermore, if we consider the central human qualities which the media are attacking – memory, concentration, empathy, and consequent thought – at least the first three are cultivated by poetry, and I would say the fourth also. HaRav Kook thought that poetry would play a part in Israel’s renewal, and I would hope that a role could be found for it in this struggle.
Second, this book, like other books I’ve read over the past decades that say true things about where technological culture is leading us, leaves me with the question: Where do I join up? Where do I find the other people who are reading this book, so we can brainstorm, network, support one another? This brings me back to what I said in my first post about print culture.
The easiest place for us to meet would be on the Internet.
I started to talk about that in that essay Sasson Magazine published a few months back, “So Why Are We on the Internet, Anyway?”
But I guess Rabbi Cohen’s book makes it clear that if we still think we can build something positive on the Internet, the burden of proof is on us.