Defining the Battle Line – A Response to Cameron’s Put Down the Smartphones and Listen
Esther Cameron did a fantastic job enlightening Sasson readers with her synopsis of the very profound work of Rabbi Oren Cohen, Kelim BeYad Keleinu (Tools in the Hands of Our Tools ). Rabbi Cohen is not alone in his unequivocal conclusion as to the great danger these new communications technologies pose to the future of Judaism.
Even Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, who admits to being “not hareidi,” nonetheless speaks about their evil in no uncertain terms, proving that rabbinical opinion on the matter of whether Jews should be availing themselves of Internet and Smartphones runs across religious party lines.
Frankly, there doesn’t even appear to be another side to the debate, seeing as how nobody openly praises and encourages Smartphones or Internet use as a positive enhancement of Judaism. Instead, those seeking a justification for owning and using their Smartphones probably just assume that those who don’t forbid them have no more concern over them than any other potentially dangerous behavior that isn’t vocally decried. However, it is nonetheless puzzling how these people can continue to rely on a doubtful approval against such vociferous voices begging them not to remain ignorant of the dangers.
Thus it appears that the question of a Jew using a Smartphone is not a pro/con issue, but rather one of complacence/awareness. This is similar to the contemporary debate between smokers and non-smokers, i.e., whether a person should smoke or not (and not the whole ‘polluting public air’ issue).
No smoker will promote smoking for any positive benefits smoking gives; they just either can’t quit (which is a justified excuse based on the intensity of the addition) or don’t care to consider the risks. As the upshot of Descartes’ Gamble proves, the possibility of severe consequences far outweighs any benefit one might get from any of the alternative outcomes, and so only the uninformed or those choosing not to take their lives seriously would continue with such practices that have been so vehemently and so pronouncedly decried.
The consistent voice of disapproval regarding Smartphones from contemporary Jewish writers and rabbinical decisions, especially in the profound works of such writers as Tzvieli Ben-Tzur and Rabbi Cohen, leads one to believe that this particular innovation—a handheld, portable, affordable Internet-capable device with virtually no limit to its memory, processing speed, and capabilities of easing modern life—stands as “the battle of the generation.” This certainly appears to be the case from the quote Cameron brought from Koby Levy:
When I became a baal teshuvah thirty years ago, the hareidi world was completely different. The concept of “lite” didn’t exist there… When the age of cellular uncleanness arrived, the “hareidi lite” became a frequent sight… The “hareidi lite” (and his wife, of course) treats prayer, modesty, Shabbat, Torah study, and guarding of the eyes – in short, EVERYTHING – with contempt. He disguises himself as a hareidi for social convenience, but it’s just not where he’s at…The hareidi “lite” does everything – travels abroad, eats semi-kosher, and of course dives deeply into the sites of cellular uncleanness…
Levy thus views the paradise of the “hareidi world” lost with the coming of the age of “cellular uncleanness”—that the appearance of the “hareidi lite,” an ethos that he says “didn’t exist” before the age of Smartphones, proves their effect in bringing about a practice of Judaism that’s only “social convenience.”
This appears to be further ensconced by the “Life is Happy w/o Internet and Movies” campaign, the cartoons appearing in such children’s weeklies as “MaTamim l’Shulchan Shabbos” equating Smartphones with snakes and villainous-looking hilonim, and the Chaverim initiatives that seek to use social pressure and the threat of being ostracized to root out Smartphone owners from being part of “mainstream” hareidi communities. The idea is that once the problem, i.e., the Smartphones, is eradicated from the community, the “hareidi world” as Levy describes can return to as it was before and be pure once again. Rabbi Cohen made this very clear when he said (also quoted in Cameron’s article):
“The hareidi community was able to erect high walls against the enlightenment, Zionism, modernity – why have the walls come tumbling down before the new media?!”
In other words, Rabbi Cohen spells out the question on the mind of everyone dealing with this issue as, to paraphrase his words, “how come the hareidi community hasn’t found some way of dealing with this single breach to the serenity it had within the walls?”
The sad answer to this assumption, in my humble but bold opinion, is twofold.
1) The notion that this single device is the lone infiltration into the smooth progression of wholehearted, dedicated Judaism into the pre-Messianic age is unfounded and untrue. What really threats Judaism existed long before Smartphones and, if anything, Smartphones are merely a very obvious and dramatic siman (and not a siba) of the real issue.
2) What is known as the “hareidi community,” i.e., what these writers and others look to for the solution to the problems befallen on our generation, does not have the capacity to solve any of the modern issues because it was not created to do so. The “hareidi community” is a social (or perhaps a political) construct that only exists in the minds of humans who otherwise need to group Jews for one reason or another (even for holy purposes), and so its only efficiency is in issues that relate directly to the social/political alignment of Jews that necessitated the creation of the ethos known as the “hareidi community.”
So as not to leave readers with an ambiguous impression of this author’s opinion, it must be stated here that everything that is written about the dangers Smartphones pose to Jews and Judaism is true and accurate. However, no Jew should believe that they are the single cause of all of Judaism’s modern woes, and certainly shouldn’t think that simply removing them from “the camp” will solve all problems. Instead, what is necessary is a paradigm shift in the perspective all Jews must have towards the real issue of the dangers affecting Judaism nowadays, and a redefinition of the so-called “hareidi community” and its effect on the greater progression of Judaism into the Messianic times.
In short, focusing on Smartphones is tantamount to a dog’s biting the stick that beats it while ignoring its holder.
For all the utopian qualities of life that were listed in Cameron’s last article as “becoming rarer” in the era of media are all disappearing as a result of the focus in the West on instantaneous individualized pleasure fulfillment. Hashem provides humans the means to fulfill whatever their hearts desire, as the Gemara states: “in the path that man walks [Hashem] guides him,” and thus a culture with such an ideology will seek the means to do as they so desire, for good or otherwise.
So the popularity of Smartphones, or any technology for that matter, is a result of the public’s yearning for a way to alter life to the way the technology allows, not the other way around. So until we eradicate the mistaken view of what life is about, any imposed or agreed-upon limitations to Smartphone use will only serve to bring about the desire for a different tool to grant people the opportunity to fulfill their desire to be instantly and immediately gratified and distracted from the reality around them.
Regarding the supposed failure of the “hareidi community” to combat these technologies as it has done with infractions to the utopia of Judaism in the past, the reader is requested to hold tight for the release of my book on the subject. There, I argue that what is known as the “hareidi community” is not an objective expression of a sector of Judaism, such as the different tribes, but rather a social construct created as a response to the success of the Enlightenment to legitimize a Jew who defines himself socially and culturally but not religiously.
With the development of time, “hareidi” became the moniker given to the ethos of Jews who did not align with Jews who “modernized,” whether through “reforming” or doing so while remaining “Orthodox.” However, since “hareidi” as a description of a Jew only came about because of a rejection of a unique phenomenon in Jewish history of standing “movements” of like-minded Jews and their communities, the institutions of said “hareidi community” can only deal with threats along the lines of what “hareidi” was originally created to combat, i.e., the splintering of Judaism into communities based on ideological differences.
When a particular technology attacks the individual’s dedication to his unique responsibility to serve Hashem with all his being, and isn’t necessarily a means of bringing him into alignment with a different “community,” as has been at the core of other challenges to Judaism in the past, then the institutions of the “hareidi community” can offer no viable response. This doesn’t mean that there is no solution; only that the conventional methods of the “hareidi community” are ineffective and other means must be employed. As was stated, however, this is the subject of an entire book and cannot be adequately described here.
While it is disingenuous to discuss Rabbi Cohen’s points in a language other than what he published his findings, it is nonetheless important for Sasson readers to be aware of the greater discussion and to recognize the extent of the issue, for at stake is one believing that Smartphones are yet another permutation of the strict vs. lenient debate and thus subject to individual opinion. Instead, by understanding that they reveal a deeper, more fundamental issue of individual responsibility to one’s role in the world, the question of using a Smartphone or not takes on much more relevance to everyone.
Binyamin Lieb is a writer/editor whose collection of hashkafah essays, titled A New Prescription, is currently seeking sponsorships for publication. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife and family. Contact him at email@example.com.