|Guard Your Tongue author, Rabbi Y. M. Kagan|
Rav Velvel asked him rhetorically why he needed a phone. And then told him that it wasn’t worth it. That he could live without a phone. So he did. Remember that this was the fifties. Phones were by then no longer a luxury in the civilized world despite the difficulty in Israel of getting one installed in your home back then.
I mention this story in light of a continuing problem that phones present even in our day where everyone has one. The problem of Lashon Hara.
We all know the advantages of a phone. But must we bring it into our homes? If there is a singular item that is most responsible for Lashon Hara (evil speech; gossip) the telephone is it. If the Chofetz Chaim (R’ Yisroel Meir Kagan) taught us anything, it is just how evil and destructive Lashon Hara is. And yet so many of us don’t even give the telephone a second thought. The truth is that even today a meticulously observant Jew can live without a phone. If we need one in an emergency, we can go to a neighbor since – as I said, everyone has one.
It therefore surprises me that the Agudah hasn’t assured phones in order to protect us from the Michsol (trap) of Lashon Hara. Imagine how many lives would be improved if we didn’t spend time gossiping on phones. Do we really need to bring such an item into our homes?
If all of this sounds ridiculous, it is meant to be. But this is almost precisely the attitude of the Agudah with respect to smartphones.
The Agudah was actually on a path to change its attitude about smartphines – realizing that much good can be achieved by apps designed for observant Jews. They had created an app for Torah study called the Siyum App. But in an announcement by Agudah Executive Vice President, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel, they have withdrawn it.
The Agudah Moetzes that had initially approved it has been duly chastened by ‘a number of respected Roshei Yeshiva, Mechanchim and Rabbanim’ to cease and desist from approving that app. They said that it undermined the Torah values that they and Agudah have been promoting since the advent of this technology.
And that even though they understood that there is a need by some for that technology for Parnassa (livelihood) purposes, Agudah’s new app was tantamount to a change in attitude whereby they now approved of that technology for everyone. They do not see the value of this technology overriding its downside. They see it only as a B’Dieved - necessary evil for those that absolutely must have it. So as noted, the Agudah Moetzes has withdrawn the app.
Are they wrong about the downside? No. They are right about it. Smartphones have done a lot of damage – not only to the observant world, but the entire world. It started with computers and the internet. Smartphones have taken this malaise to a new level. I doubt there is a single person that isn’t aware of the problems associated with this technology.
We all suffer from it. It would probably take a book to list all of the problems created by this device. But to just pick one of the most talked about, we need only read a recent article by Efrat Malachi in Jew in the City about sex addiction.It is both shocking and yet at the same time, not all that surprising. And that barely scratches the surface of the myriad of societal problems this devise is a medium for.
So why am I so bothered by the approach of Agudah to this technology? Are they not right to discourage people from using it?
I don’t think so. Because like anything else of value in this world, the problems that exist about it are really about us. Not in the item itself. Anything can be misused. Even the words of Torah can be misused in the wrong hands. Does that mean we have to avoid it? Is there any sane person that would refuse to have a telephone in their home because of the serious nature of its Lashon Hara Michshol?
I would be willing to bet that every single one of the above mentioned respected Roshei Yeshiva, Mechanchim and Rabbanim has a telephone in their homes despite the obvious problem of it being an object that increases Lashon Hara in the world. Like the rest of us, they would consider this concern – legitimate though it is – to be a ridiculous reason not to have a phone in their homes.
They will also argue that a phone is nowhere near the Michshol a smartphone is. But since when does the advantage an item gives us mean anything in the face of a Michshol that could be avoided without it?
This is an education problem... a self control problem. Not a technology problem. We are our own worst enemies when we can’t control our impulses; or what we see; or under what conditions we use it (as in texting while driving); or how much time we waste on it.
The fact that these devices can so easily be misused does not mean that they can’t be of tremendous value – and even enhance our lives not only materially but spiritually as well. The advantages of these devices are as exponential in number as are the disadvantages.
I’m sure Agudah’s Siyum app would have enhanced the spirituality of all those that used it. We are now a lot poorer off for its removal. Instead of fixing the problem they have made it worse by removing a positive app.
That said, there are still a ton of Torah apps available for download. Almost every non Chasidic Orthodox organization has one. Many of them are right wing such as Shas Illuminated.
It’s just sad that the Agudah Moetzes has listened to voices that still feel the need to blame technology for our own failings and removed one small app that would have been a step in rectifying the problem – small though it may have been. A small step in the right direction is still a step in the right direction. And now its gone.