Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Rabbi Wachsman is Both Right - and Wrong

Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman (screenshot)
Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman once again spoke at the Agudah convention. (See video below) Unsurprisingly he used his trademark Fire-and-Brimstone approach to make his point. A point made at these conventions perennially ever since the advances of modern day technology - starting with the internet. 

His primary focus was on smartphones and the culture in which we find ourselves today. One of the things he wanted to make sure to impress upon his audience is how evil both the culture and smartphones are. That a smartphone is perhaps the worst thing a religious Jew can own. 

While he didn’t say it should be banned this time (as he did during the Asifa a few years ago) he made it clear that the danger it presents to our youth makes it imperative that we stay as far away from it as possible. He lamented the fact that so many Charedim ‘have one in their pockets – calling it 10 times worse than owning a TV. Which the vast majority of them do not even own.

 He also applauded the Agudah Moetzes recently stated determination to do something about it.

The irony of what he said is that a lot of the problems he mentioned about this new technology are true. Not the least of which is the  negative impact of social media on our youth.  

It’s ironic because as much as I disagree with him on some issues, I agree with much of what he said here. I just don’t agree with his all or nothing solution to it. 

Misusing a smartphone is a huge problem. Even for adults. To illustrate - Rabbi Wachsman mentioned what he witnessed during a Shiva call, A smartphone with something humorous on it was being passed around right in front of the Avel  - to people supposedly being Menachem Avel him. Truly a disgusting thing to be doing at a Shiva house.  I actually share his negative attitude at something like this.

Rabbi Wachsman is a powerful speaker who has quite an impact on his listeners. His not so sublle message was that owning a smartphone is evil and that people should stay as far away from it as possible. 

He acknowledged that even ‘the Goyim’ know about the evils of this technology. He is of course right about that. But what he is not right about (and I keep saying it every time this subject comes up) is rejecting the technology in its entirety. 

No one with a brain would disagree about the harm caused by social media apps on smartphones But no one with a brain should deny the substantial benefits offered by smartphones either. This is where Rabbi Wachsman fails. I’m sure the majority of people listening to him in that audience have  smartphones. I am equally sure it is a valuable aid to their daily lives. And I doubt that this majority uses it for illicit purposes. That some of them do use it improperly  and are maybe in the closet about it (or aren’t) does not mean we should all completely stay away from it.  

All he accomplished  in my view is giving those in the audience that own a smartphone guilt – even if they use it properly. 

Rabbi Wachsman’s approach is precisely what’s wrong with the right. To them it is all about a war between good and evil. Everything is either black or white. There is no color. Kind of like the clothing they wear.  

Rabbi Wachsman did not mince words. He doubled down on his the Fire-and-Brimstone approach for purposes of making everyone feel guilty enough to abandon their ‘wayward’ way of smartphone use.

As I said his issues with the technology are real. There is no denying it. Nor are we alone in recognizing these dangers. It seem like every other day there is a news report about how damaging social media is. Especially is to young people – both socially and intellectually. Even if a porn site is never accessed! The phenomenon of ‘half Shabbos’ where young people continue using their social media apps after Shabbos begins is still with us. 

These problems that have yet to be solved. Not in our world and not in the world of the general culture. And things only seem to be getting worse.  There are few greater facilitators to going OTD than technology. On this Rabbi Wachsman and I agree.  We part company rather strongly on what to do about it.

Truth is... I can’t really answer that question. It is way above my paygrade. The approach of Rabbi Wachman might work for some people. But ultimately it is not a solution. He can talk until he is blue on the face. No one is going to throw away their smartphones after listening to him. This  technology will  continue to be misused by many people to the detriment of society in general and to Orthodox Jewry in particular. The more it is vilified, the more this ‘forbidden fruit’ will be sought. 

Although I said  I don’t have a solution, a logical first step would self control.  We must all exercise self control.  We must learn to use this technology judiciously and stop using it as a means to cure boredom. There is no reason to answer every text immediately or at all in some cases. There is no reason we must share every picture of our children with our friends. Using a phone during a meal with our family or friends ought to be off limits. Using it in a Shul or a Shiva house needs to stop. There is no reason to forward every joke; or cartoon; or video someone sends us. We need to find other ways to entertain ourselves.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to stop giving our children smartphones in the first place. And in the meantime role model the judicious usage of it to them. Which they will hopefully emulate when they eventually do get one.   And surely they must not be brought to school for any part of the school day throughout high school. Filters are not a bad idea even for adults who feel they can’t control themselves.

The problem with these eminently reasonable suggestions is that most people don’t want to be limited – even self limited. They want the freedom to use it whenever they feel like it. That is the real problem. If someone can figure about a way to curb smartphone usage - limiting it only to positive purposes, that may begin to solve the problem. Until then...