Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Charedi Control of Smartphone Use Isn’t Working

Charedi use of smartphones is becoming a lot more common (JP)
I often hear people from the Charedi world extolling the virtues of isolation from the so-called ‘outside world’. They believe that the values of the Torah can best be maintained by controlling what a Jew can access from the outside world.  On a superficial level that makes sense. If all one experiences is contained within the bubble in which they live, there is little chance of deviating from that ‘norm’. But as I always say, the walls this community has built are easily breached.  Especially now-a-days since the advent of the internet - exacerbated by smartphones.

Smartphones is one of the most talked about ‘maladies’ among Charedi leaders. They are considered more dangerous to one’s Judaism than anything else. Just a couple of weeks ago, Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman gave a fiery speech about how terrible it is to own a smartphone. He minced no words in expressing his contempt for them and disapproval of those who dared to own one. 

However, compared to what is going on in Israel’s Charedi community, Rabbi Wachsman’s words are mild.  That’s because in Israel there is far more control over what Charedim can own and do than there is in America. 

One of the ways they do this is by controlling who they will accept as students into their schools. Anyone caught owing a smartphone will result in denying their children enrollment. Until recently that was pretty easy to enforce. The Israeli government allowed phone companies to assign specific numbers to ‘Kosherphones’. These phones cannot access the internet. That way it was relatively easy to see if someone had a smartphone by simply checking what their phone number was. A committee was formed for that purpose. If a phone was found that did not have one of those numbers their kids were toast!

That is about to change. The government has decided that the ability to move their current phone number to any new phone they purchase will be extended to Kosherphones. Which were heretofore prevented from that ability. That would mean that a Charedi individual will be able to own a smartphone with a Kosherphone number. Thus destroying the ability to easily know whether one of their people owns a smartphone or a Kosherphone.

As a Jerusalem Post article by Daniel Goldman notes, this does not sit well with Charedi leaders. So distraught are they that they have set up a meeting with Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel to see if they can stop the government from executing this change.

Goldman notes that a Charedi leader going to a secular minister is unprecedented. Going back to the early days of the state, the famous meeting between the Chazon Ish and Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, it was Ben Gurion who went to the Chazon Ish to set up what came to be known as the status quo agreement – leaving control of the Charedi world in Charedi hands and allowed religious and secular matters to remain as they were at the time. This shows whose values are prioritized.  Or as the Chazon Ish viewed it, it shows that Torah values are the only real values and that secular values are of no value at all. 

That agreement is is why Charedi leaders have so much control on the lives of their flock. (That – plus the indoctrination that ‘Daas Torah’ lay in the hands of their Gedolim – starting with the Chazon Ish.)

I have tremendous respect for the Chazon Ish. At the same time I believe that his view is at best an oversimplification. While the Torah is indeed  filled with eternal values, secular society is not devoid of them. But I digress.  

As Goldman also notes they would never have lost control if they hadn’t gone too far with it. But They did: 

Complaints began to reach former MK Tehila Friedman from deep within the haredi community that the committee was blocking access to the phone services providing possibly lifesaving information about the COVID virus, and what the Health Ministry was recommending in order to protect oneself. To Friedman this smacked of a serious abuse of power, and she started to dig. Once this process started it became clear to her and others, including Hendel, with the power and responsibility to intervene, that what had started as a community service had become an abuse of the power vested in it from the state to improperly enforce itself on the community.

I don’t know why Charedi leaders went that far. Maybe it was just ignorance of the negative aspects of Kosherphones. I’m not sure. But if there were complaints like that from deep inside the Charedi world, I’m sure they were made aware of them before secular authorites. If so, they should have been addressed and fixed quickly. But it seems they were ignored. And now they are paying a price.

The power they wield on their public in the belief that a higher purpose is being served is backfiring. Shielding their public from the ‘evils’ of secular values is about to disappear. And they know it. The question is had they acted differently, could this situation have been prevented?

I think so. First they must know that not all secular values are evil. That should have been part of their message.  Secondly they should stop treating smartphones as purely evil. And treat them like the useful although dangerous tools that they are. It’s kind of like fire. Which is very useful if used properly but extremely dangerous if it isn’t.  Then they should educate their people how to use it properly while warning them of the dangers.

Is this foolproof? Will that prevent the kind of misuse so common today in all circles? No. But bans ultimately do not work either. Which seems to be the case here.

How can they be sure that their people will use it properly? They can’t. But there are many people with the finest of Torah values that own and use smartphones properly - benefitting from them greatly. Without any of the negative consequences from misuse.  Just to cite one example of someone that I am sure uses it properly, I will never forget the irony of Agudah’s executive vice president, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel who – during an address at one of their conventions - pulled a smartphone from inside his jacket pocket to illustrate how evil smartphones are.

What about the real devastation caused by misuse  - which impacts young people the most? That is a real problem that needs to be tackled. Soling it is beyond my paygrade (as are most problems in life). 

It might not be  a bad idea to put a lot of ‘smart heads’ together from - not only from the Charedi world, but form the secular world too. Together they might have a better chance at finding a solution. One thing that seems clear. Forbidding smartphones and replacing them with Kosherphones will no longer be the solution. If it ever was. I’m not suggesting that Kosherphones be eliminated. They should be optional and available for people that wish to use them. What I am suggesting is that Charedi leaders open up their minds. Collaborating with good people outside of their own world can’t hurt.