A Chanukah story for our times
Baltimore Jewish Times
December 17, 2004
Last week most of the senior Torah authorities and yeshiva heads in Israel held an emergency gathering to discuss the pernicious effects of the new generation cell phones with internet connectivity. By consensus, it was decided to ban unmarried students from possessing such phones, and married students from bringing them to the yeshiva. Meanwhile, negotiations continue with the cell phone companies to provide phones that can be used only for conversation, and without access to erotic call services.
Predictably, the ban was widely ridiculed as a desperate attempt to shutter yeshiva students from the outside world. The fervently Orthodox community would no doubt agree to the charge, if not the ridicule.
In the Torah view, every visual image leaves its impact, and that impact is, to some extent, permanent. The damage done to the soul by viewing pornography cannot be subsequently removed any more than a dieter can compensate for a large piece of chocolate mousse by eating a fruit salad afterwards. That is why religious Jews take so seriously the warning “do not follow after your eyes,” contained in the Shema, the central affirmation of Jewish faith.
Of course, one need not be an Orthodox Jew, or religious at all, to view many of the visual images thrust in our faces, wittingly and unwittingly, as moral pollution. It is difficult to buy a morning newspaper in Manhattan without confronting thirty men and women in various states of dishabille.
First Amendment scholar David Lowenthal writes, “Never before in the history of mankind have the moral restraints and aspirations necessary to the fullest of our nature, and to our civilization itself, been under so ubiquitous and persistent assault.”
In a study of school violence in Israel – where 50% of teachers report being physically or verbally assaulted in the previous year – teachers, parents, and students all named the visual messages to which children are exposed as the primary cause.
Where Orthodox Jews differ is in their determination to confront this pollution. They are not Luddites instinctively recoiling from new technology. The Orthodox were quick, for instance, to recognize the potential of the Internet as a tool to spread Torah knowledge to previously inaccessible regions and Jews.
But, at the same time, they do not view every technological advance as necessarily representing progress for mankind – cell phones capable of transmuting into a visual massage parlor being just one example.
The ridicule of the efforts of fervently Orthodox Jews to protect their children is, in many cases, misdirected jealousy. Most parents know, for instance, that their teenagers are not using all their time at the computer exploring the furthest expanses of human knowledge. (In Israel, for instance, the highest rate of visits to pornographic sites is in the early afternoon when teens have returned from school and their parents are still at work.)
But parents try to convince themselves that the benefits outweigh the dangers, as a salve for their helplessness to control their teenagers’ Internet activities. Too many parents have given up trying to be mentors or guides to their children. At best, they hope to be friends. And friends do not tell one another what to do.
After some recent cases of underage girls lured over the Internet to assignations with older men, one Israeli paper ran an article about parents’ efforts to monitor their children’s Internet use. But in the end, the parents acknowledged that they were unlikely to confront their children. The threat of an angry teenager on their hands was simply too much to contemplate.
Even in the ghetto, Jews were not immune to the influences of the surrounding society, and religious Jews are not insulated today. Nevertheless a community centered on the transmission of a 3,000-year-old tradition provides parents and mentors with greater confidence in their ability to guide the young and a healthy skepticism about the value of passing fads, intellectual and otherwise.
In such a community, there remains a certain reverence for age, and the ways of the older generation set the standard. The young are eager to take their place among the adults. Shared texts and activities bind one generation to another. That connection makes it possible for parents and educators to still fill their traditional roles.
The ban on cell phones in yeshivos coincided, appropriately, with the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, which commemorates the Jewish people’s rededication to Torah after a hard won victory over the Seleucid Greeks from without and the Hellenizers within.
The Sages of the Talmud knew well the attractions of Greek culture. The Talmud records a number of disputes between the Sages and the wise men of Athens, and upon occasion the Sages deferred to the Athenians’ opinion.
But the Sages also understood Greek science’s relentless exploration of the material world could itself become an alien religion and distract from gaining knowledge of the spiritual universe through the study of Torah. And they knew that other aspects of Greek culture were little more than a sophisticated cover for a licentiousness inimical to Torah. Today’s cell phones, as the bans noted, are another tool to distract Torah students from their studies.
The ban on cell phones will not be fully enforced, but neither will it be, as the skeptics think, honored more in the breach than the observance.