There are occasions when I feely particularly proud to be chareidi. The rare gathering last week of most of the senior Torah authorities and leading roshei yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael that declared a ban on yeshiva students possessing cell phones was one such moment. The reaction of thousands of yeshiva students to that call – in the Mirrer Yeshiva cell phones were turned in en masse in response to the tearful pleas of the Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Nosson Tzvi Finkel – only heightened the impact of that ban.
Why did a Keness devoted to the dangers of cell phones so inspire me? First, because it showed that as a community we have not fallen helpless thrall to the wonders of modern technology. We are still capable of standing back and asking whether the convenience of new technologies justifies their potential dangers.
The cell phone poses this question in an exceptionally stark fashion. The convenience cell phones offer is beyond doubt. Over the last five years, use of cell phones has become nearly as ubiquitous in the chareidi world as in secular society.
On the other hand, the new generation of cell phones, with Internet connectivity, has proven one of the most dangerous threats ever to the sanctity of the chareidi community. Even in the medieval ghettos, Jews could not completely shut themselves off from the influences of the surrounding society, and the all-encompassing aspects of modern society have made that task more difficult than ever.
Of all the invasive instruments of modern technology, however, none has proven quite so threatening as cell phones. Their small size and mobility multiplies the dangers of Internet exponentially by removing "the fear of your fellow man" from users. The privacy they provide allows those lured by the yetzer to follow wherever it leads undeterred by the fear of being found out.
Faced with this small device – capable of transmuting at the press of a button into a virtual cornucopia of candy for the yetzer – the chareidi community said no. We were still able to remind ourselves that a device virtually unknown a decade ago is not an essential accoutrement of modern living.
(At the same time, the chareidi community did not adopt a Luddite attitude towards the new technology. Even as the ban was being declared, chareidi askanim were busy negotiating with the cell phone companies to provide services that would allow the cell phones to be used only for regular calls. And the yeshivos were acting to minimize the inconvenience caused by the ban on cell phones. Additional public phone lines were added, and beepers provided for husbands whose wives might have a pressing need to contact them while in the yeshiva.)
As is often the case with bans of this sort, the cries of our gedolim served not only to alert us to a specific threat to the sanctity of our yeshivos but also to how desensitized we have all become to the more subtle spiritual costs exacted by cell phones. We have lost all sense of privacy, of being able to concentrate without being intruded upon by the outside world. The ring of the phone in the midst of davening, under a chuppah, even at a levaya no longer occasions surprise.
Too many of us simply cannot turn off the phones fearful that we might miss something. Last week, I was amazed when a speaker not only answered his cell phone twice in the middle of a presentation, but actually began to talk both times. I was the only one who seemed shocked by this behavior.
Why is it that any time two people are talking and one’s phone goes off that he immediately interrupts the conversation in which he is engaged in favor of the phone? Has face-to-face conversation so devalued in our eyes?
Most of us enjoy the ability to use car rides to conduct business in what might formerly have been considered "dead" time (albeit that we frequently endanger our lives and those of others by attempting to dial while driving). But many of us no sooner enter our cars than we start desperately casting about for people to call, whether or not we have anything particularly pressing to say. And it has gotten to the point where people on the street or public transportation seem almost embarrassed not to be talking on their cell phones, as if they are thereby marked as nobodies. What ever happened to the ability to savor quiet moments for reflection or chazara?
THERE IS YET ANOTHER REASON why the gathering of gedolim to decry the dangers of cell phones occasioned feelings of pride: It revealed that chareidi parents and educators still have the confidence to guide our young and some reasonable expectation that our guidance will be accepted.
There are plenty of thoughtful people who have not failed to note that the visual images thrust before us everyday constitute nothing less than moral pollution. Teenagers’ hormones hardly require the constant booster shots provided by modern advertising. Asked to explain the high rates of violence in Israeli schools, teachers, parents, and students all offered the same primary explanation: the constant series of violent images to which youth are exposed almost from the cradle.
With specific reference to the cell phone, Dr. Yitzchak Kadman, director of the National Council of the Child in Israel, commented last week that it would be a terrible mistake for Israeli parents to view the problem as simply a chareidi problem and urged parents to more closely monitor their children’s cell phone use. He also petitioned Communications Minister Ehud Olmert to block some of the most dangerous Internet sites from access via cell phones.
But the truth is that few secular parents will heed Dr. Kadman’s advice. Not because they think that their children are exploring the furthest reaches of human knowledge, while sipping hot milk and munching on homemade cookies, as they sit home alone on the Internet, but because they dread more than anything the possibility of confrontation with a sullen, angry teenager. After a few well-publicized instances of young children being lured via the Internet, some Israeli parents began to pay a little more attention to how their children were spending their time at the computer. But even those parents told a Ha’aretz reporter that in the end they would probably do nothing, including talk to their children, no matter what their investigations revealed.
Living in a community centered around the transmission of a 3,500-year-old mesorah makes it far easier for chareidi parents and educators to fulfill their roles. Unlike secular society, in which youth and its lifestyles are worshipped, and parents are eager to keep up with their kids and prove themselves "with it," in chareidi society, it is the standards of the older generation that prevail. The young are eager to take their place in adult society – boys learning with their fathers, girls emulating their mothers – rather than parents seeking to take their place in youth culture.
The mesorah links the generations to one another in common activities – e.g., singing traditional zemiros around the Shabbos table – and learning texts shared by all generations of Jews. In such a community, the young still respect their elders, and those elders retain the ability to guide and educate.
True, the transmission from generation to generation is not what it once was. Generation gaps and even generational rebellion are not unknown phenomena, even in chareidi society. But last week’s ban demonstrates that our community will not confine itself to hand wringing and lamenting our helplessness in the face of dangers from without. And the overwhelming response of yeshiva bochurim to the pleas of their roshei yeshiva shows that we are right not to throw in the towel.