by Jonathan Rosenblum
December 17, 2004
The latest haredi ban - this time on the possession of cellphones by yeshiva students - provoked the usual curiosity in the secular media. One could detect a certain note of satisfaction that haredi society is clearly not impermeable to the surrounding culture.
True enough. From the days of Mattityahu and his five sons, alien cultures have invaded Torah society. Even in the medieval ghettos, Jews were not completely cut off from the surrounding society, and the pervasive technologies of modern society make Torah Jews more vulnerable than ever to outside influences.
No technology is so invasive as the cellphone. Its small size and mobility provide the user with complete privacy and the ability to access any material he wants without fear of being found out by either teachers or friends.
The image of haredi educators furiously trying to plug the dike against the floodwaters of modern society occasioned a certain amusement. Some of that tittering, however, masks envy of the haredim for at least being willing to confront the danger.
After all, one hardly need be haredi or even Orthodox to apprehend the noxious influences on our children stemming from their visual landscape. Many thoughtful parents and educators acknowledge the moral pollution all around. It is impossible to buy a newspaper in downtown Manhattan, for instance, without having thrust in one's face 30 covers featuring people in various stages of deshabille.
Teenagers' hormones hardly need the constant booster shots provided by modern advertising, which seeks to keep them in a constant state of titillation divorced from any deeper emotion.
David Brooks wrote in The New York Times last week of a new "natalist movement" fueled by parents whose number-one priority is to provide a decent environment for their children, one in which they will not have to "shepherd their kids through supermarket checkouts lined with screaming Cosmo or Maxim covers."
Asked to explain the high rates of violence in Israeli schools, parents, teachers and students all cite the same primary cause: the visual images of violence to which children are constantly exposed. Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, director of the National Council of the Child, said last week that the cellphone should not be an exclusively haredi concern. He has petitioned Communications Minister Ehud Olmert to block cellphone access to pornographic sites.
"Try to imagine what will happen at recess in school when one of the children visits a pornographic site and many other children stand around and watch," he writes. ["S]uch exposure will lead to actions, and it will only aggravate the existing problem of sexual assault by minors on other minors."
YET TOO many secular parents have simply thrown in the towel. They suspect their children are not all exploring the farthest reaches of human knowledge on the Internet while sipping hot milk and munching cookies. The peak hours for Israeli pornography sites are the hours when teenagers arrive home from school and their parents are still at work. But the parents try to convince themselves that the benefits of the Internet outweigh the costs.
A recent case of an underage girl lured to an assignation with an older man via the Internet caused some parents to monitor their children's Internet activities more closely. But even those parents acknowledged that in the end, they would do nothing. The thought of confronting an ornery, irate teenager was too much for them.
Haredi parents and educators cannot fool themselves with cost/benefit analyses, even if they were so inclined. Nothing can compensate for the indelible taint to the soul from visiting pornography sites.
Being members of a society centered on the transmission of a 3,500-year-old tradition gives them the ability to step back and ask whether every technological advance really represents a step forward for mankind, and whether something that did not exist 10 years ago can really be a necessity today. And when it comes to a device capable of transmuting at the push of a button into a visual massage parlor, the answer is a resounding No.
Reverence for elders is much greater in traditional society. As a consequence, haredi educators and parents have a greater confidence in their ability and duty to guide their young, and the young are more accepting of that guidance.
Haredim are not unaware of the convenience of cellphones; they are almost as ubiquitous in haredi society as among the general population. Even as the ban was announced, haredi activists were busy negotiating with cellphone companies for services without Internet connectivity, access to erotic calls, and the ability to send random text messages fishing for a response.
And yeshivot have added many more public phones to make it easier for students to call home. And at least one set up a free loan society for beepers so that expectant wives, or others with an urgent need to reach their husbands, could do so.
Will the ban on cellphones in yeshivot be fully enforced? Of course not. But neither will it be the laughingstock many in the secular world hope.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, Israeli Society
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