Wait a Second, Hold the Phone

A small news item was hidden among the major stories of last week: ultra-Orthodox Torah sages gathered together to issue a warning and declare a ban on third-generation (3G) cellular telephones.

A small news item was hidden among the major stories of last week: ultra-Orthodox Torah sages gathered together to issue a warning and declare a ban on third-generation (3G) cellular telephones. And this is because the 3G phones deliver directly into every pocket the content that worries the rabbis, mainly Internet content. In accordance with this rabbinic directive, the ultra-Orthodox newspapers are giving up the advertising revenues they would have received from the cellular companies.

A reader who is not an ultra-Orthodox Jew might respond to this news item with a scornful shrug of the shoulders: another Sisyphean attempt by the ultra-Orthodox to resist the inevitable march of "progress." But in the times in which we live, there is actually an important double message in the ultra-Orthodox position on this issue. First, there are some very unprogressive aspects of this "progress," and second, and more importantly, it is possible and necessary to resist these aspects.

It is time to admit that the mass culture of the West entered its bestial era at the beginning of the 21st century. This is evident, first of all, in the field of communications and the culture of leisure. The truly noble value of freedom of expression, which was originally aimed at enriching man and his society, is being used by cynical people with vested interests to legitimize the basest urges. Pornographic sites are the big hit of the Internet, and the buttocks of Ofer Schecter is the "coolest" thing in teenage entertainment shows. In the name of the justified fear of totalitarian ideology, post-modernism also grants a philosophical license for this vapidity.

But the "bestial era" does not only exist in the leisure culture; it also exists in the global economy, where it is less noticeable but no less prevalent. This is the real significance of the clear preference for economic efficiency over the dignity of man, a preference in whose name workers are required to labor seven days a week, often in harmful working conditions, all for the sake of someone's bank account.

In economics, as in leisure culture, those who do not accept these phenomena usually legitimize the depravity with a deterministic argument that nothing can be done to change this. That is, even if it is not nice, this is the way the world operates today - it is the "market forces" that dictate demand. But the ultra-Orthodox now come and declare that with proper organization, "there is something to be done" and "market forces" are us - 6 billion intelligent beings on this planet who can and should decide rationally and ethically what is good for us and what is not.

There is something we can do against the turbid cultural and media messages. First of all, there can be counter activity by consumers - a consumer ban. But regulation is also a suitable tool, especially in flagrant cases.

There is also something to be done in the economic sphere: Recent organizational efforts have demonstrated that it is possible to change harmful working conditions, and this activity should be expanded. Some argue that if businessmen were denied all of the benefits they demand, even if this is at the expense of workers, they would flee abroad.

One could counter this argument by cautiously examining the possibility of socially ostracizing businessmen who are prepared to turn their backs on their country and the society in which they grew up, just out of greed for wealth. The attempt to dictate rules that prefer efficiency to human dignity at the global level demands, of course, a more complex response. But this is also not impossible if a global coalition of human rights groups and injured countries is formed.

One need not accept the exact boundaries laid down by the ultra-Orthodox to adopt the principle that "man's superiority to the beast" means, among other things, the ability to live not only according to instincts and urges. Rejection of determinism is vital not only for the current battles but also for the battles to come, in particular confronting the ability to exploit science and technology for the destruction of man.

If we accept determinism, we will need to come to terms with the leakage of nuclear capabilities to terror organizations, with the ability of the rich to acquire essential human organs in order to save their health (and, in the future, perhaps to hire murderers to facilitate this process) and much more. To a great extent, this is the contemporary message of Hanukkah: A determined fight can defeat the negative aspects of "the dominant culture."