The iPhone and the Jewish Question

In our engagement with the modern world, each of us must decide how fine is to be the filter we place for ourselves and for our children.

In a recent article in Haaretz, reference is made to a push by ultra-Orthodox rabbis to ban, even burn, the iPhone. Efforts are being made within the Haredi community to clamp down on access to the internet and technology, specifically modern gadgetry, as corrupting influences on youth.

This Chol Hamoed Sukkot, my wife and I were off on vacation to visit friends in northern Israel , who had recently moved there from Jerusalem. These friends identify as ultra-Orthodox. They are also ba'alei teshuva, those who return to or decide to live an orthodox lifestyle. After enjoying a delicious lunch in their Sukkah with their delightful children, then touring the town, it was time for Mincha, the afternoon prayer service.

On the way to a local yeshiva, prominently posted in public was a notice that anyone owning an iPhone could not be counted for a minyan, a prayer quorum. My friend, while strongly disagreeing with this position, added that at weddings in the community, before a person can be qualified as a witness, he needs to produce his cellphone for inspection. A “non-kosher” phone, one with internet access, disqualifies the owner from testimony. Now, I have an iPhone.

The issue of inclusion and exclusion from the community speaks to the heart of how we view ourselves and relate to our fellow Jews. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein z"l, one of the great authorities of our times on Halacha (Jewish law), ruled that non-observant Jews are to be counted for a minyan and are called up to the Torah. Not everyone agrees. There are additional mitigating factors for Jews, who for lack of knowledge, are not deemed responsible for inadvertant halachic transgessions.

My initial reaction was outrage. I asked my friend what was the response from the rabbis? What leadership was being shown? Here was another community in denial and isolation, following the example of the rabbi in Bnei Brak, who recently destroyed an iPhone in public.

But then, weren’t the people who posted the notice feeling personally threatened? And what about me? Wasn’t I distancing myself from a community with which I share my core values? We love our Creator, His Torah, and Israel. We can pray, study, and with sensitivity, eat together. Each of us is bound by one of the Torah commandments associated with lashon ha’ra, careful speech: “With righteousness you should judge your people.” Each of us is challenged to break the cycle of baseless hatred, of rejection of the other, of focusing on differences. Instead, we are enjoined to embrace the collective community. Our commandments are not mitigated by provocation.

The first human being, Adam, was given a purpose for his life by G-d, to care for the Garden of Eden - "l’avda u’l’shomra," to work it and to guard it. Working and guarding seem to be at cross purposes: the former, changing, improving, and repairing; the latter, preserving and maintaining. Adam failed, was expelled from the Garden, yet to achieve tikkun olam, repair of the world, the dual tasks remain today. Are we workers or guardians? How do we manage the balance defines us.

And the elephant in the room is the value we place on engagement with the modern world in shaping our lives. Each of us must decide how fine is to be the filter we will place for ourselves and for our children. Not to decide is also a decision.

The internet has revolutionized commerce, communication, and access to knowledge. It also has brought into our homes violence, pornography, and a seductive capacity to endlessly entertain ourselves, wasting our most precious asset -  time. As an iPhone owner, I can vouch for its brilliance, how it assists me in my work and makes me more productive. I even pray the Maariv, evening service, during the week at my outdoor minyan, with the backlit screen. But as I enjoy using it so much, it is a struggle not to be addicted to it.

Back on vacation, the following morning at the yeshiva for Shacharit, the morning service, I was called up to the Torah for an aliya. And I wasn’t asked to produce my cellphone. Public pronouncements are allowed in a democratic society and are protected under freedom of speech. How we act towards each other, workers and guardians alike, tolerating and embracing our differences, defines us as a community.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is Managing Director of HaOhel Institutions in Jerusalem and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.

Bloomberg