The Snake and the Smartphone

[Interview with Ha-Rav – by Tzvi Fishman
Published in the Jewish Press –

The problems of the Internet and smartphones are ongoing issues in the Modern Orthodox world. Street posters in Haredi communities in Israel warn that the Internet drives the Shechina from the home. Haredi Rabbis only permit the use of “kosher” cellphones which don’t allow a user to connect with the unfettered expanses of cyberspace. But as the saying goes: where there is the will, there is a way. A casual stroll through the city revceals that Haredi youth frequent Internet cafes as much a secular Jews. In the Dati-Leumi community, which encourages active participation in all areas of Israel’s rebuilding, the use of home computers and smartphones is as prevelant as tefillin and M-16s. The Jewish Press asked Rabbi Shlomo Aviner to share his views on the controversial topic.

Overall, is the Internet something good or bad?
The Internet is a modern-day reincarnation of the primodial Snake – the Yetzer Hara. The Snake looks like a decent fellow, promising all kinds of good things, but it is the epitomy of Evil in disguise. Similarly the Internet looks dazzling, but it is filled with horrible pitfalls. Recent research studies reveal that 90% of teenagers view pornographic material. While I haven’t seen similar studies for the religious community, the plague has reached our ranks as well. Not only are many Torah prohibitions involved in Internet usage, the exposure to pornography makes men view women as objects, destroys the beauty of marriage, pollutes the soul, and fills young people with inner guilt and depression, alienating them from tefilla and Torah study, until they feel cut off completely from Hashem. In summary, for the benefit of the individual and the family, the Internet should be disconnected from the home and thrown out with the trash.

But there are many positive sides to the Internet as well as the negative.
The negative outweighs the good. True, one can find endless Torah lectures, but one doesn’t do a mitzvah at the price of a transgression. Besides immorality, the Internet abounds with lashon hara, violence, falsehood, ridiculing others on Talkbacks, not to mention wasting time. Theoretically, the Internet could be a blessing, but we are not speaking about theory, but rather about a dismal reality. The best remedy for this plague is to keep a safe distance from this modern-day Snake. People who are compelled to use the Internet for work, or for school, or, for example, to teach others Torah, they have the obligation to use the best safety filter available - one without the option of turning it off and on at will.

Does the Rav have a smartphone?

But you have recently began to answer questions on Twitter.
Someone else handles the mechanics of my Tweets. If Avraham Avinu lived today, he would take a hatchet and smash all of the smartphones, they way he did with his father’s idols. Of course many people would be angry with him, insisting that there are many worthwhile things one can experience via smartphones, such as the ability to see the wonders of the world without buying an airplane ticket, and seeing family members far away while you speak with them. Plus you have an encyclopedia of knowledge at your fingertips, and you can learn Torah wherever you are. People might even throw Avraham Avinu into a cauldon of fire to be rid of him for smashing their digital idols. However, we cannot allow the tempations of the smartphone to deceive ourselves. The Sages asked if the angel who wrested with Yaacov looked like a Torah scholar or a highway robber. They answer, like a highway robber disguised as a Torah scholar.

Many Rabbis have prohibited the use of smartphones, but their opinion doesn’t seem to have decreased Internet use and the smartphone craze.
The matters have to be explained. It isn’t enough to simply say no. The Snake is too crafty and too strong an opponent. Our Sages teach that a man without a wife lacks goodness, happiness, and blessing in his life. Today the smartphone has replaced a man’s wife. Without a smartphone he feels unhappy, empty and lost. If his smartphone stops working, his life falls apart. He panics and curses the world in anger. Every person has to face his situation honestly and activate his own intelligence in order to recognize that the wonderous device in his hand is his enemy and not a friend of mankind. 

Can you cite some other influences of Internet and smartphone usage of which people may not be aware?
People who suffer from a digital obsession stop thinking for themselves. They become lazy and dependant on Professor Google, Dr. Google, Rabbi Google and the like. Due to Internet overdose, the level of academic achievement has decreased in every modern country in the world. Because answers are an easy click away, one’s intelligence isn’t developed and man’s most exalted attribute, the “sechel,” becomes neglected, like a vestigial organ. A person enamored with the Internet becomes a less feeling individual. He believes that his smartphone connects him with the world, but its superficial connections bring about alienation in the end, due to his or her constant distraction from reality.

What can a parent or educator explain to a teenager hooked on social networks like Facebook and Instagram?
Facebook in Hebrew is “Sefer HaPartzufim.” In the Kabbalah, the concept of “partzufim” has deep meaning, but in its slang usage it has a negative connotation, as in, “He look at the teacher with a mocking partzuf.” So too with Facebook – it might have been a blessing, strengthening connections between family members and friends via social networking, but unfortunately the golem rose up against its creator. A person is not just a face, but a soul which manifests itself in good character traits and good deeds, not in superficial poses and theatricalities to win the approval of others. “Charm is false and beauty is vanity; a woman who reveres Hashem shall be praised.”

What’s the difference between a Facebook post and a letter or phone call to a friend?
Posts on Facebook are open to the public. A descendant of Avraham and Sarah is called upon to be modest and humble in his or her ways. Our Forefathers didn’t reveal their doings, achievements, and feelings to the world. Moshe Rabanu wore a veil over his face. Also, a person should overcome the pulls of curiosity and not get immersed in the lives of other people. Not to mention the prohibition of looking at immodest images of women, which can easily lure Internet surfers to pornographic videos which children begin viewing when they are barely eight years old, may Hashem show mercy.

Life itself is filled with similar challenges. Must a person stay in his room all day long, afraid to leave the house?
Life is life, but Facebook isn’t life. It is all a show. Like a boring soap opera on television, filled with shallowness and nonsense. Spending hours on Facebook is a big waste of precious time. In Israel, up to five hours a day is lost in Facebookland. Studies reveal that Facebook is the 5th biggest addiction in the world. 75 percent of young people are spaced out on it.

Certainly there are pluses, considering the endless opportunities to contact with a wide gamut of individuals and groups of all kinds.
It is indeed an effective network of communication, but in the negative sense of promoting emptiness, narcissism, and solitude instead of true meaningful connection. If a person has a thousand followers, how many of them are really friends? Furthermore, the Facebook addict becomes isolated from his family, half-listening to living-room conversations while his eyes are fixed on his smartphone screen.  In our post-modern world, the “Smartphone Family” sits together in the salon, father, mother, and children each his own pet Snake, each involved with the latest world news and personal Whatsaps  – a family together but all alone. In Israel, the country suffered the tragic “Hitnatkut” from Gush Katif. Today we have the “Hitnatkut” from the family.  The smartphone user becomes a split-personality. If this disconnection from life is coupled with an immersion in the pollution of pornography, this can lead to serious depression and spiritual decay. These matters must be explained in all of their depth and serious consequences.

What about the young children in a “Smartphone Family”? How does the “Hitnatkut” influence them?
The child feels isolated, believing that his parents are more interested in their I-Phones and computers. They give him the feeling that his demands for attention are nerve-racking and bothersome to them. The child feels unloved.

What about the husband-wife relationship?
As the Rabbi of a large yishuv for the past forty years, I hear about domestic problems. A husband and wife can sit at a table across from one another, at home or in a restaurant, and be busy with their I-Phones. It would be one thing if they sent messages to one another, but generally that isn’t the case. If one or both of them is hooked on pornography (which is not an uncommon scenary, to our deep sorrow) if they don’t seek professional counseling in a hurry, that’s the end of many marriages. Contrary to Darwin’s Theories, human beings didn’t evolve from jungle primates, but they can regress to being apes if they lower the Divine and holy institution of marriage to the pursuit of coarse sensual gratification. Beware my friends, beware!

Is excessive use of the Internet and smartphones really an addiction, like with drugs and alcohol?
Absolutely. It’s like an injection into the vein. Each post, each incoming message, each whatsap, each new forbidden image is a “high.” One high demands another high, lest the person crash. With each new stimulation, chemicals in the brain are released until the person craves the next high. Take the smartphone away from a teenager and he’ll scream bloody murder and jump up and down all over the house. That’s an addiction. Unfortunately, when the new generation I-Phones began to appear, parents and educators didn’t understand the depths of the dangers. Even today, you can still hear false pedagogic approaches, such as: “Everything Hashem created is for man to use in His service,” – this is nonsense. Or, “The Internet isn’t forbidden. It comes as a challenge to strengthen us,” – vanity of vanities!  “We needn’t prohibit it, but rather, we should search out the good and capitalize on the benefits,” – this is a declaration of despair and defeat. Remember – “Thou shall not place a stumbling block in front of a blind man!”

How can a person break an addiction to his or her smartphone, besides checking in to an Internet Rehab Center, is such a place exists?
Certainly, addiction withdrawal is a difficult challenge, but Hashem has given people great inner strength. If an Internet junkie gives up Whatsap and Facebook for five or six days running, he or she will discover an incredible joy and newfound freedom in life. I realize it isn’t easy. Young people especially are under great peer pressure to be like everyone else. If they pull out of the group – what will they miss? What will everyone say? In their minds, the prospect of giving up their smartphones is a serious, even life-threatening, trauma.

Many parents believe it is a losing battle.
There is a fundamental rule in the world – you can’t attain everything you want in a moment. Patience is required. And give and take. Parents have the power to lay down the law, and children have the power to accept and deal with decisions they may not like. In many areas of education, parents have to draw boundaries for their children. They needn’t feel helpless. First, as we mentioned, the deeper implications of Internet use have to be explained to young people, as well as to adults. Obviously, parents themselves also have to refrain from their own Internet obsessions in order to set an example - not just by words but through their actions. And children can be compensated with others things to soften the loss. The leading Rabbis who banned the use of smartphones were certainly justified in their decision. Every upright Jew, religious or secular, who hasn’t yet reached the exalted level of valor, characteristic of those heroes of holiness who never transgress, should either use an old-fashioned cellphone with no Internet option; or a server without Internet. Remember: having a cellphone that isn’t smart is the smartest thing you can do.

Short & Sweet - Text Message Q&A #381

Shehechiyanu on Game
Q: I am a kid and received as a gift a game I really love.  Do I recite Shehechiyanu?
A: Yes (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 223:3).

Helping an Eldery Woman Stand Up
Q: [Question from a man]: Is it permissible to give an elderly woman a hand if she is unable to get up from a bench?
A: It is permissible under two conditions: 1. She asks for the help.  2. There is no woman anywhere around to help her (But see Shut Mishneh Halachot 5:142).

Gum in Restroom
Q: Is it permissible to chew gum in the restroom?
A: Yes.  The blessing should obviously be recited outside of the restroom.

Q: What should I do if I am depressed?
A: Involved yourself with things that bring you happiness, such as listening to classes, music, physical activity, etc.  But if the situation becomes more severe or there is no improvement, turn to a psychologist, and may Hashem help you.

Symbol of Bnei Akiva
Q: The symbol of Bnei Akiva has the Ten Commandments with rounded tops.  Shouldn't it be changed so that the tops are squared off?
A: The Ten Commandments were indeed square.  Baba Batra 14a.  See Yerushalami Shekalim.  It seems that rounding off the Ten Commandments on top was influenced by Christian artists.  But since we are simply discussing a symbol and not the exact tablets, there is no problem to leave it as most of Am Yisrael does (R' Osher Rata told me that Ha-Rav Chaim Druckman, Rav of Bnei Akiva, was once asked about this issue, and he answered that they indeed should be square but it is difficult to change it since this symbol was been accepted and known for many years.  The Lubavichter Rebbe was strongly opposed to using the round design.  Shaarei Halachah U-Minhag, vol. 1 p. 199.  And the same is true of the Steipler Gaon.  Shut Teshuvot Ve-Hanhagot 2:535.  And when Ha-Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv was asked about the shape of the Ten Commandments on a Torah Ark being built, he answered that one should not change the accepted custom and they should be rounded on top.  Ha-Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach similarly said that most Shuls he had seen have rounded Tablets, and even though he does not know the reason, since they are square in reality, but the custom is Israel is Halachah.  He added, however, that he rescinded his position after hearing in the name of the Steipler that they are to be square.  Miktavim U-Ma'arim Volume 1 #94.  Ha-Rav Chaim Kanievsky said, however, that one should not change the accepted custom and they should be round.  Yisa Yosef 4:36.   And Ha-Rav Moshe Sternbuch wrote that while it is preferable to use the square design, it is permissible to use the round design since it is not an exact depiction but rather merely a symbol.  Shut Teshuvot Ve-Hanhagot ibid.  And when Ha-Rav Yitzchak Yosef was appointed as Sefardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, he was given a gift by the Jewish community in Turkey: a gold breastplate in the shape of the Ten Commandments hanging from a chain.  Rav Yosef wore it around his neck when he met the Pope as the Jewish response to the gold cross worn by the Pope.  The Tablets were rounded on top).

Purim Greater than Shabbat
Q: Is it true that Purim is holier than Shabbat and all the other holidays?
A: No.  But obviously it has its uniqueness. 

Stance of Rabbi Which Others Reject
Q: Isn't there a problem when a Rabbi takes a stance on an issue which almost everyone else rejects?
A: This was indeed the problem of Avraham Ha-Ivri ("The Hebrew" which can also indicate being "on the other side"), who was on one side (of believing in one G-d) while the entire world was on the other side.  But in the end, it all worked out.  Don't just follow the herd.

Who's Right – Us or Satmar
Q: How can we know that we are right in our philosophy and not Satmar?
A:  There are things we are right about, as our eyes can see: Building Eretz Yisrael, the return of Am Yisrael to Eretz Yisrael, the establishment of the State of Israel, the wars of Israel.  And there are things which Satmar is right about, as our eyes can see: Fulfilling all of the Mitzvot, even the seemingly light ones, and dedicating every free moment to learning Torah.

Accident on Account of Cell Phone
Q: Someone was on his cell phone while driving and caused an accident, and was miraculously saved.  Does he recite Ha-Gomel?
A: It is a dispute, since he is guilty for the accident.  He should therefore recite the blessing without Shem U-Malchut (see Shut Avnei Derech of Ha-Rav Elchanan Printz Volume 8 #176).

Short & Sweet - Text Message Q&A #380

Ha-Rav answers hundreds of text message questions a day.  Here's a sample:
Name of Eliezer
Q: Why isn't Eliezer's name mentioned in the entire story of him being sent by Avraham Avinu to find wife for Yitzchak Avinu?
A: Because he was not independent but rather an agent of Avraham Avinu (And Ha-Rav Yechezkel Levenstein once answered that it was not for a lack of honor.  On the contrary, he was given the most honorable of titles: "Servant of Avraham".  Peninim Mi-Shulchan Gavoha - Bereshit p. 121).

Forgotten Items in Shul
Q: What should we do with the piles of items which were forgotten in our Shul?
A: Hang a sign that they will be disposed of in two weeks (a person uses the Shul based on this understanding).

Hitler, may his name be blotted out
Q: Is it true that Hitler did not commit suicide in the year 5705 but rather fled and hid in various countries?
A: These rumors were spread by Stalin to confuse the West.  This issue was researched at length and it was clearly concluded in 5778 that he died in 5705, may his name be blotted out.

Flag on Shabbat
Q: Is a flag Muktzeh on Shabbat?
A: No.

Sitting in Bus Stop
Q: Is it permissible for me to sit on the bench in a bus stop if I do not intend to ride the bus?
A: Yes.  On condition that you are not taking the place of someone who is planning to ride the bus.

Satmar Rebbe and the World to Come
Q: Does the Satmar Rebbe have a place in the World to Come, or does he not, because he separated himself from the community?
A: He certainly does!  And you must perform Teshuvah for asking such a question! (see the introduction to our book "Alo Naale").

Q: Is it permissible to say aa-aa-men at the end of a blessing when it fits the tune?
A: No.  It distorts the word.

Cell Phone in Pocket During Davening
Q: Is it permissible to leave a cell phone in my pocket during Davening?
A: With two conditions: 1. You do not use it at all.  2. The ringer is off.

Arab Children during Military Activities
Q: I am a combat solider.  Sometimes during military activities in Arab homes, there are young children who are very scared.  I thought about giving them candy.  Is it a good idea?
A: Certainly.  Hashem is merciful to all of his creations.  Obviously, you should only do this with your officer's permission.

Books of Heresy
Q: Is it permissible to steal books of heresy from a book store and burn them at home?
A: No!  And you need to learn a lot of Mesilat Yesharim.