Feb 20, 2016

Hasidic rabbis' losing battle against smartphones

A new deal, which isn’t stated explicitly, stipulates that forbidden smartphone won’t get you shunned by the community, but it will deny you certain rights.

Yair Ettinger
February 19, 2016

No one dared record or film the Admor of Vizhnitz’s remarks to his followers in the ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak this week, certainly not on a smartphone. But an official in the largest Hasidic community took the trouble to put them in writing.

“Dear Jews, I am saying this to you in pain and with a broken heart, and in the name of hundreds of hurting families who have lost the head of their family,” the rabbinic leader said.

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“Young children are roaming depressed and neglected in the most terrible way because their fathers have left them on their own. Parents are weeping over their sons who have deviated from the straight path amid the chain of generations cut down by the thrust of technology’s blade.”

As the rabbi put it, “I urge you, those of you who are with the Holy Name, come to us! Anyone who has a connection to the corrupting devices should know that he is losing all connection to us, removing himself from the camp of those who fear and are in awe of the word of G-d!!”

As is his wont, the Admor of Vizhnitz, Rabbi Yisroel Hager, speaks to his disciples about holiness and purity with no compromises. But he’s just one of the many ultra-Orthodox leaders have been taking steps against “the ills of technology.”

The Vizhnitz Hasidim use the slogan “This is a matter of life and death!” while the Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) community has launched a campaign around the country entitled the Holiness Revolution.

The Sanz Hasidim have sufficed with written explanatory material; for example, students whose parents have mobile phones are warned that they’ll be expelled.

Among the Kretshnif Hasidim, many have declared in writing they do not possess any means of connecting to the Internet, or they’ve received permission to do so. In return they’ve received a sign for their doors informing the neighbors that theirs is a “devout home” where the family heeds “the instructions of the Great Ones of Israel, and the home is free of the ills of the Internet and technology.”

Forbidding almost everything

The current round against the dizzying penetration of technology won’t settle the issue for good. It’s the top rabbis’ annual attempt to divert Earth from its orbit a tad. Of course, no one can replicate the mass obedience to the banning of televisions, but every now and then there are successes, mainly in ultra-Orthodox communities where the individual is particularly dependent on the community’s institutions.

A member of one of the major Hasidic sects who asked not to be named says that for the first time in the rabbis' longtime battle against technology, he is feeling pressure to bid farewell to his iPhone, which he uses intensively for business. So far, a blind eye was turned to his cell phone use, but recently he was told that due to new regulations, his daughter will not be allowed to attend the local seminary unless he gets rid of the device, or at least installs a stringent screening app.

"It's a difficult dilemma," he says. "I'm trying to fight the principal to at least allow me to use a less stringent screening app. They know that some Hasidim need their iPhones to make a living. I don’t want to reach a point where I secretly own a second device. First of all, I don't want to lie, and secondly, I admit, it has become a little scarier to possess a non-kosher device."

Over the past decade the rabbis have forbidden almost everything. A cellphone is permitted, but just for talking; no instant messaging or taking pictures, never mind the Internet.

These simple devices, which are under rabbinical supervision, are still in demand at mobile phone stores in ultra-Orthodox areas, but alongside them there is burgeoning market for cell phones ranging from the newest smartphones to devices titled “kosher supportive” or “kosher generation 2.0.” These differ in their level of supervision and blocking, or in the way they can be hacked and used with forbidden apps.

Meanwhile, there are services and sophisticated software programs to filter Web content for the devices; for example Net-Free, which blocks pages considered inappropriate and erases pictures of women, based on the standards of the ultra-Orthodox press.

“When a user enters a site classified for having pictures filtered, all the pictures are immediately sent to the inspection desk and examined by non-Jewish female employees,” Net-Free’s website says.

“The inspection is usually completed within minutes. When the pictures have been filtered once, the good pictures are presented to all the users.”

More common services are Delta and Nativ, which let an ultra-Orthodox Jew view approved pages.

The current round of the battle is dominated by the Hasidic courts, each setting an independent policy for its adherents. Each sect stresses a different element – one is irked by WhatsApp, another insists on a specific filtering program.

The Hasidim have always had a lot to say about issues of “holiness and purity,” but their anti-smartphone movement is striking. The phenomenon is happening because of the Hasidim's heavy dependence on their community institutions, as well as the relatively high percentage of Hasidim who work for a living and therefore need an Internet connection. In contrast, the Lithuanian leaders’ ability to control their people, certainly in the large cities, is limited. That’s where the large masses of ultra-Orthodox smartphone owners can be found.

New deal

If they had their druthers, the rabbis would return us to the age of the common telephone, but they realize that smartphones are here to stay and not every ultra-Orthodox Jew obeys the rules.

So they’re offering a new deal, even if it’s not stated explicitly: a forbidden smartphone won’t get you shunned by the community, but it will deny you certain rights.

Call it an upgraded phone in exchange for downgraded status without expulsion from the community. For many Hasidim, that’s a good deal.

About a week ago the ultra-Orthodox Behadrei Haredim site reported that the Admor of Belz refused to serve as the godfather at the circumcision ceremony hosted by one of his disciples. Why? The father had a “nonkosher” phone in his pocket.

The Gur Hasidim have declared that smartphone owners will be denied certain privileges like grants for grooms, while the Vizhnitz Hasidim have announced that smartphone owners may not read aloud from the Torah at holiday time.

The Sanz Hasidim have banned the use of WhatsApp, even though permission had previously been granted in certain cases. According to a letter sent by the community’s spiritual committee on communications, business owners who received permission to use it reported something shocking.

“After they were exposed to the use of this app they became dehumanized, both in the addiction to nearly constant use and in the content and pictures that are the daily bread of WhatsApp groups,” the letter read.

Still, the Sanz Hasidim added that “anyone who needs this app for a purpose essential to earning his living should apply to the committee’s secretariat to fill out a request form.”

It’s not only pornography and modesty issues that are distressing the rabbis. The current knifing and car-ramming attacks by Palestinians, for example, have turned ultra-Orthodox WhatsApp groups into streams of dead-body pictures on the smartphones of users in Bnei Brak, Jerusalem, Betar Ilit and Ofakim.

According to Yisrael Cohen, a writer and commentator for the website Kikar Hashabbat, many ultra-Orthodox people don’t have smartphones and email, so they only learn about world events as depicted by ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hamodiya.

Still, he says the bad-mouthing of the Internet and smartphones is having an effect. “It used to be that a journalist could take pictures with his mobile phone,” Cohen says. “Nowadays they’ll yell at him right away to drop this abomination.”


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