Tzvi Fishman interviews HaRav Shlomo Aviner, Head of Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim and author of some 150 books on a wide range of Jewish Themes.
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 Shechinah 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 reveals 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. I 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 prayer 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, if 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.