Don’t phone home

Like the possible coming of the Messiah, religious tolerance in Israel and particularly its capital is still awaited, but not necessarily patiently.

August 22, 2015 21:53
3 minute read.
chief rabbis

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (L) and former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar (R).. (photo credit: OFFICE OF RABBI SHLOMO AMAR)

As if we did not have enough to worry about, a new ruling by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef threatens to divide the Jewish people once again, by making it virtually impossible for an entire class of Jews to worship, let alone speak or text, with other members of the tribe.

Delivering his weekly sermon, as his late father did, on the haredi Kol Barama radio station, Yosef categorically barred smartphone users from leading prayers. Not those who use their smartphones during services, but anyone who has such a device. And Yosef’s prohibition is apparently linked to the long-standing haredi aversion to television sets.

“One must find a prayer leader who fears Heaven,” said Yosef. “If you know that the prayer leader has a TV at home and watches videos of abomination or a TV in his pocket and watches these types of abomination videos, how is it possible he will lead the prayers in front of God? “It would be like someone sending their children to a nonreligious school and teaching them abomination. It’s forbidden for someone like this to lead prayers and if he did then you need to organize a new service,” he said.

Yosef began his campaign against smartphone usage in February. “If a yeshiva student has an iPhone, you need to remove him from the yeshiva, without doubt,” the rabbi said.

The increasing haredi campaign against smartphone usage by the ultra-Orthodox follows a natural progression that began with banning television sets, then extended to computers with only partial success, and is now threatening the world’s most ubiquitous means of communication.

One might reflect that the rabbis’ ban on smartphone use by yeshiva students probably has the same chances of success as their ban on cigarettes. Nevertheless, haredi rabbinical leaders are escalating their religious crusade against the “abomination” of smartphones.

In an echo of a recent episode among one ultra-Orthodox community in the UK that tried to ban mothers from driving their children to school (or anywhere else) on penalty of expulsion, the Council of Torah Sages of Agudat Yisrael, representing Israel’s haredi community, ruled that the children of smartphone users may not be accepted to schools.

The fears that motivate the rulings of these ultra-Orthodox Luddites are not generated by religious revulsion at the “abomination” of the pornography that is readily available online, but more ominously at the open access to the Internet and its unlimited, uncensored information. Haredi leaders appreciate as much as anyone the power of information, and they control access to it to keep their members in line in blissful ignorance of the outside world.

Haredim are of course free to control the use of smartphones among their community, subject to their own religious customs. Indeed, if such a ban were to be made universal, it might make-face-to-face conversations more popular. However, the anti-smartphone campaign is occurring simultaneously with another attempt to impose ultra-Orthodox religious values on the wider public.

Although the haredi monarchy on Jewish religious practice in Israel is being challenged by non-ultra-Orthodox streams in areas such as conversion and marriage, the political power of the haredi minority still prevails over Sabbath observance by the entire public, including even non-Jewish populations.

With the exception of the Haifa area and the newly organized Shabus Shabbat-bus initiative in Jerusalem, virtually all public transportation in the country is out of service on the Sabbath. Most businesses are closed, as well – even though the majority of the country’s population is secular or traditional, but not ultra-Orthodox.

This week saw a flurry over possible legislation to close down a number of convenience stores and eating places that operate in Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Notwithstanding the inconvenience such an ordinance would cause non-Jewish tourists, just to cite one group, the initiative is another warning signal that some of our country’s ultra-Orthodox are growing more extreme in their abuse of power.

Our country’s majority population does not need the imposition of an Israeli version of the American so-called blue laws. These used to enforce Christian religious standards on the public observance of Sunday, that other day of worship and rest. Most have been repealed or are unenforced, but this is certainly one American custom we should not emulate.

Like the possible coming of the Messiah, religious tolerance in Israel and particularly its capital is still awaited, but not necessarily patiently. Too many haredi adherents – particularly the youth – find no contradiction, for example, in desecrating the Sabbath by stoning passing cars in order to protest against Sabbath desecration.

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