Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Internet: Eradicating The Root Not Only The Symptoms

We all know that using the Internet has its risks. More and more stories are surfacing of people, both children and adults, who started their downfall from innocent surfing, chatting, or the like.

Understandably, many in the community feel the need to restrict its use and institute acceptable safeguards for people to follow.

In Lakewood, N.J. many schools demand that parents disclose if they have Internet access, or even just email, in their home. Then the parent must meet with one of a few designated Rabbonim to explain the necessity of having Internet in the home. The parent must then fill out a form promising to keep the computer in a separate locked room, and only then is the child allowed to remain the school.

Although I agree in principle for the need to institute guidelines, I still feel that whenever faced with a problem we should try to eradicate the root of the problem and not focus only on the symptom.

The fact that people use the Internet to view inappropriate material or develop inappropriate relationships is only the symptom of a problem and not the root of it. The root of the problem is that our community is increasingly getting caught up with externals, and there is not enough focus on internals. Nowadays, successful Chinuch is measured in terms of material covered, hours of learning, homework, tests, reports, etc. Good old-fashioned Yiras Shamaim is not high on the agenda.

As long as this continues we will be producing young men and women who are knowledgeable & educated, but whose Fear of Heaven and true sincerity leave much to be desired. On the surface all seems fine and dandy, but if all the horror stories about the Internet are true, “something is rotten in the State of Denmark”.

What will be in a few short years when all big cities and possibly smaller towns too, will be huge WiFi hotspots? Already there are cities that are like this. Having one’s computer in a locked room won’t stop anyone from accessing the Internet through Palms, PDAs, and cellphones. It will all be so easy and accessible, and one shudders to think of the consequences.

The root of the problem appears to be that since our community has been largely successful in insulating itself from the outside world through its own schools, newspapers, entertainment, and what not, influence from the outside world is considered a thing of the past. Hence, the stress of our educational system on reaching new heights in learning and knowledge, and internalizing true Fear of Hashem is something taken for granted.

It’s high time that we wake up and realize that with the advent of modern technology we are no longer insulated, no matter where we live. We must return to the days when nothing was taken for granted, and much emphasis must be placed on ensuring that our children have properly internalized their Yiddishkeit. Then and only then can we hope and pray that our children do not fall prey to the glitz and glamour of the outside world. By focusing on the root of the issue, less focus will be necessary on its symptoms.

Obviously, we must always battle the symptoms too. But fighting the symptoms only could lead to disaster sooner or later. Let’s lift our heads out of the sand and get back to basics.

We will all be better off that way.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Anonymous Society, Part Two

Those of you who have read the comments on my post titled “Anonymous Society”, are aware that I penned a letter to the Yated Ne’eman’s Readers Write section on the issue. A copy of that letter is pasted into the comments to that post.

In this week’s Yated there were three direct responses to my letter, and I’d like reply to two of them.

Chaim Hendeles, though strongly agreeing with the content of my letter, pointed out that Rav Yehudia Nesiah, one of the great Tanaim, felt the need to suppress his opinion because he was afraid of the people’s reaction. Apparently, the problem with our society being to judgmental is not a new phenomenon.

Mr. Hendeles, the distinction between what occurred then and what is occurring now is quite simple. In those days one may have felt the need to hide his opinion on important, potentially controversial, subjects. And even that was a rarity. Nowadays, people are consistently afraid of expressing anything, regardless of how trivial and non-controversial the topic.

In this past week’s Readers Write there were a total of twenty seven letters on topics ranging from high school acceptance letters, soundproofing, midwinter vacation, anonymous letters, Bitachon, comparing pain, helping those on the brink, appreciating every moment, Chesed, unfair ticketing, Neturai Karta, hazardous containers, therapy, saying thank you, and more. And yet, only seven of them chose to sign their names. Considering how uncontroversial most of these topics are, it is quite conspicuous that only twenty five percent of these letter-writers had enough courage to reveal their identity.

This is no isolated incident of Rav Yehudah Nesia. It is a widespread and accepted practice, mandated by our society’s tendency to judge & criticize everyone and anyone based on what they say or write.

Raphael Levi then points out the hypocrisy in my writing a letter decrying anonymity and yet signing off using my initials instead of my full name.

Mr. Levi, there exists no hypocrisy. If you only understood how judgmental we have unfortunately become, as I attempt to explain in my letter, you will see the need for me to remain anonymous too. All I was doing was pointing out a problem. Why should I have to allow that specific problem to affect me too? As long as our community continues to criticize others over the most trivial of matters, even those pointing this out will remain anonymous for fear of the inevitable backlash.

Raphael Levi actually plays right into the problem by labeling my letter hypocritical. In other words, a well-written, thought-provoking letter is dismissed and labeled hypocritical; not due to its contents, but rather for the way the author chose to sign his name. Is this not a perfect example of how judgmental we have become?

Raphael Levi then quotes someone (anonymously, of course!) who said “anonymous letters will be thrown, unread, into the wastebasket.”

I find that particularly ironic considering that my original letter was (presumably) read by thousands of people, elicited three printed responses, and Raphael Levi himself took the time and effort to reply to it!

Let us all focus on the issue, the obvious problem of how judgmental we have become, and refrain from judging and criticizing those trying to bring awareness to it.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

No Smoking

Smoking is dangerous. Period.

It is a well-established and accepted fact.

Yet, with all the pressure in the outside world to limit and even eliminate smoking, there is still one place where it continues to flourish.

And that, dear readers, is the Yeshivah world.

Innocent Bachur after innocent Bachur succumbs to the peer-pressure and allows himself to indulge in that first cigarette. The rest, of course, is history.

I know that some of you reading this are thinking “he’s exaggerating; my son would never bring a cigarette to his lips”. But believe me; I know it from the inside. The majority of Bachurim smoke. Most parents are simply unaware or are in denial, but this is a fact. A neighbor of mine, who was lamenting this very phenomenon, consoled himself by saying that at least none of his five boys smoke. I didn’t have the heart to reveal to him that in actuality three of them do, but successfully manage to hide it from him.

The Gemorah is replete with prohibitions based on Sakana-danger. The Gemorah even says Chamirah Sakanta M’Issura; committing dangerous acts is more severe than committing an Aveirah. There is absolutely no excuse for this phenomenon, and it must be brought to public awareness.

The oft-heard justification is that many Gedolim smoked, and if they did so, how dare we question their actions.

That argument is ludicrous for a variety of reasons. Firstly, most Gedolim didn’t smoke, and one should follow the majority. Secondly, many Gedolim were simply unaware of the terrible health effects smoking has on a person. They lived at a time when such knowledge was not common. Besides, there were many Gedolim, who upon being told that their behavior was detrimental to their health, stopped smoking “cold-turkey”.

Recently a Sefer on the subject of health and Halacha was published. The author writes that he asked Rav Chaim Kanievsky what his opinion is on the issue of smoking. Rav CK forcefully responded that one shouldn’t smoke, and added that his uncle, the famed Chazon Ish, as far back as fifty years ago warned people about the dangers of smoking. The author then asked Rav CK if this was also his father’s, the Steipler Gaon’s, opinion, since it is well-known that the Steipler smoked. Rav CK replied that when he was first going off to Yeshiva, his father insisted that he must not smoke. When he asked his father how can say this if he himself smokes, the Steipler responded that he was an orphan and fell in with bad friends. Once the habit was formed he felt he couldn’t break it!

Such stories pull the rug from under the feet of those who use the actions of previous generations of Gedolim to justify their habit.

Recently many Gedolim from across the spectrum have called for the end to this widespread phenomenon. However, the fact remains that the peer-pressure in Yeshiva is to strong for most young Bachurim. To a young Bachur in Yeshiva, almost nothing is more important than being accepted into the group. If smoking is the price to pay, then in the mind of a young Bachur it is a minimal and necessary one.

Smoking is not just dangerous. It is also a colossal source of Bitul Torah. One can not compare a Seder being learned uninterrupted, to one interrupted every hour for a cigarette break. There is no question that those who learn smoke-free eventually outgrow their smoking counterparts, although it may take some time for this to become apparent.

As parents, parents-in-law, future parents, wives, etc., we all share in the obligation to stymie the growth of this cancer (pun-intended).

It is unhealthy, both for the body and for the soul.

Let us try to put an end to it, once and for all.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Anonymous Society

Have you noticed that the overwhelming majority of blogs are anonymous?

Have you noticed that in all Frum newspapers and magazines, the overwhelming majority of letters to the editor are anonymous? Occasionally, someone will sign their initials, but an actual name is rare. In one newspaper there are weeks when there can be twenty or so letters, and every single one of them is anonymous.

In my opinion, this is indicative of how judgmental and discriminating our community has become. People are afraid to express their opinions and feelings, fearing the inevitable backlash and criticism that can develop. Accordingly, everyone feels the need to “cover their back” and express themselves anonymously. It’s a terrible shame that we can no longer have a civilized, respectful and open dialogue without fear of recrimination.

Even a Rav recently confided in me that nowadays before issuing a Psak he must analyze two independent areas. Firstly the relevant material to issue the correct ruling, and secondly how his Psak will be received. How appalling and sad that even Rabbonim are afraid to express their true opinions.

To emphasize my point I would like to quote a sentence printed in a leading Frum newspaper last week.

“Whether it is because they fear for their reputation, their children’s Shidduchim or getting their children into schools, people usually run away from being associated with campaigns that are not to popular or aim to shake the status quo.”

These lines speak for themselves. Regardless of what the subject of the article was, apparently if someone feels that the status quo could use some change or improvement, he will fear for his reputation, his children’s Shidduchim, and for his children not being accepted into schools.

Obviously, I am not referring to ideas that run counter to Torah. Such ideas have no place in a Torah-true community. However, the majority of such letters are sincere people trying to bring attention to something that in their opinion could use improvement, and yet still feel the need to remain anonymous.

This is a very worrisome and troublesome phenomenon, and is certainly not a symptom of a healthy society.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Saddam's Dead, May We Rejoice?

So now that Saddam Hussein, a sworn enemy of the Jewish people, has finally been killed, should we rejoice or not?

What is the proper Torah perspective?

There is a Passuk (Mishlei 24:17) that states; When your enemy falls do not be happy and when he stumbles your heart should not gladden.

However, the Gemorah (Megillah 16a) tells us that this only applies to one’s Jewish enemies, but one is allowed to rejoice in the downfall of one’s non-Jewish enemies.

On the other hand the Gemorah (Megillah 10b) tells us that when the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea, the angels attempted to sing praise to Hashem, to which Hashem answered, “my handiwork is drowning in the sea, and you are singing praise?!”.

The implication of this is that one should not rejoice even in the downfall of non-Jewish enemies.

After much research I have come across a Maharsha (Brachos 9b) who seems to differentiate between angels and people. Angels are not allowed to sing praise even while non-Jewish enemies are drowning, but people are not included in this restriction.

Perhaps one can understand the Maharsha’s reasoning as follows. The non-Jewish enemies are not enemies of the angels themselves; therefore the fact that they are still Hashem’s handiwork overrides their desire to praise Hashem. The Jewish people, on the other hand, were the ones actually threatened by these enemies, and therefore they are allowed to rejoice in the downfall of these non-Jewish enemies.

I was thinking to explain the contradiction somewhat differently.

Perhaps there actually exists no difference between angels and people. The difference lies in WHEN the rejoicing is taking place. It is wrong to rejoice while the non-Jewish enemy is in the process of dying or extreme torture, and accordingly the angels were not allowed to sing praise while the Egyptians were drowning. But one is allowed to rejoice when the non-Jewish enemy is merely in the process of its downfall, or after the downfall has been completed.

Either way, we humans can rejoice over Saddam Hussein’s death, as it is both us people rejoicing, and not at the time of his actual death.