Re'eh: The cellphone problem

These days when students are confronted with questions, they don’t know where to begin their search. They don’t know which books to consult, how to use an index, and how to do research. Instead, they take the path of least resistance and look online.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, | updated: 15:11

Judaism Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

Cellphone, a word my grandmother never heard, is a huge part of my life. People, the world over, communicate via cellphone to the extent that landlines are being phased out and snail mail is a thing of the past. But the convenience comes with a price. In fact, many prices.

We like to complain that our children no longer know how to write, but this doesn’t bother me. I feel that methods of communication adapt overtime and the fact that we type rather than write, use emojis rather than words, use texting grammar rules instead of conventional grammar rules, is all part of the evolution of communication. It isn’t better or worse. It just is.

I do, however, agree that the cellphone introduces other problems. For example, we no longer communicate as often or as well in person. Also, having become accustomed to the constant diet of stimulating informational content, we are losing the ability to focus and are becoming easily distracted.

This is not a youth problem. It is a society problem. It affects adults as well as children. Several schools in New York and California are implementing a no cellphone rule for these very reasons. On the radio, I heard a parent exclaim that he would like to implement a no cellphone rule for his children at home. When someone suggested that he simply turn off the WIFI at home, his response was that he wants the WIFI access for himself. We talk about the children, but we suffer from the same problems.

Kosher Signs
The Torah tells us that Jews may only eat meat from a kosher animal. Kosher animals chew their cud and have split hooves. To be kosher means to be in a state of rectitude and propriety. What is a proper kosher condition? To chew our cud and to split our hooves.

To chew our cud means to think deeply into a matter before reaching a conclusion. To examine it from every angle, to ask every question, and to consider every response before arriving at a conclusion. To split our hooves means to consider both sides of an equation with equal openness and honesty. To be broad minded enough to see both sides of the issue. 

Only after considering both sides of a question and having examined all possible approaches, and thought about it time and again, can we reach a kosher conclusion. A kosher conclusion is well thought out, has a reasoned argument, and treats the other side, the side that we reject, with respect. We might not agree with it, but we can see where it is coming from. We don’t dismiss those who disagree with us as ludicrous, as if they don’t have a right to an opinion.

There is a difference between disagreeing and dismissing We disagree with someone when we conclude that their arguments lack merit. We can explain our position in calm and reasoned tones without personalizing it. So long as we can see the other side, we can respect it. When we form snap judgements without a reasoned argument, we become dismissive and disrespectful. That is unkosher.

Cellphone
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a renowned Rabbi in Israel, was recently interviewed about the cellphone problem. Among the many valid points he made was the argument that we no longer think things through and examine arguments from all angles. All the information in the world is available at our fingertips so when we have a question, we look it up on Google and no longer attempt to figure it out for ourselves.

The Jewish people are known as a smart and wise nation because we value deep examination and intense research. These days, however, when students are confronted with questions, they don’t even know where to begin their search. They don’t know which books to consult, how to use an index, and how to conduct research. Instead, they take the path of least resistance and look it up online.

As I wrote earlier, it isn’t only the children. Let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that just because we were trained before the smart phone era, we are invulnerable. The brain is a muscle and it is affected by the way we use it. If we don’t use our critical thought centers, those parts of our brains grow lax. We can’t just turn them back on when we need them just like we can’t turn on our leg muscles if we let them grow slack. We need to exercise repeatedly to nurse a muscle back to its original strength. 

The Current Hysteria
I wonder if this is partly why our national discourse and political rhetoric has become so sharply divided in recent years. It seems to me that debates were more civil in the past. The media wasn’t marked by the angry rants and pointed barbs that have become a routine facet of politics and media today.

It seems that no matter the subject, the two sides are entrenched in their way of thinking and judgemental and dismissive of the other side. Can it be that we don’t think things through as carefully? Is it possible that we raise our voices because we don’t know how to present reasoned arguments? We have knee jerk responses and judgemental rants on the basis of a soundbite without knowing the entire picture. We rarely try to find out the rest of the story. If we see something objectionable, we jump on the bandwagon and raise our voices. This is not a kosher way to reach a conclusion. This is not a kosher argument. 

Ask yourself, when was you last sat down for an hour with no distractions to solve a problem that you confronted in your life? When was the last time that you encountered an intellectually stimulating concept and spent an hour studying and examining it until you understood it? If you can remember doing this, I applaud you and implore you to do it again. This is a disappearing art and we must share it with others. I truly believe that it will restore civility to our discourse.

The Cellphone
Is the cellphone (particularly the smart phone), the internet (throw in cable TV), and social media responsible for this problem? Absolutely yes. Does it mean that we should become cellphone free? Absolutely not. The cellphone and the internet are tools and tools are meant to be used. But we need to remember that we control the toolshed. We can’t cede control of the toolshed to the tools.

I don’t think we should discard the vast resource of the internet and the smart phone just because we haven’t learned to control ourselves. It is true that it isn’t nice to go out with your spouse for dinner and spend the evening immersed in the cellphone. It is true that the temptation to look up the answer makes it harder to figure it out ourselves.

But the cellphone is not the problem, we are the problem. The solution is not to boycott the cellphone, the solution is to learn restraint; to use, but not abuse, our resources.

Remember, the same G-d who enabled us to discover the internet and the cellphone enabled us to restrain our impulses. Rather than rejecting both these gifts, we should embrace them and allow one to balance out the other.

I am in favor of restricting cellphone use in schools because children are often discipline-challenged and have a hard time learning restraint. But as they grow older and learn the value of discipline, they should be given their cellphones and trained to use it with discipline. We need to utilize the cellphone’s tools to make learning easy. But we should never use the cellphone to take shortcuts.

There is no shortcut on the path to wisdom. Anyone who tells you different, is simply unwise.





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