On July 22, the Beth Din of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations issued an encyclical on the subject of mobile telephones. The encyclical itself is — naturally — in unvowelled Hebrew.
So we can be sure that, as originally promulgated, it was neither meant for nor intended to be read by the generality of Jews in this country. No; its primary target audience consisted merely of a subset of practising Orthodox Jews, the word “practising” here denoting the observance of rules and regulations over and above those prescribed in the Torah and the Talmud.
That being the case, my first thought was that this was not a topic worth foisting on JC readers. But then I noticed that the story had not only been reported on the front page of the Jewish Tribune but that it had also found its way on to the front page of the JC itself. And so, remote though you may think you are from the world of the UOHC, its dress codes and its food fads, the story of the UOHC, its Beth Din, and mobile telephones may well concern you after all.
The encyclical rightly warns of the undeniable dangers inherent in the use of mobile phones. I have never myself received, via my mobile, an invitation to what I believe is termed an “acid house party,” but I know people who have.
I did once receive a text message inviting me to a website devoted to a variety of exotic sexual misdemeanours; I complained to my service provider, who blocked the sender.
Occasionally I get texts imploring me to take out loans at extortionate rates. I use the good sense the Almighty gave me, and simply delete them. But I am not being smug. Internet-enabled mobile telephones are both a blessing and a curse. User discretion is essential.
Were the UOHC’s encyclical to have argued thus, such warnings would be beyond reproach. But what it actually says is that mobile telephones that provide internet access are forbidden both to men and women, and that boys and girls should not use mobile phones at all.
As for those adults who need a phone with internet access for business purposes, the encyclical directs them to seek rabbinical advice, and it points out that “kosher” mobile phones, lacking both internet access and a text-messaging facility, have been sanctioned by the UOHC rabbinate for this purpose.
Indeed, on an inside page the Tribune carries an advertisement from a supplier of such hardware (together, I noted, with the supplier’s website address!).
So now let me explain why, though I appreciate the sincerity of the motivation behind the encyclical, I must, with great regret, conclude that it is short-sighted at best and, at worst, downright irresponsible.
It is short-sighted because it reflects an unwillingness (or more probably an inability) on the part of the UOHC rabbinate to engage with the modern world. We’ve been here before, haven’t we? At one time, long ago, “ultra” Orthodox rabbinical authorities frowned upon the use of piped water. They were suspicious of the new-fangled steam railroads, and of electricity. Some of them forbade the reading of newspapers and, later, the use of the “wireless.” But — inevitably — an accommodation was reached with all these products of modernity.
No charedi entrepreneur is going to jeopardise his (or her) livelihood by refusing to have anything to do with the internet, and no charedi rabbi is going to fall out with his congregation (which, after all, pays his salary) by refusing to sanction its business use. Besides which, used wisely, the internet is a valuable learning tool.
It is downright irresponsible because the mobile phone can be a life-saver. Had mobiles been around then, I would certainly have bought them for my young children, and I was pleased that my children had mobiles at university, so that they could contact home or the emergency services without having to hunt around for a non-vandalised telephone kiosk and waste further time reversing the charges.
On this ground alone, let’s hope that the learned rabbis of the UOHC will rethink their policy, and amend it so as to reflect the relative importance of saving lives and the relative unimportance of sparing blushes.