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Hold the Phone

The only effective filter is the one to be attached to the Jewish heart and mind


Longtime readers of this column will recall that over the years, I’ve written quite a bit about what many gedolei Torah have called the “challenge of our generation”: how to battle the effects of digital technology on our spiritual and moral lives.

My sense is that with the passage of time, the understanding that a Jew needs to filter his phones and computers has gained ever-widening mainstream acceptance. That’s not to say that everyone, or even most frum Jews, filter their devices.

It is to say, rather, that filtering is no longer looked upon as something only for frummies. The Technology Assistance Group (TAG) Lakewood office reports receiving some 30,000 filtering-related requests for assistance this year. That’s a lot of calls, and that’s very good news.

At the same time, however, there seems to be an ongoing desensitization to, and resolve to resist, the digital dangers against which no filter can protect. There isn’t now, nor will there ever be, a filter to shield our Jewish selves from the infiltration into our homes and hearts of gentile society’s values and outlook via smartphones. Nor will there ever be a filter to protect us from the damage such phones do to our relationships with our spouses and children and parents, or to other, subtle aspects of our lives.

Consider two real-life accounts featured recently in Bara Kachama, TAG’s weekly newsletter. In one, a Monsey woman told of a Chol Hamoed trip her family took to a large farm, where at the entrance stood several tall trees. Her boys, veteran climbers, immediately scampered up the branches of one of them, and once perched high above, asked her to snap a picture of them. In her rush to get her phone out, it slipped and landed in a deep puddle, and when retrieved, it was no longer working, nor were they able to revive it.

“From that point on,” she observed, “our trip was a totally different experience, unlike any we’d ever had. My children enjoyed themselves in such a carefree and relaxed way. It occurred to me that the real-time footage I usually take of our family trips actually creates pressure for my children, making them feel that they are performing on stage. The experience gave me a sobering glimpse into how today’s children lead their lives.”

In another issue, a longtime kindergarten teacher wrote about her experience this past Yom Tov season, which is always an exciting time for her little charges, as they learn about the different Yamim Tovim and get involved in the spirit. A few years ago, she began snapping photos of the children as they practiced different holiday scenes, which the mothers loved seeing.

The teacher noticed, however, that with each passing year, the children were also more and more attuned to the fact that they were being photographed, posing and looking over the pictures, and even getting stressed out when it “didn’t come out good.”

This past year, after spending the entire pre-Yom Tov season introducing the children to the upcoming Yamim Tovim with stories, songs, and of course, snapshots, she reviewed everything they’d learned about. She asked, “What do we do on Rosh Hashanah?” Silence. “C’mon kids, what do we do on Rosh Hashanah?” Finally, one child exclaimed, “We take pictures of us dipping the apple in the honey!” The answer for Yom Kippur was, “We take pictures of us wearing Crocs!” and for Succos it was again, “We take pictures of shaking the lulav and esrog!” Right then, she committed never to take out her phone in class again, concluding, “Let these kids be kids, not cute props.”

There never will be a filter that stops the ever-so subtle transformation of a scene from one involving real people living real life into one in which actors are playing roles. It’s a simple, unchanging fact of human nature that when we are aware we’re on camera, authenticity suffers. If you feel that’s a worthwhile tradeoff for getting photos that will most likely be glanced at for a few seconds and never again, then continue to click away. But some people may feel the price of giving up on really living in the moment is just not worth it.

For so many of the ill effects that digital technology visits upon us, the only effective filter is the one to be attached to the Jewish heart and mind. It is that filter that enables us to begin looking at our phones differently, not as a comforting constant companion to reach for reflexively, but as something to be dealt with at a certain remove, with one’s guard up about the distinct danger it might pose to the things in life that we care about most.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 835. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

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