Everyone, from Silicon Valley tech titans on down, agrees that internet over-connectivity causes problems. And it's certainly true that, without help, not everyone can successfully resist the temptation to dive in too deep. What's not clear is precisely what form that help should take, and whether there's value in community-enforced compliance.
Of course, a community can set whatever rules it agrees to. If you choose to join, you oblige yourself to follow those rules. But that doesn't mean that the rules are necessarily a good idea or even healthy.
Which brings us to smartphones. Some Orthodox communities insist that their members agree to use only specially modified "kosher" phones. These are phones with limited features and for which key capabilities are disabled. The goal is to prevent access to most online services.
If those limitations are a good fit for a community's broadly accepted standards then there's obviously no problem. But what if there is no broad consensus, participation is coerced, and people feel obliged to pretend to comply by cheating the system? Do the larger social costs outweigh the benefits of isolation?
To help us illustrate the point, let me offer a couple of thoughts:
The first is from the online journal Tzarich Iyun:
"According to data from the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, Beit Shemesh, a city with a particularly high proportion of Charedim, is at the top of the list in per capita cellphone ownership — a full 87% of residents own two or more cellular devices!"
What normal individual requires two phones? Even if you'll occasionally find professionals dealing with, say, sensitive health data, who need to separate their private lives from business communications, they're not that common - especially in Beit Shemesh. And as a rule, business phones will normally be registered in the name of the business itself, not the employee - so they wouldn’t have shown up in that Central Bureau of Statistics data.
Instead, what's happening is that countless thousands of Charedim purchase and use a kosher phone to satisfy membership requirements for their communities while also quietly maintaining "secret" smartphones for use in their daily lives.
But if you're so convinced that you need a smartphone with full data access, why go to the expense and inconvenience of kosher phone ownership?
That brings us to the second thought. In order to enroll their children in community schools, each family must testify to owning only kosher phones. Many families are willing to lie to pass this requirement. But in Israel at least, their lies won't be believed unless they provide an active cell number from the kosher network.
Is this good public policy? Even if there is some value in suppressing smartphone use, is it worth the cynicism and corruption that follow? After all, if everyone knows it’s all a huge fake, the moral authority of those in charge of our institutions is diminished.
Chazal (Eruvin 68b) warned of such cynicism, advising Torah authorities to avoid rulings that would be perceived as counter-intuitive so as not to evoke “חוכא ואטלולא“ (“ridicule”).
If community standards are treated like a joke, are they really standards?
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