A fire has been burning in Israel for several months, a fire that aggravates fellow Jews who wonder what is going on with the Neturei Karta and their fellow black-hatted stick-in-the-muds. It is the conflagration of the smartphones. Recently there have been ad hominem attacks of smart phone users in the Ultra Orthodox press. A gadol hador, (sage considered among the great of his generation) Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky of Bnei Brak Israel declared single handedly that even after the fact, witnessing by smartphone users is invalid, and accomplishments of their witnessing are nullified.
As the fire spread, outsiders had to chuckle. No one in his right mind would take this stuff seriously. Apparently some have, as it was reported in most of Israel’s secular press, not to mention its right wing press. Michael Weinstein, a Facebooker, suggested that anyone who has read Israel’s ultra-Orthodox press knows that this is just hyperbole.
Perhaps, Michael is right, but even so it has gotten the dander up of many a Jew for numerous valid reasons. Among them: 1. no legal basis was included in the pronouncement. It was simply stated as a matter of practice because it was the view of a highly respected sage. 2. While generally one can ban future activities that may currently be counted as halachic and acceptable, it is absurd to do this ex-post facto. If those two reasons are not sufficient, there is the added reason, 3. that it makes sinners of Jews who may had been living pious lives.
Think of the implications of the action, particularly in regard to ex-post facto rulings. Because of the participation of a smart phone using witness in the creation and transmission of a get, a Jewish writ of divorce, those divorces are invalid. The women freed by those documents are still married to their first husbands, and if they have moved on with their lives and borne children, those offspring are rendered mamzerim, bastards with all the negative associations tied to that horrendous state. To do that much harm with the stroke of a pen should be left to the theater of the absurd, not to proclamations of proper Jewish practice.
Reading the news not only in English but in the original Hebrew, the enormity of this callousness hit this writer. Still, trying to maintain some level of objectivity in reading this pomposity, the purpose of the action, albeit harsh, might have won a bit of respect, albeit with a large measure of salt.
To understand the predicament one must have some understanding of who is nullified to witness. The list of such persons in Talmud Sanhedrin includes dice gamblers and pigeon racers. The traditional commentaries argue that by relying on birds to return to or be turned from their cotes, or by relying on a successful roll of cubes, those who gamble are overly reliant on their toys, and demonstrate a lack of faith in the Holy One. It is argued whether all who ever gambled are spurned, or only the professional class of gamblers. Most agree it is the latter. Those who gamble 50 cents worth of penny ante bets on the slot machines once in a dark blue moon can breathe a sigh of relief.
So what of the smartphone user? Even the devoutly Orthodox use smartphones. There are Orthodox websites that podcast to them and others prepare Jewish web materials specifically for Smartphone users. This writer’s son, an Orthodox rabbi, also dabbles as an app developer. These users continue with impunity and with confidence in the halachic rightness of their actions.
So what is going on? Just as the occasional, amateur gambler is not removed from witnessing, most Jewish persons may continue to make use of smartphones. But every good thing has limits, even marvelous smartphones. It is not that they are miniaturized computers built into telephones. Those instruments have been widely used for decades as separate pieces and without this pseudo-legal rancor. The overall convenience of a smartphone is its nemesis. It leads to overuse and over-reliance. It distances a steady user from direct human contact and takes too much of his time from pursuing a living and living a Jewish life. (Ever watch two sit across from one another and message each other?).
There are some in the Ultra Orthodox camp who would like to eradicate the Internet altogether. Perhaps Kanievsky is one of them. Still acting by age old standards of Pirkei Avot and viewing the rabbi in the most favorable of lights, lets us imagine that his true intent is not to castigate smartphoners, but to make a strange and noticeable argument for moderation.
Just as medicine in excess can be poisonous, and red heifer ashes used wrongly can defile, so might overindulgence of smartphone use render one unfit to serve as a witness.
At least I hope that was his point.