As I recall Irving Howe’s telling of the story in The World of Our Fathers, a noted journalist who was familiar with the neighborhood was walking on the Lower East Side several years after Rabbi Jacob Joseph had passed away when he noticed a house with a sign proclaiming that it was the home of the “Chief Rabbi of New York.” This was news to him, so he knocked on the door, was admitted and introduced to an elderly man who affirmed that he was the Chief Rabbi. Upon being asked by the journalist, “and who made you the Chief Rabbi?”, the man responded: “The sign maker.”
Signmakers are a sign of the times, as they provide a snapshot of a community and insight into trends and events. Of course, the true signmakers are not those who produce the product but those who write the text and provide the message. Anyone who has walked the streets of Jerusalem or religious Jewish neighborhoods here knows that signs are important artifacts. During Pesach, we were treated to the customary announcements of events and also to a barrage of posters outlawing, among other things, Chol Hamoed concerts (with separate seating) and having a computer at home. Not long ago in Israel, there was at least a partial ban on radios. We won’t have long to wait for what comes next in our brave new world.
Perhaps we should be bemused by these antics and regard them as the silly exercises of small-minded people with Rabbinic titles who regard their mission to wage war against sense and sensibility. That’s the way most Orthodox Jews, including in the yeshiva world, look at the pronouncements. The “banned” concerts were sold out, as religious Jews celebrated the holiday happily and in an appropriate manner. As for computers, they are found in all sorts of Orthodox homes and the number is certain to increase steadily because computers are integral to contemporary living and because they belong in homes.
To have a computer at home – or more than one – is not an act of disobedience. We are respectful of rabbinic authority, as we should be. Obedience is a hallmark of Orthodox life. There is, in short, no rebellion in our ranks. Rather, there is a comfortable feeling among most “frum” Jews that computers are essential educational tools and are needed for communication, information retrieval and much else that is beneficial. After all, virtually all of our children are now taught computer skills at an early age in yeshiva and Beth Jacobs and our schools tend to boast about the equipment they have.
Computers can be abused, as can virtually everything else that has been created or is available, including food or, for that matter, the telephone. When the telephone was invented and then installed in homes, Rabbis did not rush to ban the device because it a) often encourages lashon horah, b) can engender conflict, c) results in bitul Torah and d) can be put to perverse use. It should be possible to distinguish between an implement whose inherent function is frivolous or worse and one that is inherently beneficial but may be misused.
While it is obviously true that the rabbis who have an instinct to issue bans represent a small part of the rabbinical fraternity, it is also the case that at times – including the computer ban – there are prominent people who apparently sign-up. This is especially regrettable because they are inadvertently engendering disrespect for rabbinical authority. It is also regrettable that, as a rule, respected Torah leaders are unwilling to speak out against the mischief. Sadly, we are in a period when intimidatory forces abound, so that the voice of reason is subdued.
It is no mitzvah to be foolish or to curse the world we are in. It is certainly no mitzvah to convey so much negativism, especially to our children. A close friend of mine who is a rabbi has often remarked that “G-D gave us a beautiful religion and look what we are making of it.”