Monday, January 27, 2020

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I was impressed with the incisive observations made by Ezra Epstein in your January 17 edition under the title “Can Modern Orthodoxy Survive the Smartphone Generation?”

This question is equally relevant to all segments of Orthodoxy today, regardless of which stream one ascribes to, whether modern, chasidic or yeshivish. It is an issue facing all Jews who seek to maintain the integrity of Judaism going forward—which is what prompted me to respond.

Surely, we can all agree that children and adolescents require kind direction and guidance during their formative years, especially with respect to their moral decision-making processes. A component of that guidance may very well be, as Ezra suggested, instituting communal standards for filtering content on smartphones and other devices.

But I submit to you that just as maintaining good physical health requires both preventative as well as proactive measures, the same is true regarding the health of the spirit, our neshama. Having additional barriers to prevent offensive content from infiltrating our lives is one good step in the right direction, but the ultimate filter must be within one’s own mind and heart, which entails more than a simple firewall.

Much more must be done to fill the hearts and minds of our youth with the tools they need to navigate their inner world. They need to understand their inner spiritual makeup and appreciate the meaning and purpose of the moral challenges they face. They need to appreciate the infinite value of a mitzvah and how much it means to God. They need to develop a relationship with God that will be personal and intimate. They need to feel close to God and develop a sense of awe of Him by understanding His greatness, such that they would not wish to forfeit their relationship with Him.

As Ezra points out correctly, the approach that may have worked in times past no longer carries muster today. Which brings me to my final point.

It wasn’t too long ago that the spirit of Judaism was most dominantly characterized by a methodical, rigorous devotion to the law and the values of scholarship and erudition. Personal attachment to God, i.e., the imperative to experience true love and awe of God, was of secondary importance. This changed dramatically when Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the chasidic movement, appeared on the scene.

The notion of seeing divine intervention in the minutest dimensions of our lives and experiencing a divine reality—including recognizing the divine within the darkest thoughts that penetrate our consciousness out of nowhere—was something of a revolution in Jewish thought taught by the Ba’al Shem Tov.

He taught all who would heed his call how to navigate their inner world in all its turbulence and appreciate God. He showed the way for so many to enter a relationship with God that will be able to weather even the greatest of challenges, and yes, even the smartphone (and whatever phone or device may be developed in the future).

I highly recommend all those who are in the position to make a difference in the lives of our youth to seriously study the positive effects the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov and his disciples are already having on those who have embraced his teachings. “Ta’amu ure’u ki tov Hashem!” Taste and you shall see that God is good!

Rabbi Avrohom Bergstein
Associate Rabbi, Anshei Lubavitch, Fair Lawn