Ask the Rabbi, Part 19

(This is the third year that I am answering questions in the Jewish Press forum entitled, “Is it Proper?” All the rabbinic responses – and more – can be read at Jewishpress.com)

Is it proper to use video streaming apps that offer non-kosher movies and TV shows?

This raises broader questions that have been debated in the Jewish world for several thousand years: to what extent should Jews partake of the secular culture? And can we seal ourselves off hermetically from the world at large?

There are cogent arguments on both sides of the debate, as one would expect of such a hoary discussion. Certainly, there is no guardian against immorality and we have a paramount interest in warding off temptation. On the other hand, there are aspects of the secular culture that are enlightening. This was less so in the ancient world, more so in more modern times, but today’s cultural swamp is trending towards the former. Yet, we do recognize that it is impossible to shut out the world completely, and walking on the streets of most cities offers temptations that are more enticing than any app. What then is a good Jew to do?

Halacha demands that we live a disciplined life. We must develop our self-control. Kosher apps are fine but the devious, non-kosher mind will find a way around them too. Ultimately, streaming services – just like telephones, televisions, computers and the internet – are morally neutral vehicles. They can be used to enrich our lives or debauch them. Free people will even differ on what is considered kosher or non-kosher. Parents must know that their children will watch anything that they watch – and inconsistency is spiritually lethal.

The best approach – which is not to say is the majority approach in the religious world – is to worry less about the app and more about the person. We need to teach clearly and unequivocally what is right and wrong, moral and immoral, acceptable and unacceptable, and also teach techniques to avoid the temptations that will inevitably surround us.

Self-censorship using a moral compass informed by the Torah is more effective than censorship coming from the outside.

Is it proper to check your personal and/or business email before Shacharit?

It is high time we admitted that people who check their emails when they lay down and when they wake up (as if it’s Kriat Sh’ma), and obsessively in the middle of the day and in the middle of the night, have an addiction problem. They cannot disconnect from the outside world, ignore the reality of life (including family) for the fantasy that something better is happening out there, and become slaves to their devices.

This is exacerbated during tefilah. For years, I waged a relentless battle against people bringing their Smartphones to shul not only because of the distractions they cause to others when they ring but primarily because merely carrying them ruins the kavanah of their bearer. I was defeated in that battle by the Coronavirus, and now the norm has become for people to bring their phones into shul, daven from them and check their emails during Chazarat Hashatz. If that is the unfortunate choice, then people are better off checking their emails before they daven rather than during their davening.

But that is a choice that already concedes defeat. If we are proscribed from “tending to our [material] needs” before Shacharit (Orach Chaim 89:3) then checking emails would seem to be part of that proscription. Our first activity every morning should be the acknowledgment of our Creator rather than worshipping at the altar of spam and junk. Sure, some will argue that the emails might be conveying information about some impending emergency that can be ameliorated by quick action. Sure. That happens all the time…

Since email is addictive, there is a greater likelihood that we will become so consumed by its contents that we will be late for shul and distracted once we get there. That seems a bit more likely than missing out on the news that a meteorite is aiming right for us. Daven first.

Is it proper to watch entertainment videos on YouTube? Informational videos? Torah videos? Under what circumstances, if any, can young children use YouTube? Do you hold the same for all the above for TikTok?

Sadly, I must confess complete ignorance of TikTok although I have read of its abusive and harmful effects on children or others who are addicted to living their private lives in the public domain.

YouTube, generally speaking, is morally neutral like many modern contrivances. It all depends on how it is used. The access to Torah shiurim, including gedolim who are now in the world of truth, is breath-taking. You can sit in shiur with a Torah giant of two or three generations past! That is stunning. You can learn about the history of the Jewish people and find edifying lectures of all sorts. And certainly, it is possible to gain information, and access news and other worthwhile entities, through videos. The same applies for children if they are properly monitored.

However, we should be aware of the downside to all this. YouTube, or the internet generally, is a bottomless pit of Bitul Torah. We can literally waste hours and days watching people (gladly) make fools of themselves, revisiting previously seen entertainment and otherwise frying our brains into numbness. And what will be of the Torah? Life is too short to be wasted on frivolities.

The world is unfortunately filled with problems today, and those problems affect communities and individuals. If Chazal taught us that a suffering person should examine his deeds, and if no obvious defects are found to attribute his suffering to Bitul Torah (Berachot 5a), they knew well of what they spoke. And they spoke to every generation, including ours. That itself should be food for thought.

Within reason, watching videos can be proper but must always be secondary and tertiary to what is most important in the life of a faithful Jew.

Is it proper to go on vacation to a place with no minyan? What about a children’s day trip where there will be no minyan?

The ideal is to vacation in places where one’s spiritual level can be maintained. Almost every city in the world worth visiting has a shul with daily minyanim. Think of the effect on children when, in a foreign country or strange city, they join with other Jews, daven, and see before their eyes the wide reach of Torah and the great variety of Jews. For children, it will enrich the bond of Jewish nationhood in a way that no lecture or speech ever can. I remember visiting France as a child and feeling out of sorts in shul until they started singing “Vayehi binso’a ha’aron” in the same melody we sang at home. I felt an immediate connection to my fellow Jews. (I learned some French as well when the Rabbi asked the congregation, in French, to stop talking.)

That being said, there are places that some people consider worth visiting where minyanim are not readily available. That engenders a discussion of the precise obligation of tefilah b’tzibur. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 90:9) uses the term “yishtadeil,” “one should try to daven in shul with the community.” That means it is not an absolute obligation, and certainly where there is no shul in the vicinity. It also means that it is improper to daven at home with a small minyan when there is a minyan in shul, something that people often take for granted today.

Nevertheless, Chazal extolled the virtues and reward of those who daven in shul every day, and it should not be lightly ignored. If one is in a place without a minyan, the Mechaber continues that he should try to daven at the same time the community elsewhere is davening, so at least then his tefilah is somehow linked to the community’s tefilah.

So it is proper, and it is even more proper and beneficial to seek out minyanim on the road so our spiritual level and love of our fellow Jews are enhanced.

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