Listening to Authority

Five months before his death, in November of 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to his friend, French scientist Jean-Baptiste Le Roy. Qualifying his satisfaction with the apparent permanence of the new U.S. Constitution, and perhaps because he sensed that his end was near, Franklin wrote a sentence that would become more famous than the context in which it was written. The Constitution looked like it would last, he wrote, “but in this world nothing could be said to be certain except death and taxes.”

Franklin, for the most part, was correct. But I’ve always contended that had Franklin been Jewish he would have added another item to this list of things that are inevitable and abhorrent. And that is that there will always exist, since the days of Moshe Rabbeinu, the tiny group of Jews who protest loudly every time the Gedolim give us direction.

There is nothing new about this. From the eirev rav in the midbar to the reformers and the maskilim, there has always existed the element that, as Harav Elchanan Wasserman, Hy”d, wrote in the name of the Chofetz Chaim, serve as the shluchei haSatan in their quest to undermine the Torah through a concerted effort to question our leaders. This threat, Reb Elchanan writes, despite its being from within, is just as dangerous and works in tandem with the threats from without.

I remember coming back from the Citi-Field asifah two and a half years ago. While most of us who attended, and even most people who could not attend, came away with a sense of commitment to only use modern technology responsibly, there was a vocal minority who felt the need to raise its voice in remonstration. Arguing what in essence was the case against responsibility (try and wrap your head around that for just a second), these people had no other way to justify this opposition than to do what they do best, which is to denigrate the Gedolim.

“What do they know about the wonders of modern technology?” they wondered aloud, hoping others would heed their words and disregard the call of the Gedolim for vigilance.

Thankfully, their words went unheeded by the vast majority of frum Yidden. Klal Yisrael responded to the call of the einei ha’eidah and worked diligently to ensure that proper safeguards were put in place. The Technology Awareness Group (TAG) saw the demand for its services skyrocket, to the point that there are now 25 TAG offices worldwide, and they service between 700 and 900 calls a day.

But the fact that there are those who insist on deriding the significance of the challenges posed by modern technology serves as a stumbling block to some people. There are innocent people who can be led astray by the self-assured proclamations these people make, and mistake them as being an intellectual point of view, rather than those of a contrarian. Can we show these people, who are in danger of being led astray by those who present themselves as experts (in contrast to what they call the “out-of-touch” Rabbis) that the opposite is really the case?

As a Chicago politician famously said: “Yes we can!”

Last month, New York Times columnist Nick Bilton wrote a piece about the parenting style of the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Bilton writes how shocked he was when Jobs told him that he hadn’t allowed his children to use the iPad, and that he and his wife “limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

Bilton was surprised that Jobs was what he calls a “low-tech parent.” But he then writes about how almost all the tech CEOs he had spoken to had set firm limits on the use of tech devices by their children. Even the lone executive he spoke to who was more liberal in how he allowed his children to use these devices said he did so because he worried about the deleterious effect overindulgence at a later point would have.

One thing, however, was obvious. The more clearly one understands what modern technology actually is, the more likely one is to want one’s children to have less to do with it. As one CEO said, “That’s because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself; I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”

It’s important to point out that the Gedolim don’t need to be proven right by Steve Jobs. Even if there weren’t such clear evidence about the dangers of modern technology as the fact that those who are most familiar with it recognize it for what it is, we would still follow what the Gedolim tell us.

But when the so-called enlightened people end up being the ones who are out of touch with the realities of today, wouldn’t it serve them well to think twice before they reflexively doubt the direction given by our leaders?

We know they won’t. But it’s something that we should definitely keep in mind.