Higher Fences and Better Cell Phones (Ideas #61)

One of the most fascinating and perplexing statements of the Rabbis is to be found in Bereshit Rabba 76:9. There, Rabbi Abba Hacohen Bardala tells us that Ya'akov was punished for locking his daughter Deena in a box so as to protect her from the possible advances of her notorious uncle Esav. On the face of it, Yaakov's intentions are perfectly understandable and completely justified - should he not protect his daughter from harm? The difficulty of this question led R. Baruch haLevi Epstein, in his Torah Temimah commentary, to conclude that Ya'akov must have been convinced that Deena would have brought about a complete turnaround in Esav's life and influenced him to become righteous. Had he not been convinced of it, we could not imagine Ya'akov being punished from protecting his daughter. The obvious difficulty with this solution is to understand why Ya'akov would have wanted to stop his brother from becoming righteous.

I recently read an email debate between leading Jewish educators as to what to do to promote greater adherence to the laws of negiah (not touching) among single men and women. Some promoted greater fences while others advocated better education. Both groups seemed to believe that the two strategies were mutually exclusive. Perhaps it is the nature of debate that blinds many from the wisdom of the opposing position, but our sages clearly advocated both approaches simultaneously.

Were we to adopt the wisdom of our sages, we would avoid the pitfalls that one critic ascribed to Christianity and Islam: Christianity's lack of legal restrictions relegates human nature to that of angels - the lack of fences assumes that man can easily control himself and need not be burdened with all sorts of restrictions which are made irrelevant by a proper understanding of our purpose in the world. Islam restricts man with harsh laws, which represent the main deterrent to man's otherwise unquenchable desires. This puts men in the same category as Skinner's laboratory mice.

Indeed, our sages accepted man for what he is - a being capable of self-control, yet often challenged by his baser instincts. The Talmud points out that even some of our greatest scholars had to take highly unusual and extreme precautions to avoid succumbing to situations of vice. Thus, there is no question that our sages saw fences as a helpful thing - simply stated, it makes sense to avoid sin by taking extra precautions. This was true then and it remains true today.

The problem arises when it becomes the only strategy to avoiding sin. Fences make it practically more difficult to sin, but certainly not impossible. To complete the metaphor, all one has to do is to climb over it. The higher the fence the more difficult it is to climb over, but it is always possible to do so. More important than fences is the education one receives about fulfilling the will of G-d and avoiding anything contrary to His will. Fences help us contain the frequency and intensity of temptation; education gives us the ammunition with which to defeat it. On a theological level as well, we will likely be given a greater reward for the decisions we successfully make than for the decisions we successfully avoid. Inevitably, we will all have the opportunity to sin and it is precisely then that our actions are of most significance.

Recently, a new campaign has been launched in the haredi world in Israel, attempting to encourage its adherents to give up cellular phones. Anyone who has been in Israel knows about the omnipresence of cell phones in all sectors of the Israeli population. As of a few years ago, Israel had the highest per capita cell phone usage in the world. On some level, this was particularly helpful to the yeshiva student wanting to stay in touch with his family. The new campaign, however, seems to be a response to the newest generation of cell phones that cannot only plug in to the Internet, but can also screen movies. Lest we scoff at this, one must only pause to think about what type of material is so easily available on the Internet and in the video market. I have once before compared the Internet to the old song about Alice's Restaurant - i.e. you can get anything you want....

The concept of a fence actually serves as a particularly appropriate metaphor to better understand such attempts to keep out vice. Modern communications defy fences. If, twenty years ago, we could control phones with walls that prevented any unwanted wires to connect the yeshiva dorm room to the outside world, today the cell phone defies the physical boundaries of these walls; the cellular connection goes right through the wall. Perhaps G-d is trying to tell us something about our fences: we have perhaps lost sight of the essence of our struggle against vices. Some try to build higher and higher walls, hoping to more effectively insulate our children instead of investing more effort in bolstering our children's faith and understanding. Ultimately, these walls will also be breached, unless we can educate our children as to why they should not breach them.

We are able to get insight into the matter by looking at Rashi's understanding of an interesting passage in Tractate Sanhedrin (37a). The Talmud points out that even a fence made of roses will not be trespassed by the Jews. Rashi adds that Jews will separate from sin even with a light admonition and do not need stone walls to do this. To be a Jew then, means to internalize the desire not to sin - in these terms, it is essential to educate our children to be Jews.

Getting back to Ya'akov, one could suggest a different answer than that of the Torah Temimah. Perhaps Ya'akov's mistake was relying too heavily on the strategy of fences without sufficiently using the education strategy. It is precisely when a parent or leader makes such a mistake that they have to build unreasonable fences. Perhaps that is why the midrash states that Ya'akov locked Deena in, as opposed to simply closing her in the box. When we attempt to lock the box and eliminate every possibility of access to sin, it is an indication that we have no trust of the person we are trying to protect - it is a sign that we have not invested enough into their religious education.

Even if we do not always agree with them, we should certainly respect reasonable fences. But when fences show complete distrust of those they are meant to protect, it is the sign of a fundamental disorder - it is a sign of the abdication of true Jewish education.