Last year, eighty-five-year-old Ultra-Orthodox posek Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky ordered his followers to burn their iPhones. According to Rabbi Kanievsky and many Haredi rabbis, the outside world, especially Internet, must be kept out of consciousness, and anyone who has a cell phone with Internet and video capabilities should be shunned. Not only did he forbid owning one; on grounds that a Jew cannot sell weapons (which iPhones are) to a non-Jew, he also forbade owners from selling it – instead one must “burn it!” (His position on the relative importance of the custom to wear a hat is also cause for concern.)
Rabbi Kanievsky is undoubtedly a tremendous Torah scholar in his own right, and his rabbinic pedigree is illustrious: His father, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (the Steipler), and his uncle, Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (the Chazon Ish), are counted among the most respected and influential Haredi figures of the last century. He is revered within the Haredi community, receiving thousands of visitors in Bnei Brak, offering advice and blessings. He has also published many books and rulings in Talmud and Jewish law. However, his recently promulgated position that a wristwatch is a “beged isha” (a woman’s garment and therefore biblically prohibited for men) raises concerns. Tangentially, some ultra-Orthodox authorities have also argued that women cannot serve in the army because a gun is a “beged ish” (man’s garment), and that a woman may not touch a weapon in the presence of a man. Every rabbi has the right to his own rulings and every observant Jew has the option to follow whichever rabbi they want, but the community must be cautioned. Two concerns emerge here regarding the watch ruling.
First, men and women are mostly the same. As human beings, we share much more in common than the minor differences that separate us. For example, men and women have the same hormones; while there are certain differences in levels, the endocrine system operates in nearly the same way for both sexes. In addition, the brains of men and women are far more similar than different. The prohibition of “beged isha” sought rightfully to remind us that there are some boundaries to help maintain our distinct gender identities. However, we need not strengthen or expand these categories to further divide the sexes, particularly when history shows that women suffer considerably more than men when we divide society along these lines.
Secondly, a rejection of the wristwatch seems like a rejection of something fundamental to the modern human condition. To be a part of the world, one attends meetings, drops children at school, fulfills time commitments, etc. To reject a watch, the primary tool for keeping a schedule, is in a sense to reject this world altogether. Ironically, watchmaking owes its existence to a religious prohibition. In 1541 in Geneva, Protestant leader John Calvin banned the wearing of all jewelry. In order to maintain a living, the skilled jewelers of the city turned to making clocks, at first long clocks (later given the name “grandfather” clocks) and smaller table clocks. From this period until the last century, the pocket watch steadily became more popular. One of the first wristwatches was made in 1812 for the Queen of Naples, and within a century, by the end of World War I, the wristwatch became dominant as synchronized military timing required soldiers to wear the less cumbersome wearable clock. Since then, many men have worn wristwatches while performing historic achievements, including Charles Lindbergh, who wore one during his transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927, and Neil Armstrong, who wore his for the first landing on the moon in 1969. Among American Presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt may have been the first to wear a wristwatch regularly. Even Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, wore a wristwatch when he spoke at the United Nations in November 2012.
The final irony about this series or rulings by Rabbi Kanievsky is that the one device that may make the wristwatch obsolete is the cell phone, one of whose functions is to tell time. Some technology companies have been known to disqualify potential hires because they wore a watch instead of using their cell phones to check the time. To burn a device that would require men to wear the also-proscribed wristwatch presents a peculiar dilemma.
The great power of religion is the capacity to transform ourselves and our world, not to escape from it. Forbidding things that should not be forbidden not only hurts the followers who dedicate their lives to being the best observant Jews they can be, but also hurts Judaism itself.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”