Recently, we stopped watching TV on Shabbat. Now my friends are telling me that TV has no place in a Jewish home. I think it behooves a Jew to be abreast of world events, and what better source than the television? Can we really remove ourselves from the reality of the rest of the world?


At the age of 14, kneeling before my master the idiot box amidst a pile of pistachio shells to which I continued to contribute despite the ache in my stomach, I determined that my children should never have to suffer what I was now going through. Wouldn’t it be so much nicer, I thought, if my kids could dream their own daydreams rather than enslaving their brains to the nauseous daydreams of others?

I kept my word. I will never forget the scene when my wife and I were visited by our landlady in our first apartment.

“Where is your television?” she asked.

We responded that we had none, leaving her to inspect the premises, convinced as she was that we were hiding something from her. When she finally realized our earnestness, she burst out in laughter. “I never heard of such a thing!” she exclaimed, gaping at us as one would gape at a pair of lunatics walking on the ceiling.

Yes, it’s important to know what’s going on in the world. Recently, overwhelmed by the number of vital tasks in my life that were swiftly becoming urgent disasters, I picked up a popular book by Brian Tracy, Eat That Frog! Brian acts as a consultant to a lot of very active men and women in the American corporate scene. These are people for whom knowing what’s going on in the world is a matter of survival. They come to Brian to learn how to use their time efficiently. One of the messages Brian gives them: Shoot your TV.

In response to his clients’ protests—similar to yours—Brian responds, “If it is really important, someone will tell you.”

[I can’t help adding an irrelevant nugget. He also writes (end of chapter 17): “Resolve to take off one full day each week during which you do not touch your computer, check your BlackBerry, or make any attempt to keep in touch with the world of technology.” Funny thing: “Tracy” doesn’t sound Jewish, but Moses would sure smile at that one.]

Reality is a very fascinating place, a place of perpetually unfolding wisdom and beauty. Most of reality, however, does not happen on television. Television generally represents that aspect of humanity that I would rather keep at bay—and certainly not bring into my living room. Yes, there’s a fair dose of enriching material there (hey, the neurons of my formative years were formed under the influence of Star Trek, and they still keep firing), yet even that is debased by the passive medium by which it is delivered (“just sit there while we pour this down your optic nerve”). Torah talks about “not straying after your heart and after your eyes.” TV watching doesn’t even give those vital organs a chance.

Will my children suffer? I think it’s okay for my kids to enter elementary school without having witnessed 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence. There are other things to learn in your early years, like how to dress up and fantasize (without automatic weapons), how to throw a ball (that doesn’t explode upon impact) and how to play with other kids (without killing them).

Now, since you are writing to a Chabad rabbi, you could really give me a hard time over this. You probably know that Chabad is into using every technology G‑d planted in His world for the good. Hey, you’re accessing me on the Internet. We’ve got this whole site—and we were among the pioneers in this medium. And when Rabbi Yosef Wineberg started giving Tanya classes on the radio back in 1960, the Rebbe was very excited about that as well. This, the Rebbe said, is why radio waves were put in the world. So why so down on television?

That’s what I’m trying to explain to you: TV is not a normal medium of human communication.

Yes, everything can be used for the good. But when does that happen? When the human being is using the technology. But when the technology is using the human being, what good can come out of that? Compare it to raising children: If you can remain an adult and interact with your children, then you can raise them into adults. But if you become nothing more than a device in their hands for getting what they want—then it’s them pulling you down, rather than you raising them up. All the more so with the power that technology puts in our hands: These tools have tremendous potential for good, as long as they are just that—tools and not masters.

When the multimedia revolution began, people called it “interactive media.” I used to lecture on interactive media. I would make a chart on the board like this:





I would instruct the audience to copy this chart and draw a line from the word in the left column to the appropriate word in the right column. Some people actually drew an X. Then I would make my point: You interact with machines only when they are broken and you kick and yell at them. Otherwise, you interact with people, and you sometimes use machines to do that. Only those who believe in using people (to interact with machines) believe in interacting with machines (by using people)—and they are known as software engineers. They are the ones who call us “users”—they and only one other industry I know of.

Television is all about using people. It’s an electronic drug. The point of the device is to program you to buy stuff. You sit there, and you might as well have plugged your brain, via the optic nerve, into a machine. You believe you are not affected by the stimuli seeping into your gray matter. The friendly folks paying millions of dollars for a few seconds of advertising time know that you are wrong. They believe in Torah even more than you: “The eye sees, the ear hears, the heart desires, and the limbs do their job to get the goods.”

Radio is not so bad. There’s room for imagination. You have to transform the audio signals into images. Your mind is actively engaged. TV does it all for you. No imagining necessary—it’s all provided right out of the box.

And how about the Internet? Isn’t that yet even more seductive, swarming with the most nefarious bloodsuckers, infected with the most malignant diseases?

Absolutely. And anyone who uses the Internet as an entertainment device—à la television with more places to click—is putting his brain and soul up for grabs to thousands of clutching, grimy hands.

Which is why all my children are taught from a young age that the computer is a tool, and the Internet is a place to get tasks done. You want entertainment? Go out and play with a friend. A machine is a tool, not a jack-in-the-box. When you approach the machine, you must approach it as the master, with a game plan in mind, knowing clearly what you want to achieve. That still doesn’t mean you’re safe: those grimy claws are still out to grab you. But one thing for sure: As soon as you’re off task, you trade places. It becomes your master, you become its slave.

My advice (no official rabbinical sanctions implied): Allow yourself the luxury of using your own cerebral cortex, rather than handing it over on a silver platter to those whose entire mission is to sell you stuff you don’t need—and who aren’t bright enough to figure out any way to get your attention other than showing you people’s private parts and by killing them. Read a book—they’re still around. Browse, contribute and engage in battle with other contentious contributors to Wikipedia. Rant with the people who are commenting on our articles at Download and watch nature videos. Better, go out and make one yourself. Go out and know the world—but keep your steering wheel in your own hands. And your mind, too.

You may wish to read this article from the Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry:

. . . and this from the American Psychological Association: