Is the social messaging startup WhatsApp worth the $19 million Facebook is paying? That's for the market to decide. But the company's extraordinary success is on display in a particular subculture not typically associated with social networking.
“The rabbis overseeing divorces say WhatsApp is the No. 1 cause of destruction of Jewish homes and business,” the New York newspaper Der Blatt reported last month, in a headline written, as the entire newspaper is, in Yiddish. The translation comes courtesy of The Jewish Daily Forward, an independent mainstream English-language site that has documented the complex relationship between the faith’s strictest adherents and the smartphone. The specific temptations are pointedly left unstated in the Der Blatt story, but any breach of modesty is a serious matter in the ultra-Orthodox community.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews, known for their black suits and wide-brimmed fedoras, go to great lengths to segregate themselves from the modern world, building whole communities committed to enforcing the strict moral codes taken from scripture and expressed in the vestments of pre-Enlightenment Eastern Europe. Against this ideal, the digital world presents a consistent challenge.
“The siren song of the Internet entices us!” a man named Eytan Kobre proclaimed outside Citi Field on May 20, 2012, the day the home of the New York Mets was filled by 40,000 ultra-Orthodox men attending a rally to denounce the Internet. Kobre was the event's spokesman, telling reporters: “It brings out the worst in us!”
And because smartphones bring the Internet as close as your pocket, the devices are seen as particularly pernicious. One rabbi compared them to a weapon. Another smashed one in public. In Israel, the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef inveighed so frequently against the gadgets that, when he lay on his death bed last year, a supporter urged breaking 10,000 iPhones to restore him to health.
And yet, the supporter posted his plea on Facebook, and the rabbi had his own smartphone app (one that secular Israelis claimed was used to turn out voters for the Shas political party Yosef led). Rather than enforce a total ban on smartphones, some rabbis set out to neuter them. “Kosher phones” are stripped of applications that tap into the Internet or are deemed at risk of promoting unhealthy distraction by The Rabbinic Committee for Matters of Communications, which answers to the top ultra-Orthodox rabbis worldwide. The Forward reports that, of 20,000 apps, only 600 are approved for the faithful by "rabbinic advisers" consulted by an Israeli supermarket chain that offers a "Kosher" LG-Nexus 4. Facebook was banned, as was YouTube. But somehow WhatsApp was overlooked, and ultra-Orthodox men flocked to it in recent months, the newspaper reports.
The messaging service allows its 450 million users worldwide to send and receive photos, videos and text, among a small group. It’s not exactly Snapchat, the messaging application that automatically erases an image moments after it’s sent (making the world safe for sexting). But Der Blatt said WhatsApp was destroying families by distracting parents from their children and worse.
The Forward quotes religious users arguing that the WhatsApp’s group messaging function actually enhances community cohesion but the site reports the company that filters smartphones for one Hasidic sect is preparing to block WhatsApp's functionality. Lipa Schmeltzer, a Hasidic pop star who's been called "the Jewish Elvis," told reporter Josh Nathan-Kazis the ban makes little sense given that the authorities have already forbidden the Internet.
“It’s like banning a shopping center and then feeling the need to ban particularly aisle nine,” Schmeltzer says.