Thursday, June 14, 2012

Ultra-Orthodox Correct About Internet Dangers

When I first heard that a rally was planned for Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews to protest the Internet, I didn’t think it would attract much attention. After all, the Internet has long been under attack in Haredi communities and their rabbinic leaders have forbidden it in the past.

The event on May 20 at Citi Field in New York (home of the Mets) drew a massive audience of more than 40,000 men, with an overflow crowd tuning in to a live video feed at the neighboring Arthur Ashe tennis stadium. Women were not allowed entry to the event, but many viewed it, ironically enough, on the Internet through a live stream broadcast.

The speeches, mostly made in Yiddish with English subtitles on the stadium’s large video screen, condemned the Internet and warned that its impure content poses a serious threat to the Haredi lifestyle and the modesty that the Torah demands.

The day after the rally I was contacted by Ben Sales, a reporter for JTA. He wanted my opinion of the event and a quote about how I understand the role of the Internet in Jewish life. My sense is that he presumed I would criticize the rally’s organizing group for not realizing the gift of the Internet or how it has improved our lives.

Rather than disapproving of the rally or criticizing the speakers for a shortsighted understanding of technology, I explained that these Haredi leaders are correct. And they are. The Internet most certainly jeopardizes their way of life. The Internet will cause Haredi Jews to sin and will tear away at the fabric of their modest lives.

The way the Haredi communities have maintained such strict adherence to their understanding of religious life is by erecting borders to protect themselves from outside influences. Within a controlled, ghettoized environment self-control is not required as much as it is in a free and open society. The Internet virtually removes the ghetto walls and nullifies the borders of the Haredi neighborhoods void. Thus, the perils of the Internet are real to this community.

Many assume that when Haredi leaders speak of the threat of the Internet to their adherents they are referring to pornographic content. I don’t believe this is the case. The Haredi community is well versed on the availability of content filters that will sift out such immodest material. In fact, most of the speakers at the rally forbid their followers from browsing the Web without a filter for inappropriate sites.

Filters take care of removing indecent photos of a sexual nature and images of immodestly dressed women. What an Internet filter will not remove for the Haredi Web surfers however is other material their leaders consider to be explicit. Content that challenges their core beliefs and structured way of life are of most concern to the rally’s organizers. If Haredi Jews cannot exert the self-control needed to avoid content of an immodest nature, they can rely on the filters. However, they will still be subjected to “intellectual porn” – the thoughts and opinions of Jewish scholars that will challenge their thinking.

Scantily clad women can be seen by Haredi Jewish men on their way to Queens when they look at billboards on the side of the highway or magazine covers on sidewalk newsstands. However, Torah commentary written by modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis is only accessible to them through an unfiltered and unmonitored Internet. Blog posts, op-eds and doctoral theses are the pernicious enemies that scare Haredi leaders most about the Internet. Viewing pornographic imagery may lead Haredi disciples to sin, but unfiltered use of the Internet leads them to virtually leave their isolated community and could cause them to go off the path, venturing outside of their real life community as well.

Most of the Haredi critics of the Internet recognize that the Internet is necessary in today’s world and cannot be banned entirely. The speakers at the Citi Field rally readily admitted that both men and women in their communities rely on the Internet and other forms of modern technology for business as well as for personal use (banking, shopping and as a medical resource).

The real threat of the Internet to the insular Haredi communities is that the Internet quashes the walls to the outside world that they have so steadfastly erected over the generations. The free flow of information that could undermine the Haredi way of life is the real concern. In that sense, the Internet certainly poses an ever present danger. It will be interesting to see the effects of the Internet on this community in the coming years.


John said...

This is a very beautiful and interesting picture, I enjoyed your article it has great detail in it, thanks for sharing the artistic work, I appreciate your work!

Marc said...

This is true for non-Haredi sects as well. Non-orthodox Jews no longer depend on getting everything filtered by their local Reform or Conservative rabbi. (To wit, I'm as likely to read a blog post by Rabbi Jason Miller as a sermon by his colleagues at the synagogue where I'm a member!) Some of us think that's a good thing, but not everyone does.

Howard Glantz, Hazzan(Cantor)/Moyel(ritual circumcision) said...

Well written and expressed Reb Jason-

Stu Kaplan said...

Rabbi -
You were quoted in Sales article as having said this:
Jason Miller, a Conservative rabbi who maintains an active Web presence, said the Internet challenges anyone who cares about ethics.

“To some extent, we all need to have the Internet moderated for us,” Miller said. “Beyond modesty, there’s content that I don't think is healthy or beneficial for individuals to see or read.”

Do you really think that the internet should be edited? What about books that anyone can get from the library or a bookstore? Who will do the editing? Is all stuff on TV healthy? Limiting access to thoughts and ideas is what in the end is really ubhealthy. I hope that you were being sarcstic.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Stu Kaplan: Thanks for your comment. The quote in the Sales JTA piece is nothing close to what I said over the phone to him. That happens all the time though because it's difficult for a reporter to get every quote verbatim and they often reconstruct the quote to fit the article.

What I said to Sales was that the Web is like the Wild West. There are some pretty disturbing things on the Web (beyond your basic immodest content). What I said was that we should exert self-control when surfing the Web. I never suggested the Web should be censored. I did recommend that parents use filters to protect their children, but that they also exert their responsibility as parents to moderate and monitor what their children do online.

By the way, I spoke to Sales for about 20 minutes so you can imagine it would be difficult for him (or any reporter) to summarize it in a one-sentence quote.

Julie Hilton Danan said...

Great post. On the other hand, some say that the internet is making us more intellectually ghettoized because we read the blogs or visit the websites of people and groups who think like us and ignore other points of view. What do you think of that idea?

cydia said...

Internet is become global world where we can find each and every thing.