Last month’s 60,000 strong Ultra-Orthodox rally decrying the Internet made headlines, with many mainstream and Jewish media outlets clucking their tongues. Yet the rally was but the latest chapter in a long history of Haredi engagement with, and fear of, the Internet. The situation is far more complex, nuanced, and interesting than the rally and its media snickerers suggest.
The complicated relationship between haredim and the Internet dates back to at least the 1990s. Back then, a site about Satmar Hasidim contained a strange Yiddish warning from its anonymous Satmar web developer: “If you can read this, you should not be using the Internet.” Of course, like the recent rally (which streamed online) this website had its share of irony, since at least one Satmar Hasid had learned the HTML skills necessary to put up a website.
But let’s go back even further. The rabbis of the fifteenth century regarded Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press (regarded then as “new media”) as a boon to learning, and hence, regarded printing itself as avodat kodesh [sacred work] and the printing press as an altar. In 1475, Jewish printers published the first volumes ever in Hebrew. These incunabula, or early printed books, included commentaries on the Torah by Rashi and treatises of Jewish Law (e.g., the Arba’ah Turim [Four Columns] of Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher). With the wide dissemination of Jewish books, including published collections of responsa (which were also among the first incunabula from the fifteenth century) literate Jews had access, for the first time, to a wide gamut of rabbinic perspectives.
Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that the Internet has been used similarly—to solicit and spread rabbinic opinion. Entire Jewish libraries are now online, and the Internet is even being used as a technology for she’elot u’tshuvot, halachic questions and rabbinic responses. In 2008, Ynet, the online edition of Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, conducted a survey in conjunction with the Gesher organization in advance of a conference on Judaism, society and Internet. They discovered that 25 percent of the Jewish, adult Hebrew speakers surveyed consulted a “virtual rabbi,” and 7 percent consulted online forums for answers to religious questions. At face value, these numbers are not significant. These are still relatively small numbers, and the survey reported that 33 percent still went to a “real” rabbi and 35 percent consulted dead-tree texts. However, I would argue, as millennials grow up and begin to have kids of their own, the gap between the online and offline numbers will surely narrow. In any case, the Ynet report made for a nice headline and other news sources picked up on the “Rabbi Google” meme.
Haredi Judaism, however, is defined precisely by a rejection of modernity. With each technological innovation (i.e., smarter smartphones, pervasive and free Wi-Fi, etc.), leading rabbis in the Haredi community, like their forebears in the age of the Haskalah, have adopted an increasingly militant line against the “new” digital culture and technology. One could hear this message loud and clear over a smartphone held aloft from the upper deck at Citi Field during the 60,000 strong Asifa. (Well, perhaps not that loud and clear. I had to call in and listen over a landline, but I watched the goings-on via livestream and followed the twitter hashtag #asifa throughout the evening.)
Yet actual practice is more complex. The livestreaming, smartphone-wielding Haredi represents a counter-discourse, one tacitly acknowledging (for lack of a better word) defeat: the Internet has breached “our” defenses. (He did keep admonishing viewers that if comments were not respectful, he would cut off the stream.) And indeed, Haredi leaders have reason to be concerned: according to a recent study by Bar Ilan University, Orthodox and Haredi teenagers consume twice as much online pornography as their secular counterparts. (Note: some have already criticized the study’s methodology.)
But the ‘Torah Lifestyle’ is online as well. Consider the work of Rabbi Motte Frank, a Breslav Hasid who claims that he will remain on Facebook “until the last of the lost souls disconnects from there” and reconnects with Judaism. In fact, a whole parallel universe to the mainstream Internet has cropped up in recent years. Glatube is a “kosher” version of YouTube where, as its creator quipped: “It’s exactly like YouTube, but without pictures of women.” There is also Koogle, a Google-inspired searchable directory of rabbinically approved businesses, and a new cadre of mostly female “kashrut monitors” who, like their male counterparts who peek into restaurant pots, check websites for inappropriate content. And, yes, FaceGlat, a kosher version of Facebook, has also been launched. And a number of frum websites serve as (filtered) news portals. For example, Vos Iz Neias? (What’s the News?) and The Yeshiva World News provide not only reports about national, local and foreign events, but also tech news and weather. They are plastered to the point of sensory overload with ad banners for frum businesses and concerns.
But the biggest, by far, is BeHadrei Haredim, a play on words of the phrase for “Behind Closed Doors”. Providing news and forums for opinion for over a decade, it also commanded the attention of the non-Haredi press when, in December 2011, videos of rabbinic drashot were replaced with porn clips by mischievous hackers. The site manager Dov Poversky opined in Ynet that the site was “too powerful and therefore someone decided to hurt us and drop a stink bomb on the website… At this stage I can’t rule out anyone being behind it, from politicians to people hurt by the website. I believe we’ll eventually know who’s responsible.”
BeHadrei Haredim garnered even more attention when, during the protests against immodesty in Bet Shemesh, two of its correspondents uncovered the identity of the “extremists” behind the “Nazi pashkevil” the Haredi poster which portrayed Jerusalem’s police chief as Hitler. What once was (dis)regarded as merely a news aggregator for haredim was now looking more like an original content provider - until its CEO and three executives were arrested on charges of extortion in April…
As a result of the failure to defeat the Internet, and the proliferation of Haredi internet sites, middle ways, not total bans, seem to be winning the upper hand. For example, the Lakewood Takkanah of 2005, subtitled “Safeguarding the Future Generation,” banned even filtered Internet access—but it then permitted Internet use for business purposes, terminals for “e-mail only” access and specific models of cellular phones listed in the appendix. For its part, Jnet, a Jewish Internet access provider, favors filtering. Addressing its target market, Jnet advertising says:
You want your home to be a safe haven where you teach your children the Jewish values they will build their lives around. You would never think of bringing certain magazines or movies into your home, and you don’t want that stuff entering your home through your computer. On the other hand, you want your children to be Internet-savvy and learn how to access its vast resources. As a solution, Jnet offers a proxy-free, server-based filter that “lets you choose a different level and method of filtering for each Internet user in your home.”
In Beitar Illit, a town where 84.8 percent of the men study in yeshivas, local rabbis evoked the apocalypse in September 2009 when they declared that connectivity was a cause for “[f]ifty percent of the problems in the city—sholom bayis [domestic harmony] and chinuch habonim [educating the youth].” “There is a hidden blaze in the city,” a rabbi noted, “an atom bomb underneath the city. We cannot have a situation here in Beitar in which an ehrlich Yid [honest Jew] sends his children to Torah based institutions and there’s something worse than television. This is the battle of the generation.” And yet, even with all this fiery rhetoric, the rabbis in Beitar Illit announced, with the fullest measure of their authority, that all frum residents must sign an agreement—not to disconnect from the Internet, but to use a rabbinically approved Internet filter. These were strong words—but note that they were in the service of filtering, not an outright ban.
The Citi Field Asifa echoed this approach. Spearheaded by Ichud HaKehillos LeTohar HaMachane (“United Communities for the Purity of the Camp”), who for the purpose of the ad campaign dropped “LeTohar HaMachane”, touted the event in their ads as being about “using technology responsibly al pi Torah” (according to Torah). Note the use of the words “using” and “responsibly” as opposed to, say, “banning” and “utterly” which one would expect from the coverage leading up to the supposedly anti-internet event. Simultaneous to the speeches by gedolim about responsible use of the internet al pi Torah, there was a “Kosher Tech Expo” where attendees were invited to “browse the many booths” to “[f]ind the perfect solution for your Kosher tech needs.” For many of the speakers, the only way to have a kindler, gentler, less smuttier internet would be through a web filter. One of the more entertaining tweets about the Asifa picked up on this predominant wish, observing that “[t]here’s a smoking section at Citi Field; Provided that all cigarettes have a filter.”
So do the haredim really hate the internet? Clearly, many have a strong dislike: many gedolim have deployed strong language in their condemnation of devices and websites that lead to, if nothing else, bittul Torah (wasting study time). However, probably more love it. Do the haredim have justifable cause to fear the internet? Absolutely. But then again, they are not the only members of late-capitalist postmodern society to express worry and concern about the social costs of an increasingly online existence.
Perhaps filtering is the ideal solution for a community seeking to maintain its integrity, cohesiveness and social structure while not shunning the benefits of technological advancement. It sounds like a familiar Jewish strategy that has served the Jewish people well over the last two thousand years. However, the haredi reliance on filtering and the hope that it will protect haredi users from all the unsavoury aspects of the online world is sadly misplaced. A filter is not a shtetl wall. A filter is not even a firewall. As Dovid Teitelbaum, Director of Camp Sde Chemed International, wrote in his open letter to the Ichud: “Filters sound good, but they are not the solution. A filter is only as effective as much as the person using it wants to be filtered.”
Portions of this essay were adapted from Dan Mendelsohn Aviv’s book End of The Jews: Radical Makes, Remakes and What Comes Next. (www.thenextjew.com)
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