It’s Not Just Porn: Why Ultra-Orthodox Jews Fear the Internet
Attendees at Sunday’s rally used binoculars to watch rabbis deliver sermons about the Internet. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
There’s a reason ultra-Orthodox Jews wear long black coats, even insummertime: They’ve been resisting modernity since the Enlightenment era. Butwhile their 18th century clothes may set them apart on the streets of Brooklyn, it can’t stop Twitter feeds and Google News updates from infiltratingtheir lives.
That was the topic that drew more than 50,000 ultra-Orthodox men to the Mets’ Citi Field Stadium on Sunday. (Women weren’t invited for reasons of religious modesty.) a statement signed by prominent rabbis promised that the event would discuss the “serious family-related problems” caused by the Internet. “They probably mean porn,” smirked Joe Coscarelli in a NewYork magazine post.
According to organizer Eytan Kobre, the attendees had more than pornography on theirminds. “Technology poses a major challenge to us as human beings,”says Kobre, who is the U.S. editor of the ultra-Orthodox magazine Mishpacha. the problem is not just what religiousJews are looking at on the Internet — it’s also the way its deluge of information is weakening their focus and challenging their worldview.
For some rabbis, the solution is simple: Religious Jewsshould boycott the Internet. in the large ultra-Orthodox community of Lakewood,new Jersey, a 2005 ruling forbade adults to go online without explicitrabbinical permission. but a lot has changed since then. Religious Jews aren’tAmish — they carry smartphones, Skype with relatives, and use the Internet toearn a living.
at Sunday’s rally, a long list of rabbis weighed in on the problem. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism has no Pope, and while its authority may notbe as decentralized as Wikipedia’s, there are hundreds of separate clans andrabbis. some of the speakers advocated for filtering software,while others insisted that Jews should avoid the Internet altogether, even forwork. the speeches — some in English and some in Yiddish — carried on untilnearly midnight, but the final verdict wasn’t entirely clear.
None of this seems to bother Kobre. Whatmatters, he says, is that his community has opened up a massive discussion aboutthese issues, contradictions and all. he responded promptly to an emailedinterview request and spoke to me from his cell phone as he drove to his officein Borough Park, Brooklyn.
Yes, I’ve seen it, though I must admit to notbuying a hard copy. It’s a great magazine, but I look at it online.
the motto of the event, which was approved by the top rabbinic leadership, was, “Using technology in accordance with Jewish values.” but there’s no question that some of thespeeches conveyed a more absolutist view — recommendations not tohave Internet at all in the home, or only to the extent absolutely necessaryfor business. our community is often viewed as a monolith, but we’re adiverse group of 300,000 to 500,000.
What there is no difference of opinion about is our beliefthat technology poses a major challenge to us as human beings. on this, ourposition dovetails amazingly with broader human values. in fact, secular peopleare adopting practices you’d think had been suggested by religious extremists –for instance, observing an Internet Sabbath each week. And we didn’t invent the ideaof Internet filters.
It’s a huge issue. It’s less of anissue in our community than in society at large. but ever since theInternet came about, there’s been more of an onslaught. all of these problemsexisted before — pornography, gambling, adultery. but technology is a portalthrough which these discount canada goose men’s lupo glove enter our homes.
It’s a good point, and I think there’s some merit to it. but pornography addiction is not at all limited to theOrthodox community. in fact, it’s nowhere near the levels in our community thatit is in secular society. the easy access to miniskirt-wearing women hasn’tlessened the hunger for pornography.
Besides, we’re not entirely cut off from the rest of theworld. If you’re growing up in New Square, up in Rockland County, maybe you canbe almost hermetically sealed off. but I’mnot, by any means. I work in Borough Park, the capital of American Orthodoxy,and I’m surrounded every day by huge temptations that challenge my principles. Sothe idea that we’re more vulnerable because we’re cut off from the rest of theworld — it ain’t quite so.
Yes, and these are all discount canada goose men’s lupo glove Nick Carr wrote aboutin his Atlantic cover story, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” he talks about how the Internet affects cognition — short-term memoryand long-term memory, the ability to sit and read a book in depth, and so on.
in fact, I was looking at another piece at TheAtlantic.com, ablog post by Ross Douthat. he was addressing a comment by another writer who saidthat Google had been immeasurably beneficial to his research. It enabled himto have obscure volumes at his fingertips. Douthatresponded, “The web is very good for certain forms of writing — the highlypolitical and the highly personal chief among them — and very bad for others…. the Google effect makes it harder to write War andPeace, and harder to read it.”
I was struck by that, because that kind of in-depth reading constitutes a large part of what we do. When you look at Talmudstudy, the study of Jewish ethics and philosophy, there’s a lot of complex stuffgoing on there. the ability to study those works can beundermined by Google and the Internet.
Absolutely. You go into any Yeshiva — secular people wouldbe astounded at the mental and emotional stamina requiredto decipher those texts. my son is 14 years old. He’s in 9thgrade. he has to sit every morning for two to three hours at a time studying theTalmud. And he’s only a high school kid — full-time Torah scholars spend everywaking moment doing this. And then you think about the way the surfingand twittering culture is scattering our attention. I don’t think those twoparadigms are compatible. Or at least, this is a challenge that has to beaddressed.
It’s the talk of the rebbes’ lounges — the teachers’ lounges. There’s been a precipitous drop in kids’ ability toread, process, remember, recall, and produce quality work.
I don’t think we’re looking to mine the ancienttradition to develop a response to this. We don’t need to get the big rabbiswith the long gray beards to open the giant tomes to tell us how to deal withGoogle and Facebook. We want to be very contemporary, to listen to what psychologistsare telling us and proceed from there. And yet we’re being characterized asultra-Orthodox Jews gathering at CitiField for an anti-Internet prayer rally. That’sthe story reporters like to fall back on.
Let’s parse that for a moment. What we’re saying here is, “I’mlooking at a picture of people I’ve never met. And on the basis of the most external and superficial ofindices — the beards, the color of clothing, the monochromatic nature of it — I’m making a value judgment about the sophistication of their thoughts and the depth of their feelings.”
There may be elements of truth to that. but the irony is that hipsters all dress a certain way, andthe whole point is to dress entirely different from everyone else. Orthodox Jews actually have the courage to dress the sameway as 500,000 of their brethren. They’re the ones who challenge people byasking, “Are you deep enough tolook beyond my garb and relate to me as a thinking individual?” in contrast, the hipster buys into the most external of indicators: thatwhich is immediately apparent to the eye.
Absolutely. the blessings of the Internet are astounding.Take Friday night candle lighting time — you can look that up online. Thousandsof people all over the world have had their first Shabbat experiences byfinding hosts on Shabbat.com. And there are sites like Aish.com and Chabad.org, with dozens of newlyauthored articles and videos each week. There’s HebrewBooks.org — 50,000 Torahbooks at your fingertips. It’s phenomenal, wonderful. I could go on for hoursin praise of the Internet in the service of Judaism.
but this is really about a cost-benefitanalysis. We may find out we can’t have 50,000 Torah books at our fingertipsand also be protected from pornography. the other alternative — which I believe isprobably what we will find — is that these two discount canada goose men’s lupo glove need not be mutuallyexclusive. but if we find out that they are, I’m absolutely going to forgo the50,000 Hebrew books online. I’ll go to my local Yeshiva, where they’re all onthe shelves anyway.