Home / Legacy /

The Flatbush Internet Asifah

 

I. Gatherings

The total freedom of the internet clashes with a religious lifestyle. Integrating the two, as is becoming increasingly necessary, requires careful thought and planning. Last month, tens of thousands of Charedi men gathered to hear about this topic in what I can only call a circus of mixed messages and logistical failures. Even many rabbis who initially supported this Asifah returned frustrated and angry. The Flatbush community recovered from this misstep this past Sunday, at a local follow-up gathering.

The Flatbush Charedi community (meaning, not the Young Israel and Jewish Center crowds) gathered in large numbers to hear leading rabbis discuss the internet. R. Avraham Schorr, R. Yisroel Reisman, R. Moshe Tuvia Lieff and R. Matisyahu Salomon addressed a packed house. I attended and consider the reported estimate of 1,500 men and women to be reasonable. It was literally standing room only in the secondary room, where I was situated.

In contrast with the prior event, this Asifah was successful in multiple ways. The rabbis stayed on message (more on that shortly), spoke in a language everyone understood (i.e. no Yiddish), kept to the time limits, provided practical advice and concluded with proposed community standards that are realistic. R. Reisman made a point of announcing that no money whatsoever was spent on the event — facilities and advertising were free — and they were mainly recommending free software. After the speeches, about twenty tech experts were available to offer free advice and assistance to individuals and this useful guidebook was circulated (link – PDF).

II. Main Messages

The main message of this Asifah was to stay away from pornography and proactively guard against its temptation. As in most communities, this degrading pastime has made serious inroads into the Charedi world and the rabbis called on the entire community to put a stop to it by reducing internet usage, installing filters and enacting other security measures on computers and mobile devices. The scourge of pornography has distorted good people, destroyed marriages and lowered the religious commitment of too many. No one mentioned the potential of addiction and the attendant need for therapy, which I consider an unfortunate oversight, but I believe all good people can agree with this primary message.

R. Reisman spoke about his experience counseling individuals and couples about pornography. In a fantastic speech, he offered multiple practical attitudes toward filtering computers and strategies on maintaining the filter’s integrity. He clearly did his research, speaking to both techies and formerly mischievous teenagers about what is necessary, before addressing this gathering.

R. Lieff discussed filtering mobile devices. He also offered good advice on securing them. However, in my experience, mobile filters lack the integrity of computer filters. The technology is not yet there for a completely secure experience and greater care has to be taken. However, R. Lieff’s encouragement to minimize, or entirely eliminate if possible, mobile internet use would resolve those concerns.

R. Schorr was the first speaker and he focused on social media, primarily Facebook and Twitter. Due to audio problems, I could not hear everything he said. However, from what I heard he did not seem to have much of a comprehension of the nature of social media. Serious critiques, both religious and secular, have been launched against social media. I did not sense that R. Schorr grasped their essence, nor that serious responses have been offered.

Most importantly, the speakers repeatedly emphasized that they only object to unnecessary internet usage. Even R. Schorr stressed that he objects to using the internet for socializing and entertainment. Not only did no one object to business internet use, the speakers repeatedly stated that it is acceptable.

III. Secondary Messages

R. Salomon, who seemed a bit ill, provided inspiring words mainly about communal and individual sanctity. This was an ongoing, underlying message. We are a holy people and should not engage with unholy media.

Various speakers also mentioned the importance of maintaining time for introspection. The internet sucks up time, to everyone’s detriment. The fast pace of the digital era leaves little room for careful thought.

R. Schorr referred to our engagement with the internet as the war against Amalek of our generation. I recognize his penchant for strong rhetoric but in an age of an Arab Spring and nuclear build-up in Iran, I find the language choice somewhat distasteful. Let’s not forget about our brothers and sisters living in the shadow of murderous anti-semites.

IV. Critiques

To my recollection, the speakers only discussed the evils of the internet and failed to mention any of the incredible benefits of the technology. This is unfortunate because it presents an appearance of failing to fully think through the issues. I, and I’m sure many others, find this offputting because we experience the benefits every day. Perhaps the speakers felt that these benefits are so obvious that they do not need to be mentioned or that describing them would dilute their message of warning. I disagree. I see it as an appearance, perhaps misleading, of distance from the reality, a lack of comprehension which diminishes the strength of their important message.

Among the communal guidelines promulgated (click on image on right to enlarge), the first two limit internet usage to absolute necessity and non-entertainment/social use. Business, as mentioned above, was explicitly permitted by the speakers. Let us assume that shopping, banking and other personal household needs are included. Searching for medical information, as well. But something is missing—personal education.

Do these guidelines allow you to download a Torah lecture from the many websites providing them? Can you read a Torah essay posted online? Can you download Torah books from the vast collection at HebrewBooks.org and similar websites? General knowledge, as well, is available online. Can you look at Wikipedia to learn about a topic that strikes your curiosity, say the life cycle of a grasshopper? Can you read the news online? If it is considered entertainment, then presumably not, not even at Yated.com. But even if it considered accessing knowledge, this topic is unclear under the guidelines.

Additionally, many of the negative aspects of the internet discussed can be countered without withdrawing from the internet. Withdrawing from all unnecessary usage is only one solution to internet overuse. Another solution, less simple but more moderate, is to reduce usage. Techniques exist for individuals to cut back on their time online. These were not discussed at all, which I think was a mistake because people can easily fool themselves into thinking that all of their extensive time online is necessary for business. Even if true, you still need to live a life offline. Internet addicts need help from therapists but even mere enthusiasts can benefit from professional methods. Additionally, strategies exist to remedy the short attention span that the internet seems to be generating. These are fairly straightforward and fit naturally into the Orthodox lifestyle.

Facebook and Twitter can be addictive but they don’t have to be. Most people I know on social media are able to limit their usage without totally removing themselves. Other than the time aspect, the other main complaint against social media is the overexposure and self-absorption they foster. I don’t believe this was raised at the Asifah but even if it was, it can be easily remedied. I have written elsewhere about how these tools can be used properly (link).

V. Conclusion

I believe the future lies in moderate internet usage. This wonderful invention can be a great time-saver and educational tool. It opens up vast collections of knowledge previously unimaginable, particularly Torah, and new ways of studying. It is the wave of the future, in some ways we can foresee and many we cannot. But it can lead to huge amounts of wasted time, highly inappropriate viewing, improper speech and other negative behaviors that can destroy families and lives. Using the internet properly is an acquired skill. Rather than advising against usage, we should be educating children and adults to use the internet responsibly, teaching them the necessary skills to make the most of the technology with which we have been blessed.

This Asifah was a responsible attempt to deal with the challenges posed by the internet and taught many important skills, particularly about filters. However, it does not represent the attitude I was taught. More about that shortly.

 

Share this Post

 

Related Posts

About the author

Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

 
The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.
 

50 Responses

  1. Jacob Suslovich says:

    “The Flatbush Charedi community (meaning, not the Young Israel and Jewish Center crowds)”

    Did you take a survey? There was definitley a poster posted at the YI advertising the event. I was there and I saw a number of people who daven at the YI of Midwood where I often daven.

  2. Mair Zvi says:

    It would be interesting to know if there are any historic records of the reaction of the frum Jewish world to the invention and use of the printing press by Gutenberg in the 1440′s.

  3. Avi B says:

    I wonder what the response of the gedolim was to the invention of the radio or cinema. I recall Rav Aharon Soleveitchik sharing personal recollections of big rabbis taking their dates to the movies, though this was a very long time ago when the entire genre was different.

  4. joel rich says:

    i’d suggest that this issue,as major as it is, is a subset of a larger issue – dealing with the ambiguity of the real world when you are philosophically committed to a boolean world. (much like wrestling with schrodinger’s cat)
    KT

  5. Hirhurim says:

    Jacob: Sorry for the generalization. How about this? Of all the hundreds of men I saw, I recall only one with a knitted yarmulke.

  6. The “regular” (as opposed to smart) telephone is a device that is often used for all sorts of Loshon Harah such as spreading gossip, character assassination, etc. and these sorts of anti-Torah activities have been going on for a very long time. Why isn’t there a push for Community Standards for the telephone such as

    • To change our behavior pattern, so that telephone use
    is limited to uses of practical necessity

    • To totally avoid telephone use for entertainment
    purposes or social interaction

    • In general, to change our attitude regarding telephone
    use in conformity with the advice of Gedolei Yisroel

    While the above is written to some extent tongue in cheek, should it not give one pause and encourages us to ask the real question, namely, “Is there not something very wrong with our values and educational system, since they do not seem to arm people against such anti-Torah behavior?”

  7. Avrohom says:

    See this link posted on Daas Torah site. Doesn’t provide much information but interesting nonetheless.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/06/what-ancient-texts-can-teach-us-about-technological-change/258278/

  8. Hirhurim says:

    I respectfully disagree with Dr. Levine. The internet poses serious dangers of addiction that telephones do not. These rabbanim are reacting to the *deluge* of troubled people they have to counsel, often to no avail. There IS a problem. The question is how best to deal with it in a responsible and forward-looking way.

  9. MAIR ZVI:

    “It would be interesting to know if there are any historic records of the reaction of the frum Jewish world to the invention and use of the printing press by Gutenberg in the 1440′s.”

    i think onthemainline had an interesting post recently about a critic of the printing press.
    but this was an exception. in general it was considered a melechet kodesh. and in certain areas jews were the pioneers of printing. (the arab/muslim world on the other hand was very opposed to it)

    GIL:

    “The internet poses serious dangers of addiction that telephones do not.”

    do you have any teenage daughters? :)

    JACOB:

    YIM is not a typical YI

  10. I do not disagree that “the Internet poses serious dangers of addiction.” As far as your implication that telephones not addictive, I more and more often see people walking and talking on their cell phones, texting, etc. I recall hearing something recently about the dangers of people being so involved with texting and talking on their cell phones, that they often put themselves in danger while crossing a street.

    Aren’t there reported instances of young members of the O community being so addicted to texting that do it on Shabbos?

  11. shachar haamim says:

    “I respectfully disagree with Dr. Levine. The internet poses serious dangers of addiction that telephones do not. These rabbanim are reacting to the *deluge* of troubled people they have to counsel, often to no avail. There IS a problem. The question is how best to deal with it in a responsible and forward-looking way.”

    I think that this is an anachronistic approach. When telephones became easily available as a mass consumer product and the price of calling went down, it DID become an addictive or overwhelming issue for many people. People who started to while away hours of their day on the phone in pointless chatter. People who would get anxious or nervous is no one called them or if they missed a call and didn’t know who it was. People who called gambling or betting hotlines. People who called sex lines. Naturally there was also dial-a-daf and telephoen chavrusas. you get the point…

    I think the point is how to we get the internet (which was yesetrday’s TV or phone) to become the TV or phone of today. Being anachronistic, sensationalistic or overly dramtic and fire and brimstone about it isn’t the way

  12. Michael V. says:

    Full video of Asifah available here

    Review posted yesterday on this site available here

  13. Hirhurim says:

    Dr. Levine: As far as your implication that telephones not addictive, I more and more often see people walking and talking on their cell phones, texting, etc…

    Agreed but these are all very recent issues, within the last decade. And the rabbanim who spoke at the Internet Asifah would probably be happy to speak at a similar Asifah against cellphones and texting.

  14. Hirhurim says:

    shachar haamim: I think the point is how to we get the internet (which was yesetrday’s TV or phone) to become the TV or phone of today. Being anachronistic, sensationalistic or overly dramtic and fire and brimstone about it isn’t the way

    Please see the second-to-last paragraph in this post.

  15. Hirhurim says:

    It looks like the Five Towns Jewish Times website used this post: http://www.5tjt.com/local-news/14469-asifah-20-the-flatbush-follow-up

    Is that legal, given the copyright notice on the bottom of the website?

  16. joel rich says:

    You must be a rshut haraim (in the public domain :-))
    KT

  17. Nachum says:

    I wonder what media would be officially allowed for “entertainment purposes and social interaction.” Movies? TV?

  18. Michael V. says:

    Is that legal, given the copyright notice on the bottom of the website?

    At least they left your name on the article!

  19. GIL:

    “Is that legal, given the copyright notice on the bottom of the website?”

    legalities aside, they did give you proper credit and unauthorized use of intellectual content is a pretty high form of flattery.
    but they really should have included a link to the post/blog. they aren’t going to pay you for the column, but at least they can send you some traffic. i would raise this issue with them.

  20. shachar haamim says:

    I saw that paragraph and am not disagreeing with your conclusion. But I am arguing that suggesting that the internet is sui generis when it comes to issues confronting religious, personal and family life due to technological advancement have been dealt with in the past. Suggesting that thet internet is somehow “different” or more “extreme” only feeds those who DON’T want to get to the point in your second paragraph but rather want to take the Satmar or even Amish approach to confornting technological change and advancement.

  21. Rafael Araujo says:

    “The “regular” (as opposed to smart) telephone is a device that is often used for all sorts of Loshon Harah such as spreading gossip, character assassination, etc. and these sorts of anti-Torah activities have been going on for a very long time. Why isn’t there a push for Community Standards for the telephone such as…”

    You know, talking is very addictive. Since talking can easily lead to speaking lashon hara/rechilus/hotzaas shem ra we should just zipper our mouths shut!

    Also, why you are being tongue and cheek, the fact of the matter is that there are multiple campaigns, asifos, etc. to attack lashon hara and inform Jews of this grave avlah.

  22. Rafael Araujo says:

    Reb Gil – someone who viewed the Flatbush Asifah told me that Rabbi Reisman was fantastic.

    Also, R’ Mattisyahu Solomon has unfortunately been ill for a little while. So when he appears at these events, he is pushing himself to attend.

  23. Hirhurim says:

    Rafael: I agree about R. Reisman’s speech and indeed used the word “fantastic” in the post to describe it.

  24. shachar haamim says:

    one can quible with “spoke in a language everyone understood” when the speech opens with a sentence that goes “bereshus the me’argeyn of the asifa”.
    That sentence is not correct in any langauge know to mankind today and brings to mind certain dicta of chazal about the linguistic requirements of members of the sanhedrin and communal leaders

  25. David Tzohar says:

    R’Joel-I assume you meant “reshut harabbim” not “haraim”(evil domain?) A Freudian slip?

  26. DaveH says:

    Filter Software provides no protection. Any kid can goto http://www.ubuntu.org and download a ubuntu live disk image. They can boot directly to ubuntu and run firefox (internet browser) which will bypass any filters you have in place.

    Kids are not stupid. Software filters do not work.

  27. joel rich says:

    r’dt
    correct on this thread :-)
    KT

  28. Michael V. says:

    DaveH

    Your concern was brought up by R. Reisman, who during his speech discussed how to change BIOS settings to disallow booting via other appendages.

  29. Nachum says:

    Which then leaves you high and dry if there’s a computer problem…

  30. Rafael Araujo says:

    That’s the price you have to pay then.

  31. gavi says:

    I agree here with DaveH. It is hard to find a filter that a teenager cannot bypass, particularly when the teenager understands what you are doing far better than you do. Most filters I’ve encountered can be bypassed by simply using https instead of http, or going to google translate and asking them to show you a particular website in english. For those that are not vulnerable to this, the teenager can simply sign up to one of the numerous listserves which will send out daily supplies of proxy sites, to fresh to be blocked. That failing, the teen can load a program such as Ultrasurf from their USB stick, which is extremely difficult to block and almost always works. The list goes on- all systems have cracks and eventually a teen who wants to search the internet will find one.

  32. Shlomo says:

    I wonder what media would be officially allowed for “entertainment purposes and social interaction.” Movies? TV?

    Depends who. I recently read a halachic essay arguing that young boys should not be allowed to play board games since it accustoms them to bittul torah (even if they can’t actually learn torah at that age).

  33. Nachum says:

    Exactly my point. I might be more sympathetic if their attitude toward entertainment and social interaction was different overall.

  34. Hesh says:

    Perhaps apropos, another view that the internet, including social media, will be more akin to electricity than television…

    http://freshpeel.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/mobile-data-desktop-social-infographic.jpg

  35. Jenny says:

    Gil – can you explain the rationale behind the fact that the internet should not be used for socializing and entertainment (assuming that socializing and entertainment when one is not online are not prohibited)? Is the issue simply a waste of time, or is there something deeper? Was it discussed, or taken for granted?

  36. Hirhurim says:

    It wasn’t really explained well. You can see that speech here: http://youtu.be/ROfIiERp1E8

  37. Steve Brizel says:

    R Gil-are there any links to the speeches?

  38. Adam Mosheh says:

    What if my Rabbi who is a Gadol tells me that I may use the Internet on condition that I can control my temptations. May I take his advice, or is he outside of “Klal Yisroel”?

  39. Harry says:

    “R. Schorr referred to our engagement with the internet as the war against Amalek of our generation. I recognize his penchant for strong rhetoric but in an age of an Arab Spring and nuclear build-up in Iran, I find the language choice somewhat distasteful. Let’s not forget about our brothers and sisters living in the shadow of murderous anti-semites.”

    I agree that discussing metaphoric Amalekites while actual ones are plotting against the Jews is inappropriate. But, it is also inappropriate to imagine that American Jews face no dangers from home-grown Amalekites.

  40. Ben Torah says:

    USB bootups can be disabled.

  41. JS says:

    Why is the message to stay away from only pornography? This is a community that preaches against mixed swimming, and against television or magazines with non-tzniyus albeit non-pornographic images.

    And it’s hard to get away from that. Ordinary web surfing may present images which this community (understanding this is Flatbush, not Williamsburg) would officially deem ossur to look at.

  42. gavi says:

    Ben Torah- You are right- but short of entirely disabling USB drives- which is something unfeasible for the majority of computers- you can’t block a USB from running an exe without significant, extremely complicated, effort. Ultrasurf, for example, runs after boot and simply works by http tunneling on standard Internet Explorer. And even if you managed to disable the USB drive, there are myriad other ways for a teen to bypass a filter. Just as an example, they can get a friend whose computer isn’t filtered to let them use remote access or, if they are tech savvy, set their friends computer up to function as a modified proxy server which they can access remotely. All filters can be circumvented, it is simply a matter of the teens patience and ingenuity.

  43. Hirhurim says:

    JS: There are problems and there are problems. Immodest pictures (acceptable to society but not frum Jews) is a small problem. While it can and should be resolved (e.g. using Ad Block Plus), it won’t destroy a person like pornography can.

    Gavi: Agreed. Nothing is foolproof. That is why you also have to keep computers in an open area, check on your kids and talk to them.

  44. Nachum says:

    Talk to them! There it is, beginning and end.

  45. JS says:

    I agree it’s a good thing that they recognized the current big problem and addressed it for what it is instead of fighting yesterday’s big problem.

    As they said, a big problem needs a big solution (or something like that). They never had asifas against TV. I guess ‘stam’ immodest pictures don’t rate.

    I think an asifa in a place like Lakewood would be different (I’ve read that there was already something in Lakewood, but I think that was for the bnei hayeshiva specifically).

    Perhaps, then, in retrospect the BIG asifa wasn’t a total waste. There was no way that an event for such disparate groups would have been meaningful to everyone (or anyone). But on the other hand, I doubt something like this which did speak to its community, would have happened, with such a large turnout, in Flatbush or elsewhere, without the impetus of the big event.

  46. Ben Torah says:

    Rav Salomon, at the Flatbush Asifa, specifically said that event was an extension, and not a replacement, for the Citi Field Asifa.

  47. Hirhurim says:

    And R. Reisman, who organized it, specifically said that it wasn’t.

  48. Charlie Hall says:

    “Various speakers also mentioned the importance of maintaining time for introspection. The internet sucks up time, to everyone’s detriment. The fast pace of the digital era leaves little room for careful thought.”

    All the greater is the importance of Shabat in our times!

    “I believe the future lies in moderate internet usage.”

    Channelling Rambam Hilchot Deot!

    “The internet poses serious dangers of addiction that telephones do not.”

    When I was in high school (early 1970s), it was quite common for teenaged girls would tie up phone lines for hours at a time.

  49. Ben Torah says:

    “And R. Reisman, who organized it, specifically said that it wasn’t.”

    I just replayed the video of R. Reisman’s speech. Nowhere did he dispute what R. Salomon said or say anything different than what I quoted R. Salomon above as saying.

    Please specifically quote R. Reisman saying where you understood him otherwise.

 
 

Submit a Response

 

You must be logged in to submit a response.