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.
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).
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.