by R. Gil Student
The Fall 2015 issue of Klal Perspectives addresses Technology and the 21st Century Orthodox Community. The following is my contribution to the journal.
A famous saying has it that Jews in America are just like everyone else, only more so. Perhaps when it comes to the Internet, Jews are like everyone else, only less so. The following thoughts are admittedly impressionistic due to a lack of data. Moreover, I am not a sociologist. However, I am very much involved in the use of the Internet for Orthodox communal purposes. Likely because of that role, I have been observing the Orthodox community’s interaction with the Internet, particularly since the focus on its dangers was raised in broad communal terms in the Asifah of 2012. With that reference, I should disclose that I strongly opposed the Asifah, for reasons I will explain below.
The Internet’s impact on general society has certainly seeped into the Orthodox Jewish community, but to a lesser degree for us than for others because of our unique communal and cultural traits. For example, Shabbos observance forces us offline for approximately 25 hours a week. On occasion, throughout the year, we have prolonged electronic “fasts” due to Yamim Tovim, sometimes lasting as long as three consecutive days. Forced to live in the pre-Internet era for these short periods, we exercise the skills that the Internet tends to suppress, such as holding conversations without electronic interruptions. Similarly, though our schools’ policies limiting Internet use are generally observed only in the breach, the concerned attitude toward Internet use conveyed by our yeshivos and rabbis force us to at least construe Internet use as an option, rather than an unquestioned necessity. Nevertheless, just as the Internet has dramatically changed general society, it has had a substantial impact on our community as well.
In this essay, I will discuss some of the benefits that the Orthodox community has enjoyed by capturing the opportunities afforded by the Internet, but also the significant drawbacks. Some of the more obvious and seemingly pressing issues generated by the Internet are, from a historical perspective, not particularly concerning. There is, however, another issue that is historic and theologically urgent, threatening to undermine our entire communal order and tradition. That issue will be discussed in the second half of this essay. I believe that, unfortunately, there is no simple solution for these problems. However, the old approach, exemplified by the aforementioned Asifah, is doomed to failure. I can only suggest another approach that may not be popular, but it is all I have.
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