Topic: Haredim and the internet
There exists on the internet a wide variety of material that segments of the population deem irresponsible and dangerous to the well-being of themselves, their families and their communities. The Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox Jews, hold this belief. How does this group deal with the open universe of the internet while maintaining it as a functional tool for business and communication? In what follows, I will discuss reactions and activity of the Haredi community in relation to the internet.
In the late 1990s, when the world wide web was exploding with new websites, a brief, informational site on Satmar Hasidism, apparently published by an independent-minded Satmarer, issued a warning in Yiddish at the top of its home page which said, “if you can read this, you should not be using the internet. It is muktse.” Though the site has since been removed, it’s warning is emblematic of the official Haredi attitude toward the internet, essentially that it is not a place for Torah-true Jews. Reality, however, was that Haredim were engaging with the new medium in significant numbers.
In early 2000, a group of prominent Haredi rabbis in Israel representing Hasidic, Lithuanian, Sefardic and Mizrahi precincts, issued a ban on use of the internet. They argued, "The Internet is a danger 1,000 times greater [than television, which was banned 30 years ago], and is liable to bring ruin and destruction upon all of Israel." In spite of this most daunting claim, the rabbis did manage to issue a dispensation for business use, a fact that clearly underscores the understanding that the internet is an indispensable tool. However, the rabbis specifically noted in their halakhic document that if the use of the internet was required for business, it should, under no circumstances, be available in the home. But, in a community where televisions and computers are delivered to homes in dishwasher boxes, it was inevitable that Haredim would begin to use the internet and that the internet would begin to make forays into their homes.
With access to a virtual universe of textual and visual material in an environment in which the user can remain completely anonymous, the Haredi community perceives the internet to be a great danger to its sense of control. One informant likened the internet to a “chainsaw,” saying that it is a useful tool, but not one that you would keep in your living room.
In November of 2003, the official English language journal of Agudat Israel, The Jewish Observer, dedicated an issue to the dangers of the internet. The article offers excerpts from the Novominsker Rebbe’s address given at the Torah Umesorah convention on the problems of the Internet, in which he alleged that “The internet, with a flick of a button, invades a Jewish home, a Jewish soul, and makes moral disaster.” The Rebbe added that “if your business cannot get along without it, you must create the strictest controls around its use. Do not give it free rein! Remember that you are dealing with a force that contains spiritual and moral poison.” In the same issue, Rabbi Leyb Keleman writes that, “the internet has penetrated our community, but with the same strength [with which we avoided television], we shall uproot it….Our gedolim have advised us to remove internet from our homes, and so we will do.” But the Aguda is also realistic and knows that computers will end up in people’s homes. As a result, they offer helpful tips such as placing the computer in a well-trafficked part of the home so the screen can be seen by all, and by not having web access, but filtered email only.
In spite of this and other official attempts to control it, Haredi use of the internet seems to have burgeoned to the point where there are not only officially sanctioned e-khinukhsites to augment religious studies, but also unauthorized Haredi blogs, or web diaries, and discussion forums. The majority of these sites are unofficial and anonymous. This anonymity affords the writers an opportunity to express opinions that are not favored in their communities, an issue that has raised hackles in online forums and elsewhere. Among the weblogs, or blogs, as they are more commonly referred to, there are a few well-known writers, among them Katla Kanya, who writes in Yiddish. Another is the Hebrew language, Yoshev al hagader. Both offer acerbic takes on the Haredi community from an insider’s perspective. There have been a number of other Haredi blogs which are no longer current. Like the blog medium in other languages, Haredi blogs appear and disappear, depending on the whim of the writer.
The discussion forum, in which one creates a topic and responses are posted to it has remained one of the most active for Haredim. One of the most popular is the Hyde Park forum. Hyde Park is an Israeli-based general forum and among the wide variety of forums on sports, music, news, pornography and virtually every other subject people wish to discuss, are forums with titles like: The tsholent pot; Litvishe kop; Skverer nayes; a Khsidishe farbrengen; Khadorim haredim; as well as a number of local forums relating to activity in Bnei Brak, Boro Park, Kiryas Yoel and others. There are also forums such as “graphic design for Haredim” and computer tech support in Yiddish. If the number of messages is any indication of their popularity, with those in the Hyde Park forums ranging from 1 to an average in the low tens of thousands, by far the most active forum is that of Khadorey Haredim, with over 200,000 messages.
The role played by Yiddish is important in these forums, since its use functions as a barrier to the vast majority of outside observers. When, for example, a Hebrew message was left by an obvious outsider on the Yiddish tech support forum saying that Yiddish and computers did not really go together, the post was roundly ignored. Yiddish forums and blogs create a closed atmosphere where Haredim can post more freely and worry less about interference from outside sources.
Among the matters discussed online, is what to do about the issue of the internet. For example, in a recently held discussion on a Yiddish forum, this question was broached. Of the dozens of posters, all agreed that the internet was a negative and dangerous influence. Yet all of the posters admitted to using it regularly. This is exemplary of the irony, or, some might say, hypocrisy, of those Haredim who frequently make use of the internet.
Recognizing that it is an indispensible technological tool, Haredim are making attempts to control access by filtering out websites which they perceive to be objectionable. While there are a number of companies that sell filtering software, there are also a few specifically Jewish ones. The filtering companies geared toward the Jewish community allegedly have a clearer idea of what Jewish internet users need and do not need. Among them is Jnet, a company that offers filtering with its own dial-up and DSL service. On its website, Jnet alleges that many Jews have simply been avoiding the internet because of the dangers it poses. Their brochure states: "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." Jnet offers filtering which "provides reliable protection for your family-and it can't be disabled or bypassed, even by a child who knows more about computers than you do." Jnet is one of the best known Jewish webfiltering companies and their advertisements, which generally appear on the walls of Brooklyn, tout haskomes.
But Jnet's server and client-based filtering is not comprehensive enough for some. Offering a higher level of protection is Ayinroah, meaning a watchful eye, and is based on the hevrusa system of Talmud study. As their website states, "rabunim say that a computer is user byichud," or prohibited to use alone. The phrase, Ayinroah, is taken from Pirke avot, chapter 2, in which it is written, “Contemplate three things, and you will not come to the hands of transgression: Know what is above you: a seeing eye, a listening ear, and all your deeds being inscribed in a book." This is exactly what the company does. It is a service wherein clients have a hevrusa, or an internet "accountibility partner," who receives an email report of all sites you have visited. Inappropriate sites are ranked according to content and listed at the top of the report. The concept behind this is that the user will be humiliated if his hevruta finds out he has been going to inappropriate sites. If you attempt to disable the program, the partner is instantly alerted. Ayinroah has a unique, pyramid scheme built into it, in that not only must the initial user have an accountibility partner, but the accountibility partner must also have one. In this way growth is forcibly built into the business model.
Ayinroah is a company that clearly fears the internet, even with filtering. As they state on their website, "These programs does [sic] not in any way take away or minimize the tekanah of lock & key, that children should not have access to a computer. Would you have a poisonous snake roaming around freely in your house because it is programmed and trained not to byte [sic], would you?? We still strongly recommend NOT having Internet at all!!!" This is another example of the odd irony that pervades the issue of the Haredi world’s use of this technology: an internet company that is opposed to the internet.
A third, more restrictive filtering model is that of YeshivaNet, which provides the highest level of protection. Developed initially to provide yeshivas with limited access to the internet in order to purchase books and supplies, YeshivaNet’s services are also available to businesses and individuals. YeshivaNet provides what is called a "whitelisted web," or access only to sites approved by the company's internet mashgikhim. If customers require access to certain sites, they must submit them to the mashgiah, who determines whether or not they should be provided with access. The founder of YeshivaNet, told me that he "decapitates the internet." No searching is permitted. There is no access to Google, Yahoo or any other search engine. Access is given to places of business, such as banks and respectable clothing stores. Forums such as Hyde Park were deemed reprehensible and access would not be allowed to them. The founder of Yeshivanet said that he considers the internet to be one of the most powerful tools in history, he also thinks it is extremely dangerous, particularly to children. He said that he doesn't like his children to enter homes where he knows there is only filtered internet access.
To a certain degree, it seems evident that Haredi internet users must rely on themselves in avoiding the perceived pitfalls of the internet. One informant agreed with this, commenting that, "there's no substitute for parental - and self - vigilance. And there's no way to stop a determined yetser hora other than self-control, usually obtained through diligent Torah learning."
To conclude it may be useful to place Haredi use of the internet in historical perspective. When the Yiddish press of the Russian Empire was freed of restrictions in 1905, it grew exponentially in a short time, with a paper published for each major political orientation. It took the visionary leadership of the third Gerer Rebbe, Reb Avrom Mordkhe Alter, to issue the first dispensation for a newspaper for ultra-Orthodox Jews in 1907. This helped provide the first major media forum for this community. Similar events occurred in the world of politics. For hundreds of years, Jews relied on shtadlones, or personal intercession. Even after the creation of specifically Jewish political parties, ultra-Orthodox Jews continued in this mode until a small number of rabbis created the Agudas Yisroel party in 1912.
Currently, Haredim seem to be in need of such vision in relation to the internet. While the internet issue has been condemned from above, the Haredi masses are listening, but not obeying. Additionally, according to informants, as well as comments on discussion forums, Haredim do want to abide by their rabbis decisions. In the end, though, the laity often dictates major halakhic reality. In the case of the internet, in spite of the numerous rabbinic admonitions, the Haredi community is coming to terms with a powerful technological reality on its own. Though the best methods for overcoming the challenges of the internet are still in development, it is clear that the Haredi community will be as wired as everyone else, if not more.
copyright 2004 Edward Portnoy