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JewishJournal.com

February 28, 2011

Orthodox grapple with ubiquity of Internet

http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/orthodox_grapple_with_ubiquity_of_internet_20110228

Community leaders worry that the widespread use of the Internet is undermining religious norms among Orthodox Jews. (Uri Fintzy)

Community leaders worry that the widespread use of the Internet is undermining religious norms among Orthodox Jews. (Uri Fintzy)

For Josh, a Brooklyn computer technician who deals almost exclusively with a haredi Orthodox clientele, it was quite the conundrum: A man brings his computer to be cleaned of a virus that Josh believes was acquired while visiting a pornographic website. A few weeks later the man returns with the same problem.

Should Josh (not his real name) advise his client about which sites will give him the rush he’s after without harming his computer?

While this wouldn’t be much of a problem in much of the world, inside the walls of Brooklyn’s insular Orthodox communities it’s a religious and moral dilemma of the utmost seriousness.

Josh feared for his business reputation; his client was frustrated by the recurring problem.

So Josh turned to several rabbis, none of whom gave him the go-ahead to advise his client on where to find virus-free porn. And though in subsequent years he has encountered the problem numerous times, Josh says he abides by the will of the rabbis.

“I know the virus when I see it. I know they got it from pornography,” said Josh, who works out of a basement office strewn with computer equipment and soda cans. “When they come back two to three weeks later and they got the same virus, it’s pretty clear they got a problem.”

The potentially adverse effects of the Internet on everything from neural wiring to the male libido has produced a rapidly expanding body of literature, prompting concerns that the brave new wired world is undermining relationships, fostering anti-social behavior, shrinking attention span and degrading the human capacity for deep thought.

But in the Orthodox world, the ready availability of Internet pornography is merely the most salacious manifestation of a broader challenge: How to cope with a technology that is becoming increasingly necessary for carrying out an ever expanding universe of daily tasks but offers limitless possibilities for religiously inappropriate behavior.

“There’s no question it’s a major problem,” said Rabbi Mordechai Twerski, a Brooklyn therapist who treats patients with a range of conditions he says are exacerbated by the Internet. “Our entire culture is overwhelmed by the flow of information in every facet of life. There’s no way to escape it anymore.”

For a long time, Orthodox Jews could escape it. Many haredi homes lack televisions and don’t subscribe to mainstream newspapers, abstentions that once presented effective barriers against the intrusions of the wider culture. But the Internet’s growing ubiquity has breached those walls in ways that undermine traditional communal taboos.

In response, the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah, the council of rabbinical authorities that routinely issues edicts on Orthodox religious life, repeatedly has urged Jews not to have Internet access at all. And if that proves unavoidable for business reasons, the council has mandated the installation of filters that block the most objectionable materials.

Such injunctions appear to be only marginally effective, however, as the Internet has intruded gradually into every facet of life. More potent may be restrictions placed by religious schools, several of which have official policies that students may not be enrolled if they have Internet access at home.

Gershon Singer’s children attend one such school in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn that is affiliated with the Bobov Chasidic sect. An electronics salesman at an emporium on 15th Avenue, Singer’s inventory includes computers, software and smartphone accessories, but he has no Internet connection at home even though one of his teenagers has been angling lately for it.

“Why does someone need the Internet?” Singer asked.

How about airline tickets? News? Sports scores? The weather?

Singer gave up caring about the Yankees years ago. Plane tickets he purchases online at work, where there is a connection. And important news he hears about eventually, either in the newspaper—he subscribes to the haredi daily Hamodia—or around the neighborhood.

“It means that 90 percent of the bad news in the world I won’t know on the spot. Big deal,” Singer said. “I know I sound like a Puritan settler from 200 years ago.”

Given the communal taboo on Internet access, it’s hard to know precisely how widespread its use is in the Orthodox world. Singer says he believes most parents in his children’s school abide by the prohibition on household Internet, but Josh says in certain quarters its use is relatively common.

In more conservative districts such as Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a stronghold of the Satmar Chasidim, perhaps 10-20 percent of homes have Internet connections, Josh estimates. In other areas he pegs the figure at 50-90 percent.

Concern over the Internet’s corrosive impact nevertheless remains common and extends beyond the threats posed by easy access to pornography. Social networking sites such as Facebook provide young boys and girls with a discreet avenue to socialize, breaking down the community’s strict separation between the sexes. Dating sites have helped erode well-established norms which dictate that men and women should date solely for the purpose of finding suitable marriage partners.

“We find that families are falling apart,” said Twerski. “The divorce rate is up. The amount of marriage counseling problems and personal problems, anywhere from anxiety to depression to obsessive compulsive behaviors, is up.”

Even seemingly innocuous online pursuits, like reading the news, carry pitfalls for the religiously observant. A handful of news sites targeting the Orthodox not only have brought stories into homes that once were reported solely by secular outlets, but several also feature talkback functions that provide an anonymous platform for the kind of hard-edged commentary many would be reluctant to offer up in public.

In December, several prominent haredi rabbis issued an edict against one such site, Vos Iz Neias (Yiddish for “What’s News?”), a popular news aggregator. The site gathers news of interest to Orthodox Jews from various sources, including reports on sexual misconduct allegations in the religious community.

The edict slammed the site’s “contamination, filth, foul language, slander, gossip, and degrading of Torah scholars,” according to one translation, and prohibited both reading and advertising on its pages.

The site’s administrator declined JTA’s requests for comment. But Dov Gordon, an administrator at a competing site, Yeshiva World News, which thus far has escaped that kind of rabbinic opprobrium, said he is far more restrained than Vos Iz Neias, using softer euphemisms when the news is of a sensitive nature. Others say there is no difference between the sites and that the ban has more to do with internal community politics.

Regardless, the incident highlights the fear that an unrestrained online conversation elicits in certain quarters and the desire of rabbinic leaders to reassert some measure of control over communal behavior. But while that kind of rabbinic disapproval might be an effective suppressant when frowned-upon activities occur in public, the homebound nature of Internet use lowers the social costs of ignoring the rabbis.

“If you have access to these things in the privacy of your office, it’s almost impossible to resist the curiosity,” said Yaakov Gold, who runs a website to help the religiously observant combat pornography addiction. “People who don’t have protected Internet, they’re going to fall at some point. It’s almost inevitable.”

Gold’s Israel-based website, GuardYourEyes.org, has more than 1,800 subscribers to a daily e-mail meant to strengthen recipients against the temptations of online pornography. Hundreds more participate in the online forums, where addicts share tips and success stories. The site has prominent rabbinic endorsements, and Gold is developing ambitious plans for a substantial expansion of its services.

Like many Orthodox Internet users, Gold is a strong proponent of content filters, which have become increasingly sophisticated since KosherNet arrived on the scene about 15 years ago—from filtering software that is installed on computers, and in some cases can be readily uninstalled, to services like JNet, in which objectionable Internet traffic is cut off by an outside provider, to white lists specifying which sites can be accessed rather than those that cannot.

Gold also recommends a software that automatically sends a report of a user’s Internet traffic to a third party, like a spouse or rabbi.

Nevertheless, for the savvy technician or the particularly ambitious teenager, almost every method has its vulnerabilities. That creates particular problems for people like Josh, who respects his religious obligation to guard against sexual impropriety but has the technological know-how to subvert it.

“It’s not easy,” Josh said of his efforts to keep his Internet usage clean. “It’s a daily struggle.”

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