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Jewish Journal

Orthodox grapple with ubiquity of Internet

By Ben Harris, JTA

February 28, 2011 | 3:36 pm

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.”

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