Haredim declare war on the Internet

Haredi concerns about the dangers of Internet would be shared by most parents if they had not thrown in the towel on guiding their children.

After the evening minyan on a recent trip to the United States, a 40-something man beseeched me to write about a Web site called GuardYourEyes, which provides tools for those who have become pornography addicts through the Internet. He did not explicitly tell me he was one such addict, but the fervor with which he prayed suggested his personal torment.
Every Orthodox rabbi in North America with whom I have spoken in recent years has his own stories of homes destroyed by the Internet – whether it be through chat rooms, or erotica Web sites, or instant communications devices that make it easy to establish illicit relationships. Sins that once required the expenditure of energy and time, as well as the potential for humiliation if revealed, can now be done instantaneously in private, with little danger of detection. The Internet not only facilitates the ease with which one can act upon existing temptations, it has the capacity to create previously undreamed of desires.
AWARE OF the devastation caused by the Internet, and determined to prevent it from becoming completely entrenched, the leading haredi rabbis in Israel have declared war on it. A conference for haredi educators in Bnei Brak two weeks ago, attended by a rare cross-section of the most revered senior rabbinical figures in the haredi world, promulgated several decrees against home Internet use.
The baseline position was that no haredi family should have Internet in the house. If one or both of the parents need Internet in the house for business purposes, they must first install appropriate filters, preferably in combination with a server like Internet Rimon, which both excludes the most problematic Web sites – e.g., pornography and gambling – and has the capacity to preview and censor material even within acceptable sites. The password for entry to Internet must be known only to the parent who needs it for business purposes. In addition, a rabbi must certify that there is a need for Internet. These provisions will be enforced by requiring each child in haredi educational institutions to provide a form signed by the parents that they are in conformity with the above requirements.
Above all, these requirements are designed to convey an unambiguous message that Internet constitutes a moral hazard that should be avoided and, even in cases of necessity, approached with the utmost caution and protections. So great is the danger that it outweighs such considerations as convenience or even educational value. Only economic necessity, coupled with layers of protection, can justify its possession.
The haredi leadership seeks to repeat with respect to Internet what was done to television in America in the 1960s and ’70s: to make its possession a defining social marker of who is within the haredi community and who is not. Certainly Internet has already exacted a toll in victims far beyond that of television in that vastly more innocent period when it required prescience to forecast the degree to which it would degenerate.
Television, however, was nothing more than an entertainment medium – not a necessity for modern life.
INTERNET IS something quite different. At the Bnei Brak gathering, Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, the most respected of the senior roshei yeshiva, admitted, “If we would be able to totally ban the Internet, that would be fine. But we can’t do that, since there are those who need the Internet.”
Increasingly, Internet is the principal means of conducting many of the basic transactions of modern life, whether it be banking, checking bus schedules, finding a site that calculates the proper times for prayers on transatlantic flights, or just for shopping. In some cases it is only a convenience – one can live without the information or obtain it less efficiently. In others, the difference is primarily a matter of time, though the hours saved are no small matter for stressed haredi parents, who often must perform chores with several young children in tow.
At one major hi-tech company that operates separate facilities employing haredi women, visits to sites other than those needed for one’s work are cause for dismissal. But the facility retains two work stations where women can do some basic banking and other such functions while on break or after work.
More important, Internet is essential for much modern employment. And at one level, it even offers unique potential benefits to the haredi world. An ever-increasing percentage of haredi women – and haredi men – are being educated in computer-based fields. With the move of haredi women from teaching jobs within the haredi educational system (in which the job market is saturated) to hi-tech come a host of new concerns about working in mixed work places. A number of companies have discovered that they can employ haredi women at relatively low pay by providing sexually segregated work places and mother-flexible work schedules in or near haredi population centers.
Ideally, working by computer from home offers a possible solution to haredi concerns about mixed workplaces and the need for flexible hours, but that depends, of course, on having Internet in the house. That is just one example of how the tension between competing haredi ideals may play out around Internet.
Given the centrality of Internet to modern life, the attempt to impose a ban (with exemptions) in the home might strike many as a futile attempt to turn back the clock. And that might well be true in the United States, for instance, where home Internet is nearly ubiquitous, even in haredi homes and where every handheld device has Internet connectivity. There the emphasis will likely be on damage control through Internet education, filters, increased parental supervision.
But in Israel the haredi public has the market power to secure “kosher” cellphones, without Internet connectivity. And the haredi leadership, it turns out, might be more on target than most secular parents with respect to what is at stake.
Every study of parents’ perceptions of their children’s Internet use shows that parents are totally clueless about both the quality and quantity of their children’s Internet use.
They have no idea how many of their children have shared personal information or agreed to meet strangers over the Internet. And they are unaware of the degree to which their teenagers are living in a largely isolated, alternative reality – about 55 hours a week for the average American teenager. Education officials in the United Kingdom are exploring ways to limit time teens spend on game sites. While parents would like to think that their children are locked in their rooms exploring the reaches of human knowledge on their personal computer, the greater likelihood is that they are at porn sites – the use of which spikes in the afternoon hours when teens are home alone.
One of Judaism’s six constant mitzvot is “do not stray after yourhearts and after your eyes...” While haredi efforts to preserve the“purity of the eyes” may seem hopelessly quaint in our eroticallycharged society, haredi concerns about the dangers of Internet would beshared by most parents if they had not thrown in the towel on guidingtheir children.

The writer is the director of Jewish Media Resources. He has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.