Think Again: Out with the new

The older I get, the more wisdom I find in the refusal to treat 'new' as a synonym for 'better'

Ben Stein had a nice piece in The New York Times last week. He concluded: "It is a myth that money determines who you are, and if you have gotten over that myth by now, then 2008 will have been a very good year." In general, the ongoing financial meltdown has led to a positive reevaluation of Benjamin Franklin's 13 virtues. Frugality - not purchasing more than one can afford or has any way of paying for - is perhaps the most obvious. Millions of families in affluent countries are dramatically downsizing their consumption habits and finding that their happiness levels are not thereby diminished. Many are learning that delaying gratification until we have earned the money to pay for something makes our purchases much dearer. Who knows, perhaps even traditional courtship rituals will enjoy a renaissance. The calamity brought about by 20-somethings pursuing multimillion dollar bonuses by creating and marketing complicated instruments that no one really understood may also revive traditional notions of craftsmanship and pride in the products of one's efforts, not just the amount those products fetch at market. THE OLDER I get, the more wisdom I find in the refusal to treat "new" as a synonym for "better." An insistence on evaluating technological advances in terms of their impact on our spiritual well-being characterizes the haredi community in which I live. The rabbis of Betar Illit, for instance, recently instituted a rule that no child whose family has Internet at home will be admitted to the town's educational institutions. Such a rule will no doubt strike most readers as laughable, if not downright pernicious. That is not, however, because secular parents have given much thought to the dangers of Internet access for children, as weighed against its benefits. But rather it is because they cannot possibly imagine confronting their children on something where they will encounter great resistance. (Ninety percent of Israeli kids between 13-17 are regular users, and nearly three-quarters between 9-13.) Many parents are too compromised by being wedded to the Internet themselves to deny their children. Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, head of the National Council for the Child, says parents have no clue as to what their children are doing on the Internet. They have been completely neutralized. Forty percent of youth have given out private information about themselves to strangers over the Internet, but no more than 5% of parents suspect their child in this regard. Pornography is the greatest threat for both children and adults. It is possible to get to erotica or bestiality sites by accident - at least the first time - while doing a school report on a halachic topic or zoology. But the search for pornography rarely ends with the first accidental stumble, nor does it always begin by accident. Mary Ann Layden, co-director of the sexual trauma and psychopathology program at the University of Pennsylvania, calls pornography the greatest threat to psychological health today. She describes a generation of addicts created by 24/7 free home access via the Internet. In Layden's view, pornography addictions are even worse than drug addictions. Toxic drugs can be removed from the system; visual images cannot be removed from the brain. Besides pornography, the Internet is rife with gambling sites, and can easily foster gambling addictions that destroy individuals and families. Even supposedly innocent sites for children are filled with erotica pop-ups and games promoting violence and sadism. In one of the latter, the object is to smash as many old people as possible. Even where there are no issues of pornography, the Internet itself can be addictive. Many of our children spend hours a day glued to their screen in a virtual reality cut off from normal social and familial contacts, at great cost to their social development. The negative effects of Internet use are all around us. In one year, sexual assaults by Israeli children on other children doubled. One-third of teenagers report having received threats by e-mail. FORTUNATELY, this country is not only a world leader in Internet technology, but also in technology designed to reduce its dangers. After witnessing the destruction wrought by the Internet on national religious and secular individuals and families, Rabbi Yehoshua Shapira, rosh yeshiva of the hesder yeshiva in Ramat Gan, and Moshe Weiss, longtime head of Tzion B'rina, a yeshiva high school for students from the former Soviet Union in Betar Illit, created an Internet service provider, Internet Rimon, that eliminates pornographic and gambling sites and those promoting abnormal violence. They did not label Internet Rimon as kosher Internet, for the simple reason that there is no such thing. Internet cannot be rendered completely danger free and kosher. Internet Rimon was not initially marketed to the haredi public; The original minimalistic standards were far below those of the haredi community. But over time, many different levels of filters of ever greater levels of impermeability have been introduced. Customers can request the level of protection they desire. The most visited Israeli sites are continually being filtered according to the various levels of protection. Internet Rimon poses something of a conundrum for the rabbinic leadership of the haredi community. For while a ban on Internet expresses the communal ideal, the reality is that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of haredi homes are connected to the Internet, and the number will only grow as an increasing number of basic transactions can only be done by Internet, or much more conveniently done. Hi-tech is the likeliest growth area of haredi employment, and that too often requires Internet access. Many English-speaking haredi wives of kollel students already earn good livings working via Internet during hours that their children are sleeping. On the one hand, to give rabbinic sanction to an Internet provider would lessen the force of the communal ideal and remove some of the more than justified fears of the Internet. On the other hand, failure to acknowledge the emergent social reality can leave tens of thousands of haredi homes without any protection, or protections that are easily evaded. As is often the case in the haredi community, much of the action is taking place behind the scenes, with various accommodations being negotiated. The challenge posed by the Internet to the haredi leadership is typical of the most dicey issues facing the community. They each pose a conflict between a communal ideal and emerging social realities. The most notable, of course, is that between long-term Torah learning for men and the reality that a rapidly growing number of haredi men need to work to feed their families. As a consequence, rabbinical leaders may hold up one ideal in private and privately guide and advise individuals who need to work. Were they not to provide any guidance, they would simply lose control of social forces welling up from below and any ability to guide the transition. But without constantly proclaiming the ideal, the community would be drained of its vitality and self-identity. A tightrope difficult to navigate.