Out with the New

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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 Thirteen 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 twenty-somethings pursuing multi-million dollar bonuses by creating and marketing complicated instruments that no one really understood may also revive traditional notions of craftsmanship, taking 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 “progress” or “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 Beitar Ilit, 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 because they cannot possibly imagine confronting their children on something where they will encounter great resistance. (Ninety per cent 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 Internet themselves to deny their children.

Dr. Yitzchak Kadmon, head of the National Council for the Child, says that parents have no clue as to what their children are doing on Internet. They have been completely neutralized. Forty per cent of Israel 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 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 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. An example of the latter is a game whose goal 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 Email.

FORTUNATELY, Israel 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, long-time head of Tzion B’Rina, a yeshiva high school for students from the former FSU in Beitar, 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 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 accomodations being negotiated. The challenge posed by 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 public 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 difficult tightrope to negotiate.

This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post, Friday, 9 January, 2009.

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2 Responses

  1. Observer says:

    I HAVE, in fact, given a lot of thought as to the issues of internet access and children. And that is *precisely* why the ban in Beitar Illit seriously problematic. The families that have internet access will, by and large be unable to afford to give it up because they don’t have it for entertainment, but for reasons such as parnasa. What will happen is the same thing that I have seen happen in other communities – parents will simply lie about the matter. What, exactly, do you think this is going to do to the chinuch of the children?

    And how, exactly, are you going to help kids come to terms with the fact that almost every chareidi publication – trumpeting its adherence to the guidelines of the Gedolin, even in their advertising – has multiple ads for non-business products that have web sites and email addresses, and that these same publications – also intended for the home and not business – all have email addresses where they can be reached, and most of them ALSO have web sites. Are you really willing to tell children that these addresses are for people who transact their *personal* business at work? What is THAT going to do to their chinuch?

    Before anyone jumps down my throat for saying that people are not giving up their internet access, allow me to give you a couple of examples of what I have seen and heard, either directly or from sources I beleive are trustworthy.

    One frum blogger describes how his friend took a notebook around the frum areas of lakewood shortly after a similar ban was announced there, and discovered dozens of open wireless networks with access to the internet. Given that not everyone who has internet access has wireless, it’s obvious that a substantial number of families have internet access.

    Someone from Lakewood who was doing a project for my organization discussed the possibility of getting short term internet access. One of the issues on the table was the high probability that they could pick up wireless access from the neighbors. (It turned out that when working from their apartment, they couldn’t, but from a relative’s house they could.)

    An employee at my organization came to me to discuss filtered internet options for home (I’m the IT person). The story was that the school their child was going to be starting had finally relented on its ban after one relatively high profile parent had forced the issue, but still required an acceptable filtering mechanism (which makes a lot of sense.) “So we need a good filtering service because we don’t want to lie about it, which is what parents have been doing until now.”

    Don’t get me wrong – the internet is scary. But, so are the streets of Manhattan and Tel Aviv. Worse, whether you have internet at home or not, any child who is going to work (and many who do stay in learning and / or Avodas Hokidesh) wind up needing the internet. Period. So, whether you have internet access in the house or not, you had better deal with the problem up front and give your children the chinuch to deal with it.

  2. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    There seems to me to be no insurmountable halachic problem with having a preferred standard alongside a fallback position. There are those who need internet for work or professional study. There are those who have different standards as in kashrut. The annoying thing is the denial. There are people in the hareidi community who have cabinets designed to hide a television as well.