Posted on Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012 at 4:28 am
Author: Emily Manuel
In New York yesterday, forty thousand Haredim (“ultra Orthodox”) and Hassidic male Jews crammed into Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets, in an asifa (rally) against the Internet. It was a striking sight, a sea of austere black clothes, forelocks, beards. Like the Haredi women unable to attend this single-sex gathering, I, of course, watched it on the internet live stream.
It is an anxiety as old as modernity itself–the fear that technological change will destroy relationships, families, communities, souls-and one apparently so pressing that an organisation called Ichud HaKehillos LeTohar HaMachane (Union of Communities for the Unity of the Camp) considered it worthwhile to rent out the stadium at a cost of a mere $1.5 million.
Rabbi Ephraim Waschman charged that the Internet said is “changing who we are…You can see it in the ebbing eyes of the younger generation, of the jittery inattentiveness of our children, in the flippant and callous language and attitude, the cynicism … the unbelievable breaches of [modesty in Orthodox communities].” Rabbi Don Segal told the story of a man who, forced to use the Internet for work, “became completely spoiled. This device destroyed his yiddishkeit” (Jewish values).
The rally has provoked a surprising amount of interest outside the ultra-Orthodox world, with a mixture of scorn, bewilderment and levity among the responses. More seriously, counter-protesters outside the asifa noted there has not been a similar rally against the wave of molestation which has been exposed in ultra-Orthodox communities recently with writing in the New York Times, The Jewish Forward, and others. The immoral abuse of power by rabbis against their vulnerable charges has not been met with similar outrage as Internet porn.
In short, to rail against the Internet today in 2012 feels much like protesting the printing press or electricity or modern medicine – pointless and self-defeating.
But unlike anti-technology groups like the Amish, Orthodoxy has never rejected modernity tout court, incorporating modern technology judiciously and sometimes inventively into Jewish life, mediated by halakhic (Jewish religious law) principles. The question of how to use technology in a Jewish way has long pre-occupied many rabbis, while entrepreneurs have produced numerous devices that obey Orthodox laws about the Sabbath, where switching an electrical current on or off is forbidden.
It is this that is in part fueling the asifa, which was not uncoincidentally sponsored in part by an Internet filtering software company. While some of the rabbis allowed for the necessity of Internet usage for work, at its more extreme elements, others advocated Orthodox Jews stay away from the Internet entirely.
One rabbi in a large Hassidic group, speaking anonymously to the The Times of Israel argued that even filtering software provides an insufficient response to the dangers of the Internet:
“A whitelist, where you are allowed to surf only to specific sites, is the only way you could possibly allow the Internet into the home. There really is no choice today but to take the most extreme position you can against Internet use,” he said.
“It’s just too easy to surf to inappropriate sites. Not too long ago you had to go through a great deal of work if you wanted to, for example, view pornography and keep your interest private. Today it comes to you. This is a major crisis for religious Jews, and it is just as much a tragedy for everyone else as well,” said Reb C. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that life has gotten so much shakier, with depression, suicides, drug addiction etc. at an all-time high, during these days of unlimited Internet access.”
As the secular Jewish philosopher Karl Marx once famously noted with Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto, in capitalism, “all fixed, fast frozen relations with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”
The diagnostician of capitalism par excellence, Marx recognised that it was the relations of commodity production and consumption that drive our engagement with technology. Businesses and governments are online now, irrevocably, and indeed many can no longer be conducted offline at all. Haredim may pack as many stadiums as many times as they wish, but so long as they want or need to do business with the plugged-in world around them, it is doubtful that it will result in much.
And indeed, as threatening as the world outside might appear, it is clear that the real danger is inside. Rabbi Yechiel Meir Katz told the crowd that the problem is a lack of self-discipline and discernment about appropriateness: “there is not sufficient integrity among the generation today for people to be able to sit in front of a screen with the Internet, and to be able to decide what is acceptable and what is not.”
But perhaps the rabbi is mistaking integrity for desire. The Internet, and more particularly the Internet porn which occupied centre stage at the rally, exerts a pull because it is desirable, because we desire. Haredim often follow the doctrine of shomer negiah, abstaining from contact with the opposite sex, but sexuality is not so easily repressed (Freud didn’t call it a sex drive for nothing). Indeed its suppression very often results in an eroticisation of the very forbidden object or practice. To ban the Internet through religious mandate, or demonise those who do use it, is essentially pointless, since an unfollowed law is no law at all.
It would be better if the Haredim gave sexual desire a place in their religious practice where it could thrive more openly and honestly. But then again, if that were possible, perhaps the asifa never would have taken place in the first place.
Global Comment © 2012 | Design & Developed by : Slate