Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Belzer Rebbe and the Internet

One of the things I noticed during my current stay in Ramat Bet Shemesh is that just about everyone is connected. Not to each other. But to the internet. Not everyone is of course. My son does not have an internet connection for one. And I’m sure there are quite a few others without one as well.

But In trying to find some wireless connection here in Ramat Bet Shemesh I discovered that at just about any point in the city one can find a wireless connection. Looking at the list of wireless connection was a real education for me. There were as many as a dozen of them available at any given point.

Most of them were secure so they didn’t really help me much. But it was a real eye opener to see so many in this virtually 100% religious suburb not only connected to the internet but with wireless connections. That means they probably have at least two computers.

Last time I checked the city was about 60/40 Charedi to Dati. One would think that perhaps those connected are mostly from the Dati community. Perhaps. But the people who generously allowed me to use their wireless connections were Charedi. That is how I am able to post anything during my stay here. I thank them for it.

That there are Charedim in Israel that use the internet is not a surprise. But that it is apparently so pervasive is. It is as though it was a perfectly kosher and uncontroversial enterprise.

But we all know that isn’t true. The internet has been branded as the most evil influence of our day by Charedi Poskim.

The latest pronouncement to that effect were made by the Belzer Rebbe. From YWN:

In his motzei Simchas Torah address, the Belzer Rebbe Shlita came out in no uncertain terms against the internet, citing the many hazards to it brings to the Jewish home.

In the Belzer tradition, the Rebbe Shlita delivers an address on motzei Simchas Torah, a type of summation of the Tishrei yomim tovim. This year’s address focused on the dangers to “ones home and children” as a result of bringing the internet into one’s home.

He of course was not the first one to speak out so forcefully. As I recall the Lakewood Yeshiva community schools will not accept children whose parents have the internet in their home. But based on my experience here in Ramat Bet Shemesh - Charedim completely reject that attitude and use the internet at their convenience as they wish.

This is apparently true of Belzer Chasidim too. Why else would the Belzer Rebbe choose to make his admonition now?

It also seems to be that there are enough Belzer Chasidm that use the internet improperly for the Rebbe to be concerned:

The Rebbe spoke of those who circumvent well-intended measures, explaining today there are ‘kosher’ cellular telephones. In addition, today there are internet connections that are filtered, to exclude unwanted material. The Rebbe however made it clear, warning he is well-aware of the many who have two cellular telephones, the kosher one and the ‘non-kosher’ one to satisfy their needs, and others who wisely bypass internet restrictions.

Doesn’t the Belzer Rebbe realize that treating the internet as evil makes it a forbidden fruit? And that forbidden fruit is sweet? Doesn’t he realize that the internet can be used as much for good as it can for bad? And that it is a useful tool in the lives of the vast majority of those who use it? And that is indeed why they do use it? And add routers so they can use remote wireless computers.

I have said it before and I say it again. The dangers of the internet are real. But the advantages are just as real. Those of us who have it and use it know its benefits and risks. But like many things worthwhile in life one needs to take great care to avoid its pitfalls. The internet keeps increasing in value as an important resource with vast amounts information available at your fingertips in a flash.

Most people know that and take the proper precautions. And if one has children one must take additional precautions to keep them safe. As they do with other dangerous but useful materials. Should one throw out a stove because his children might get burned and eat only cold food?

There are exceptions that should avoid internet use. For example if someone has a predilection to porn, he should not use the internet and get professional help. For those who can’t help themselves –they can find other ways to satisfy their needs. If they don’t get it online they will get it elsewhere. Where there is a will there I s a way. Banning the internet because of such individuals is just plain wrong. And will probably have the opposite effect.

I reiterate my call to rabbinic leaders like the Belzer Rebbe to stop treating the internet like it was a hot coal and treat it for what it is: a useful tool that requires due diligence and good parenting. Because going around saying the sky is falling will just make them lose credibility.