Friday, December 11, 2009

Blogs and the Decline of Rabbinic Influence

One of the most powerful tools in my lifetime for disseminating information and influencing public opinion on any given subject is - obviously - the Internet. No better medium exists and the motor which seem to be driving the information and opinion super highway is the blog. This fact is not lost on Charedi entrepreneurs either. That’s why there has been a proliferation of Charedi blogs in recent years.

This phenomenon has occurred despite bans upon the Internet by Charedi Rabbis. Those rabbis have been very strong in denouncing and condemning the Internet as an evil tool of the devil. It is a tool that has caused countless tragedies in Chareidi homes. If I understand correctly Israeli rabbinic leaders have completely banned the Internet from all homes allowing for exceptional circumstances with respect to Parnassa or livelihood.

Of course we all know how the right wing rabbinic community in America feels about blogs. They have been denounced in the strongest terms here as well – although not banned outright. Various community institutions have taken up the challenge and have issued their own bans as a requirement for membership. This for example is a condition of enrollment for students in most if not all of the religious elementary and high schools in Lakewood. Again - with exceptions for livelihood.

But no one is paying any attention to those bans. Not in the US and not in Israel. I recall Rabbi Gil Student of Hirhurim once mentioning that as he was driving down the streets of Lakewood he could easily pick up wireless Internet that was installed in many of the homes as he passed them by. I had the same experience in Israel.

And judging by the success of Hebrew language Charedi blogs, Chareidm in Israel don’t really care about rabbinic bans either.

In a desperate attempt to regain control Charedi rabbis in Israel have called for shutting down the Charedi blogs. From Ha'aretz:

We have long been aware of the danger of the Internet; all those who enter it will not return," the letter says. "Many Jewish souls have already fallen into its snare. And private use of the Internet has already been prohibited with a severe prohibition in every house. But recently, the 'Haredi' Internet sites have gone overboard. They bring all kinds of news and gossip and slander against the Haredi public to the outside world and disseminate forbidden slander and gossip, lies and terrible impurity about abominations to thousands and tens of thousands."

As I have always said in the past –the dangers they speak of are real. But crying wolf about them has accomplished the opposite of their intent. The more they scream about the dangers it seems the more people ignore them.

If their constituents ignore them here, they will begin to ignore them elsewhere too. That is a good thing. These rabbis are not the leaders of old. They are a new generation who – lacking the stature of past Gedolim and their ability to lead by example - have tried to take control of every aspect of the lives of their flock - cradle to grave.

To a certain extent they have succeeded. But they have gone way too far and lost some of their credibility. Most of the Charedi and right wing homes that use the Internet use it responsibly. They know the dangers and take precautions to avoid them. Especially those with children in the house. And the advancement of decent ‘Kosher’ filters has helped them in accomplishing this.

No it isn’t perfect. Some still succumb to the dangers and would be better off without it. But by and large for the vast majority those who have the Internet in their homes know how to use it responsibly.

Of course we of the non right wing world have already known it can be done and have been using the Internet responsibly all along. The difference between us is that they do it surreptitiously. We do it openly.

The issue this time is not pornography. It is truth. These rabbis do not like unflattering things said about them or their communities by their own people. This is what they are railing against now:

(They) disseminate forbidden slander and gossip, lies and terrible impurity about abominations to thousands and tens of thousands.

It’s always nice to know that it is more important to respect the reputations of the community and its leadership than to warn people about the abominations happening in their midst - like pedophiles and their protectors.

Nobody is buying it. Thank God. The truth shall set you free.

Perhaps I am wrong. The owners have said that if they are ordered to shut down their blogs and websites they will.

If that’s the case, these rabbinic leaders will have succeeded in shutting down their own view from being disseminated by the most effective media tool in the world. They will leave only the non Charedi blogs and websites to present their own perspectives. The Charedi perspective will be nonexistent on the web.

But right wing and Charedi Jews will still frequent the Internet as they do now in secret - or not so secret fashion. They will peruse other Orthodox blogs and see only the perspectives of others. They may comment on those blogs but they will not be leading the conversation. They will be reacting to them.

Other media that Charedim can access for information and guidance - like Charedi newspapers - are minuscule compared to the internet – which they will not give up so easily. So the bottom line is that non Charedi influences will have an even greater impact on them than they do now. The right wing Internet bashing rabbis will continue losing their grip and become either completely marginalized or will have a constituency so small that the entire group will be marginalized.

Sounds like a win- win to me - for truth, justice - and real Torah true values. You know… the kind that eschew ignorance, intolerance, and the total insularity from the rest of the world that is so characteristic of them now.