Thursday, January 28, 2010

Common Sense

We all know how severely the Charedi world in Israel judges the internet. I’ve written about it so many times in the past.

The Charedi world has built many fences around itself to protect it from the outside world. Until now it was relatively successful. The internet has changed all that. It is one area that is almost impossible to fence out.

All that insularity is about rejecting and protecting against the values of the outside world. They believe that any outside contact at all will erode Torah values. One of their biggest fears is an erosion sexual mores. The internet can challenge that value in a single moment. We all know what internet pornography has done to people with a propensity toward sex addictions. That’s true even in the secular world.

But it isn’t only porn. It is any contact between the sexes at all that forbidden. Interaction between the sexes at any level will produce serious consequences in these circles. Until the advent of the internet opportunities for contact were extremely limited and rare. But chat rooms have changed all that. That is one reason why there is such a sense of urgency about it. Old walls are coming down.

It is so sad that innocent behavior (a boy and girl having an innocent conversation) in one segment of Orhtodoxy is seen as a serious infraction in another.

How serious? The consequences can be severe. The following story was reported in an Associated Press story in the Washington Post:

In one infamous incident, the family of Israel's Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, had a 17-year-old boy kidnapped and beaten at knifepoint after he became acquainted with the rabbi's daughter through an Internet chat room and later met her unchaperoned.

So friend and neighbors… if you want to know how to discipline your children – there you have it! Just don’t use a knife that is too sharp. You may cut yourself!

The current effort by Charedi rabbinic leaders in Israel is not motivated by such concerns. That was probably their original motivation and though it is still a concern it is no longer the focus. Now it is almost all about insularity and control. Without insularity, they will lose control. That is their biggest fear. Bigger than pornography.

Now their targets are all ‘Kosher’. By Kosher I mean that there is no pornography or anything close to it in websites they frequent. Even pictures of modestly dressed women are forbidden on those sites. And there are no private chat rooms.

Charedi websites in Israel are all about communication and venting. Now Charedim have a place on the internet to speak their minds and vent their frustrations. In doing so they often criticise the rabbinic establishment. This is eroding their positions as Torah leaders. There is also discussion of scandals that the leadership thinks ought to be swept under the rug. They truly believe these websites are eroding Torah values.

It is they who represent Daas Torah and define, articulate those values - and legislate how to protect them from erosion. And that is the way most of their constituents understand it. Only the rabbinic leadership can speak in the name of God. The rest of us may not even attempt it. Doing so risks defying Torah law!

They are our shepherds and we are their sheep.

Israeli rabbinic leaders mean well. They truly believe that these actions are the best way to accomplish their goals of sanctity... that these bans are serving God in the best possible way

But are they really? Is a ban of the internet the only - or even the best – solution to their problem?

In order for me to believe that, I would have to believe that there is unanimity in the Torah world on this solution. There isn’t. Not even all Charedi leaders agree that it is. There is no rabbinic movement to ban the internet in America. Yes, it’s frowned upon and discouraged. American rabbinic leaders have similar concerns to those of the Israeli leadership.

Yes, there are isolated pockets where the internet is banned even in America. Like the one imposed by most of Lakewood school system. But there is no official ban. They realize that its use is so widespread that attempting to ban it would be like spitting in the wind. I’m sure they would if they could. But on this issue they are realists – even though they spare no effort to disparage it in tones similar to their Israeli counterparts.

The Israeli rabbinic establishment has no such inhibitions. They have decided that they are going to fully ban it. A ban that will probably include serious sanctions against violators!

It will not work.

When rabbinic leaders are so clueless about their actual power on this issue it tells me something. They are not leaders. Oh… I’m sure that many of their constituents will adhere to the ban. But I am equally sure that many more will not.

That is a good thing. Knowing a lot of Torah and dedicating your life to serving Klal Yisroel may make one a Gadol BaTorah but it does not make one a leader. That requires a modicum of common sense. Something my father used to call ‘Dem Fiftin Shulchan Aruch’. Without it one cannot lead.

I realize that few if any Charedim in Israel who are influenced by these rabbinic leaders read my blog. But if they did, I would urge them to unite and honor the ban in the breach. And then look for new leaders.