Monday, March 08, 2010

The Internet Conundrum

The dangers of the internet have been discussed in various media ad nauseum. But there seems to be no end in sight for the war against it. I have in the past listed what I believe to be legitimate concerns about this medium that should not be ignored. In essence I have actually agreed with almost all of the criticism leveled by the Charedi rabbinic establishment.

My only difference with them is in how to handle those concerns. They hold that bans are going to do the trick. But obviously these bans are being observed mostly in the breach. The number of Charedim who do not use the internet are minuscule compared to their overall numbers.

In truth it is only the Israeli rabbinic leaders who are pushing the ‘total ban’ route. The sentiments there are reflected by that video of a Rosh HaYeshiva destroying a laptop computer. In America there seems to be a more realistic approach. Though the American rabbinic establishment would ban it if they could, they realize that a ban won’t work.

So except for areas like Lakewood where the educational establishment can hold it over the head of a parent like a weapon, the emphasis is on responsible use. Which is pretty much the same thing I endorse. I need not go into those details.

The focus has been on pornographic websites. This is a very valid concern in all segments of society. Even non Jewish ones. As Jonathan Rosenblum recently put it:

Every Orthodox rabbi in North America with whom I have spoken in recent years has his own stories of homes destroyed by the Internet. Though the tragedies may not be uniformly distributed across the Orthodox spectrum, no part of that spectrum has been spared. Sins that once required the expenditure of energy and time, as well as the potential for humiliation if revealed, can now be done instantaneously in private, with little danger of detection. The Internet not only facilitates the ease with which one can act upon existing temptations, it has the capacity to create previously undreamed of desires.

That pretty much sums it up. And it has been part of their battle cry ever since the issue was first addressed.

Of late there have also been other reasons with which the establishment has become concerned. Charedi websites that allow the disparagement of rabbinic leaders have now been included in their reasons and motivated them toward an even greater push against it.

In some cases even supposedly approved websites like have come under fire because of embarrassing comments from those who defend the Charedi view! The rabbis who advise Matzav have suggested eliminating all reader comments because of it.

There is another issue that is not too often mentioned to be concerned about. It isn’t just porn or Gadol bashing or even inappropriate comments on a Charedi blog. There are websites that are dedicated to destroying belief in God. These are perhaps more dangerous than the all the others combined.

Porn addiction – for example can be treated. One’s faith in God is not really diminished by even the worst porn site addiction. Only self esteem is diminished. But when someone is convinced to question their faith in God, that is almost impossible to recover from. No matter how much of a believer one was in the past.

This has been shown to be the case in many instances. In one famous case a believing and secularly educated blogger with the best of intentions was turned into skeptic via their encounters with other skeptics and their arguments. And if one who does not even have a basic secular education, the impact of such websites can be devastating!

This is what happened to a believing Chasid from London whose intentions were completely L’Shma. It began with a visit to a prominent Chasidic Rebbe in Israel. From his own words in an article in the

"A friend of mine mentioned that he was going to an Aish seminar, which gives you a crash course in learning in how to answer questions about Judaism and the historicity of our stories and reconciling science and the Creationist view," he recalled.

"I was a little bit reluctant. In our circles, it is generally thought emunah pshutah [simple faith] is the way to go and one is not really supposed to question the way at all because that can ultimately lead to heresy.

"However, I thought I won't be influenced because my faith was to me quite untouchable. I thought it would be nice to be able to answer questions when you are sitting on a plane and people tend to ask you what is your take on evolution. Sometimes it is quite awkward not being able to answer… So I went."

He was impressed by what he heard and did a little further research on his own computer. And that’s when everything went south:

"For about two or three years I was involved in this struggle, nobody knew about it, not a single person," he said. "And I still considered myself a very strong believer throughout this time until it reached a tipping point."

One Friday night, during the Sabbath eve service, around four years ago, he said, "I remember standing in the corner of the steibl… and they were singing. It just dawned me - it was something of an epiphanaic moment for me, when I realised 'Hey, you just don't believe, and it's ok not to believe, it's just what you are, nobody can blame you for it.'"

There was "no real reason to believe in a Deity", he felt, and the Bible was not true.

I am not saying this experience is typical. But it is a very familiar to me. It is one I keep hearing from those who were once believing Jews, had been exposed to these websites, and stopped believing in Judaism and in God at some point.

I’m not going to go into a lengthy discourse about the counter to their atheist arguments. I’ve done that and I don’t really think I have convinced anyone except for some fence sitters. Hopefully. That is not the point of this post. It is a warning that there are dangers on the internet that are rarely discussed even by the biggest of its opponents. And it is an admonition to not react in ways that won’t work anyway.

As dangerous as these kinds of encounters are, it is impossible to stop the advance of technology. The benefits are enormous – as I’ve said many times. The problem with right wing rejectioism is a refuslal to deal with that aspect of it. They prefer to ignore the benefits as paling in comparison to the possible harm. As such they prefer a complete ban when ever and where ever possible.

But that simply does not work. Where there is a will, there is a way. The interent will be found by those who seek it even if it is banned. Not only that but there will come a point in time that the internet will be as common in everyone’s home as the telephone. It will go from being a tremendous convenience to a necessity.

I will end with a story I heard about the Birsker Rav. Back in the fifities a Talmid of his who had just gotten married and setting up his new home asked him a Shaila about buying a telephone for his apartment. The Brisker Rav responded that phones were not a necessity but a luxury that he should live without. He should therefore spend his money more wisely.

Is there any Gadol alive today that would advise a student not to have a phone in his house? I doubt it. The internet will eventually become an even more important tool than the telephone. Banning it is futile.