Friday, January 13, 2012

Absolutists and the 5th Chelek

I have no idea whether this website has anything to do with Leib Tropper. But if the website’s name is any indication - it does. Kol Yaakov is the name of Tropper’s Charedi Baal Teshuva Yeshiva. Which makes the subject matter dealt with therein extremely ironinc since Tropper was guilty of the very kind of behavior blamed on the internet. Which is the subject of that website’s video presentation.

In that video (beginning at about 19 minutes into it) Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein tells a horrific story about a 19 year old religious Jewish girl that was kidnapped by people who tricked her into their arms via the internet. By the time they rescued her she had become completely psychotic. Psychosis is a mental disorder that means that one has totally broken off from reality. It is not treatable by standard psychotherapy. Truly a tragic story

Rabbi Wallerstein then did what all absolutists in our religion do, he urged that people stay of the internet in any form, Facebook, chat rooms… all of it! …because dangers like these are so real and so tragic.

I am so tired of this drivel. I don’t know how many times I have written about this issue. Yes, the internet has its dangers. Yes it can be misused. And yes tragedies like the one described here do happen. There is ample evidence of that.

The problem with all these absolutists is they fail to admit the positive benefits of the web which are enormous. That should be obvious to anyone who is reading this post. You do not discard a valuable tool just because it has a potential for misuse even when it could cause great harm. Although many of these absolutists acknowledege the tremendous benefit, they argue that the potential dangers are so great that whatever the benefit, it is not worth the risk.

Using this argument I could ban studying the Torah. How many times is the Torah misused as justification for evil?! The misuses of the Torah in this sense is enormous if you think about it. How many times do people get hurt in its name? How many religious women were spat upon or beaten on buses? How many people have created a massive Chilul HaShem via cheating on their taxes, or in business, or in perpetrating fraud in various money laundering schemes… and then trying to justify their behavior as technically within Halacha?! The Torah world is still reeling from the evil occuring in Bet Shemesh in the name of Torah!

Even Rav Elyashiv could not escape being a victim in this sense. A few years ago in the name of Torah he was pummeled with rotten vegetables by religious zealots who could not accept his lenient Psak about excavating a certain gravesite.

No one is going to ban studying Torah. Least of all the people who want to ban the internet. The point is that anything can be misused no matter how valuable a tool it may otherwise be.

Before anyone’s shorts get all tied up in knots, I am not comparing the internet to the Torah. I am only saying that just because there are dangers in using a tool does not mean we must discard it. All it means is that we must use caution when using it. I am not going to go into a lengthy discussion about how we can use the internet safely. It’s all out there and has been discussed to death. There is always a risk. No matter how valuable - a tool can be misused.

But acknowledging that takes common sense – the ‘5th Chelek’ (volume) of the Shulchan Aruch… a volume sometimes missing in certain circles. That’s why - for instance - we occasionally see public trashings of TVs, computers and laptops.

One might say I am going a bit overboard here and that the right wing world has come around to the idea that in some cases the interent is indeed useful and that it should not be entreily banned. Well, that is certainly not the case in Israel. The Charedi world has completely banned it there except in cases where it is necessary for one’s livelihood. In the US, rabbinic leaders have not banned it, but they would if they could. They urge people who need it for work to not use it for any other purpose. Yeshivos and day schools in Lakewood (and probably many in New York) will not accept your children if you do. And the recent Agudah convetion’s central focus was on the evils of Frum bloggers – yet another reason to ban it.

I hope it’s not true but I have been told that Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman has pubicily suggested banning the interent entirely. Even for purposes of livelihood. He says the dangers of the internet are so great we are in a situation comparable to what it was like in the early 20th century when Jews who were forced to work on Shabbos or lose their jobs. He supposedly said that just like seriously committed religious Jews sacrificed their jobs for the sake of Shabbos, so too must religious Jews sacrifice their jobs for the sake of ridding the Torah world of this scourge!

So much for common sense. Lest anyone think Rabbi Wachsman is no one of consequence I can assure you that he is. He is a Rosh Yeshiva and rising star in the Charedi world. He is in great demand as a public speaker. He is looked up to. When he speaks – Charedim listen.

What kind of future does Judaism have when it’s up and coming leaders have discarded the 5th Chelek?

If I were Charedi I would try and start a revolution. I would make it my goal to see that every home has the internet, urge that it not be misused and that proper precautions are taken in that vein, and in order to restore common sense into the Torah world - make blogs like this one mandatory reading.