Thursday, August 23, 2012

Google vs. God

When Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s books were banned a few years ago, one of the reasons given was that it contained “heresies” like believing in an ancient universe. Some of us, including Rabbi Slifkin have come to believe that this “reason” was not meant to be taken literally. Believing in an ancient universe is not per se heresy.

What was intended by this ban and its explanation was that those who are raised to believe that the universe was less than 6000 years old - and are suddenly exposed to such theories - may become skeptics and lose their faith. In other words the ban was really meant more for a Charedi community that has been completely sheltered from a decent science education that is typical of western civilization.

I think that is a legitimate fear. Of course my answer to that is not to ban but to educate. But that is unlikely to happen.

Why do I feel so strongly about their fear of becoming a skeptic and going OTD by being suddenly exposed to this type of knowledge? It is because of articles in Slate Magazine like the one published yesterday (with the same title). The “villain” in that article is not Rabbi Slifkin. It is the internet. Which is far more capable of producing heretics than Rabbi Slifkin’s books are. In fact I would argue that a good antidote for going OTD via exposure to the internet are books like Rabbi Slifkin’s!

Obviously, as valuable as those books are, they are not by themselves a solution to what seems to be an increasing trend in Chasidic circles like Williamsburg or Kiryas Joel - and to a somewhat lesser extent communities like Lakewood. These are communities that are so isolated from the outside world that they have absolutely no clue about it – other than the extremely negative descriptions of it by their rabbis and teachers.

I understand the goals of Kedusha and Tahara that the leaders of these communities have. But their isolationist way of achieving it is simply not working in far too many cases. Before the advent of the internet with its instantaneous availability of information, hiding the outside world was to a certain degree possible.

But now, no matter how strongly they forbid it… not matter how terribly severe the sanctions are for violating bans against it, it is impossible to stop access to it completely. Not that they haven’t tried… and are still trying.  But now that computers are small enough to literally hide in the palm of one hand, people are going to be violating those bans.

They know that in the vast majority of cases, they are going to get away with it. Enforcing the ban is a lot harder than creating it. People will take their chances about being caught since it will be virtually impossible to catch them on a mass scale. While I agree that most of this world will probably adhere to the strict ban about using the internet, it is certainly no longer automatic.

As the article in Slate shows this new era of instant information available at any time and any place has enabled a lot of overly sheltered people to see the outside world as they have never seen it before.  A world that contradicts a lot of what they have been taught to believe.

I don’t think this problem is going away. The more exposed people are to the real world the more they will realize that things are not exactly the way they were described to them by their parents, rabbis and teachers. This point is well illustrated in the article by citing various examples of Chasidim who never intended to go OTD – but did so after encountering the outside world on the internet.

One can therefore understand the urgency of holding a big anti internet gathering at CitiField a few months ago. The oft stated  big fear expressed at the time was about the dangers of encountering pornography.  But I think that for the Chasidic Rebbes of isolated communities like Williamsburg and Satmar it was about a lot more. It was about the fear of their people encountering a world that they have worked so hard to isolate from themselves.

This is why I believe that they conditioned their attendance at that gathering on the elimination of an internet filter expo. They weren’t interested in filters. They were only interested in banning it altogether. And ultimately that is mostly what was heard that night – culminating in the “Psak” by Bnei Brak Posek, HaRav Shmuel HaLevi Wosner. He declared accessing the internet to be completely forbidden – recommending severe sanctions for those who do! Although that was not the intended consequence of the organizers - it must have made the Satmar type faction in attendance very happy.

But as I already pointed out and the Slate article illustrates, bans will not only not work they are counter-productive. The internet is now the ultimate forbidden fruit. It is more ubiquitous than ever. Easy to access and easy to learn from.

When the truth about the world comes out and overly sheltered people begin to realize that they have been misled by teachers who have themselves been misled - many of them will just reject the whole thing. If outside world is not as depraved as they have been led to believe; if the age of the universe is found to be a matter of debate and not universally believed to be less than 6000 years old; if things they were indoctrinated to believe are universally forbidden Halacha are in fact not universally forbidden... they start questioning everything. 

Some remain observant but leave their isolated communities. Some go OTD. Some become closet heretics. How many of them are in the closet? I don’t know but I’ll bet the numbers are pretty big and - it appears – they are getting bigger.

I don’t know how all this will end.  However - although this is the fastest growing segment of Orthodoxy because of their very large families - often consisting of 10 or more children (as has been shown in a recent survey) I am no longer convinced that they are the wave of the future. Exponentially growing numbers now do not automatically mean that all of them will remain in the fold. Not in this new world of the I Phone.