Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Having Your Cake and Eating It Too

Agudah spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran
I’m glad to see that Agudah has joined the internet age. There is a video online (available for viewing below) promoting their next banquet. Except that they haven’t really joined the internet age. One may recall that at last year’s banquet one of their speakers excoriated all forms of internet participation.

Agudah’s official policy is that they do not have a website or any internet presence. There are those among Agudah members and sympathizers who have suggested that they do need an internet presence in our day since that is where the majority of the Jewish people (including their own members) get their news and information. The Agudah should be there for them. And counter much of the negativity written against it.

Back in pre-internet days, Agudah did have a presence in the media that made their voices heard - the Jewish Observer. One can quibble about how literate it was. But no one can deny that they were able to get their message out to more than a few people even outside of their own circle.

But  that was then. Times have changed and so has the method of mass communication. The internet is now what magazines were then. Agudah has, however, deemed the internet to be so evil that they have refused to have a presences on it. But they do allow others to do ‘their dirty work’ for them.

I’m sure that’s the case with this video promoting their convention. I am pretty sure that this video was produced independently and has no official connection to... or approval from Agudah. Except that it does have at least tacit approval since I have not heard them demand that it be removed. My guess is that they are very pleased with it.

But how can they be consistent with what they said about it at their last banquet and be pleased with an internet ad promoting their convention at the same time? Is this what the speeches were all about last year? No internet! (wink wink)? One may recall Rabbi Dovid Zweibel referencing his Blackberry at the convention to read something relevant to his speech – and apologizing for using it.

This attitude is so absurd that it belies any logic. It is like someone trying to have his cake and eating it too.

One will recall the internet Assifa a couple of years ago. Rabbi Ephraim Waxman’s introduction to Rav Wosner included an admonition that when the Gadol HaDor speaks to masses and Paskins about an issue, the public is then bound by it. Anyone that does not adhere to that Psak - loses their portion in the world to come. 

Rav Wosner then followed with a blanket condemnation of any internet use. He later clarified that he meant only private use in the home and not for use in business. But even then -  always with a filter. So strongly did RavWosner feel about this condemnation that he declared anyone who violated this edict would not be allowed to register their children in any of the religious schools.

And yet here we have a very slick video production advertising the Agudah convention with no protest from Agudah. If their flock is not supposed to look at anything on the internet that is not work related -  and never at home - how will they ever see this video?

The obvious answer is that in essence the Agudah realizes that internet use is pervasive and is taking advantage of it with ‘plausible deniability’. They realize that people are online today for all kinds of reasons only some of which are work related. Even their own executive director is on it. I would be willing to bet that Rabbi Zweibel’s Blackberry is not filtered.

There are several issues in play here. One is the fact that Agudah must realize that the internet is quite useful and they are going to utilize it. But in my view it is therefore contradictory for them to say that they do not approve of it.

Another issue is the fact that edicts of great rabbis are being ignored in the extreme. How many mainstream Charedim are on the internet? I‘m sure the answer to that is the vast majority of them. Some will claim that they use it only for work. I’m sure there are a few like those. I would not however be surprised if the vast majority use it for all kinds of things that have absolutely nothing to do with work. Like reading my blog …or Gil’s blog…or Matzav …or YWN (…or even FaliedMessiah when no one is looking).

Does this mean that the dangers of the internet are no longer there… or that we are better able to control ourselves and avoid problematic sites? I doubt it. I’m sure there are more porn sites now than ever before.

And there are Kefira sites that promote heretical ideas. These are particularly problematic. I have been told that a lot of even Charedi Jews who access these sites become closet Korfrim (atheists) who have become so because they have chanced upon these sites.

This cannot be countered with bans.  It ought to instead be countered with education. That should begin at the earliest educational level so as to know how to deal with these sites which will inevitably be accessed. I think the Agudah knows the problem. But I am not convinced that they think a ban is not at least one way to counter it.

I have disagreed with the ban and all the anti internet rhetoric we hear at Agudah conventions like the one last year and will most likely hear this year. We will hear more of the same or worse – with more scare tactics about how big the problem is. But as I have constantly said – and continue to say - the only real way to counter the negative influences is with education and good parenting.

It would do Agudah well to abandon its policy of avoiding a presence on the internet; rethink its method of dealing with it; and change its attitude from one of vilification to one of honest appraisal of both the good and the bad. The internet is not synonymous with evil. They ought to stop implying that it is… and become a presence on it. Only good will result.