Sunday, April 15, 2012

Daas Torah and the Internet

After reading a post by Berel Shain, I must concede that he has a point. I don’t know who he is. But from his words he appears to be Charedi and at the same time a strong - kind of anti-establishment critic of it.

An Assifa - a mass gathering is about to take place at Citifield – a huge sports stadium in Queens, New York where the N.Y. Mets play. It will deal with a new and supposedly unified Charedi rabbinic approach to the internet. And according to Mr. Shain the driving force behind it is BMG (Lakewood) Mashgiach, Rav Matisyahu Salomon.

Mr. Shain observes that Rav Salomon, of whom he claims to be an admirer, is exactly the wrong person to be promoting and leading the charge here because his approach until now was so clearly mistaken. Rav Salomon had been in the forefront of trying to get educators across America to ban the internet entirely except with a special permit for Parnassa reasons. - albeit not officially. It hasn’t worked.

We now see Rav Salomon and his rabbinic colleagues coming on board with this reality. Something most of us the rest of us who use the internet already knew – as Mr. Shain points out. I tend to agree with him. I agree with his observation that Rav Salomon is not and cannot be – familiar with the medium. I doubt very seriously that he uses it at all. I think this is probably true about most of the rabbinic leaders who are involved in this gathering.

One who does not participate in usage cannot possibly know what it is all about except through secondary sources – those who have ignored the ban and do know what it is all about. They are the ones who have told these venerable religious leaders what it is.

This presents a kind of conundrum. Shouldn’t those whose purity with respect to the internet, whose eyes have not been contaminated by it be the ones to issue rules about it? And yet how can they without having direct knowledge about it? No matter what they have been told, it is not the same as using it. How can their judgment about it possibly be accurate? Isn’t that lack of familiarity the reason they have failed in their attempt to ban it form their midst?

On the plus side these leaders are intellectually honest. They sincerely try to promote what is best for the public welfare. So being wrong about something in the past does not disqualify them from changing course when they realize they were wrong. I am absolutely convinced of this.

It is no secret that their fears about the internet are well founded. I don’t think there is a rational person alive having any sense about what’s out there that doesn’t agree that there are serious problems. Misusing the internet can have devastating consequences upon one’s life. It can break up marriages and cause all kinds of problems even among the best of us. Internet addiction is real. It has destroyed lives. And children are the most vulnerable. I have been on board with this thinking from the very beginning. I do not disagree with Charedi rabbinic leaders about these particular dangers. Nor do many even non Jewish educators and parents.

I don’t know what this gathering will come up with in the way of a solution. Certainly filters will be a major part of the solution – as they are in the non Jewish world.

But I believe there is another side to this that is of concern to Charedi rabbinic leaders. A side that is not of concern to the secular world. And that is the exposure to that very world. A world that filters will not eliminate. This exposure will destroy the insularity that is so strongly valued by them.

Insularity is no longer an option. Banning the internet in order to perpetuate it has not worked. If one allows its use in any way, even with the best filters in the world, you may eliminate pornography. But you will not eliminate the outside word. It would be impossible to create a filter that eliminates everything not Charedi. If you allow limited use, as I’m sure they now will - the world will more than seep through.

While Charedi leaders may see that as an absolute evil, I do not. There is much in the non Charedi 0r even secular world that has value. There is no reason to deny it even to the most devout among us.

I think that this is what they fear the most. Charedi rabbinic leaders realize that there are some pretty good filters out there. But there are no filters that can eliminate seeing all works of great literature, art, music …or works of science.

I assume that this may be the focus of the upcoming meeting. I assume they will still say that the best option is to not have the internet at all. At the same time they will say that this is an unrealistic goal and will put forward guidelines about what is appropriate and what isn’t - even with filters in place.

Compliance will probably be executed via some sort of ‘Big Brotherism’. Charedim who have the internet in their homes will be required to have subscriptions to some sort of official monitoring groups that will see by remote access what is being viewed. This will keep people in check and prevent them from going to those websites deemed harmful to their Hashkafos.

I suppose this will have some limited success. But ultimately it too will fail. ‘Big Brotherism’ rarely works. It will most certainly create a backlash of those who will defy using this service. There may be sanctions put in place for non compliance. For example children of non subscribers to ‘big brother’ may be denied enrollment in their schools. But I don’t see that being too successful. Once you’ve seen Paris, there is no way to keep them back on the farm.

Common sense will ultimately prevail. Sites deemed inappropriate by Charedi rabbinic leaders will be increasingly accessed. Good people will remain good and their minds will be expanded in the process. This is a good thing. As the moderate Charedi world expands so will their minds.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t dangers. There are some websites that can lead even good people astray. But then again so can certain books available at any bookstore. Or certain teachers, newspapers, magazines and assorted other media. If one wants to go off the Derech there is plenty out there to help them do it. And indeed the interent can accelerate the process.

I suppose one can make the argument that saving even one person from going off the Derech is worth the price. Perhaps. But the genie is out of the bottle. The pros of the interent are too great to ignore. I think everyone realizes that now. Controlling how people use the internet is impossible. Rav Salomon and his rabbinic colleagues can try. But I don’t think they will succeed. At least not on any large scale. What we therefore need the most is common sense, dedication, perseverance, and most of all Siayata D’Shamya.