Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Having Your Cake…

Last week I was sent a link to a website that for all intents and purposes was an Agudath Israel of America website.  It is called ‘The Lefkowitz Leadership Initiative’. It even identified itself as a division of Agudath Israel of America. (Note the subtitle under the logo.)When I asked an official at Agudah whether they were finally going to be dropping their official opposition to the internet  and refusal to have an official website, I was told  as follows:  Agudah will itself ‘continue to refrain from having an official site – as a symbolic warning about the Internet’.

This is not the first instance of an Agudah website and insistence that it doesn’t really have one. If there was ever a case of having your cake and eating it too, this is it. I cannot understand how they can clearly be taking advantage of the internet by having a beautiful website for one of their divisions and at the same time have us believe that by not having an official presence’  that they are somehow warning us about it.

I realize that they never fully opposed here as the rabbinic leaders in Israel did. They apparently approve of using it with filters. But I nevertheless remain stumped as to why they think this kind of ‘parsing’ will make any sense to even the most devout of their own constituency.

I recall the big internet Asifa (gathering) held in Citifield Stadium a few years ago. The internet was completely trashed. There was no parsing then.  Although it was not an Agudah sponsored event, I have to believe that they were in support of Lakewood Mashgiach, Rav  Matisyahu Solomon who was the organizer of the event. He was quoted at the time saying the following: 
“The purpose of the [gathering] is for people to realize how terrible the Internet is and, of course, the best thing for every [good Jew] is not to allow it in his home at all…” 
One may also recall the dire warning made at that Asifa by Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman quoting from Rabbenu Yona’s Shaarei Teshuva. When multitudes of Israel gather and decisions are made by the leaders for action of the group, anyone who separates himself from the group has no chelek in Olam Haba'a. That was immediately followed by Rav Wosner’s harsh condemnation of anyone that uses it outside of the necessity of a job. And even then only with filters… and never in the home. It was the Avi Avos HaTumah.

The vehemence with which interent was opposed was demonstrated in a video I recall of a Charedi Mechanech symbolically smashing a computer (recorded an uploaded to YouTube – which has to be the one of the most ridiculous contradictions I can imagine).

There was a bit of backpedaling on this after that big Aisfa, but the bottom line is that the internet was seen at best as a necessary evil that should be avoided as much as possible.  And certainly not to be used in advertising anything remotely holy.

And here we are today. Not Only is Agudah fully engaged in (unofficially) promoting its subdivisions on the internet - internet use among Charedim even in Israel is at unprecedented levels. A report in Ha’aretz cites the following: 
The leading Haredi Internet site, by a large margin, according to a joint survey by Max Digital and SimilarWeb, is Kikar Hashabbat, which has been a partner of Yedioth Aharonoth’s Ynet site since 2012. Kikar Hashabbat gets almost 3 million monthly visits...
Hadrei Haredim, an older and even better-known site, which has changed ownership several times and uncovered many scandals, was in second place with 1.7 monthly visitors. 
It would appear to me that if one is to believe Rabbi Wachsman, there are a lot of Charedim that will not merit Oalm HaBah! And yet Agudah advertises to these very people (unofficially of course).

The reality is that even though  millions of Charedim have been banged over the head about the evils of the Internet, they don’t care. They use it anyway. Now I’m sure that many use filters – which is a good idea anyway if you have children. But no one seriously sees using it as necessarily meaning the loss of one’s eternity. They see it the way most other thoughtful people do, as an extraordinarily useful tool of the 21st century that like many other useful things in life can be misused. Badly.  And destructively. 

It’s kind of like drinking fine wine. If done properly it can gladden the heart. Wine is used in many Jewish rituals. And during the Temple era it was sued for libations on the alter. But If misused it can cirrhosis of the liver and even death.

I have said this before. Unlike Agudah’s detractors, I actually believe they serve a valuable function in the Jewish world. Their public affairs division is incomparable in the many ways they have advanced the cause of observance in this country. Whether it has been via their lobbying efforts in Washington or in their petitions to the Supreme Court. And although I have had some differences of opinion with their Moetzes Gadoei HaTorah based on the Hashkafos of my own Rebbeim, I nonetheless honor them as Gedolei Torah. 

But on this issue – not only do I think they are wrong, I believe they are harming their own image by playing these ‘parsing’ games. It’s time for them to admit they were premature in their decision to avoid an official internet presence; to admit that it at least appears to be a contradiction to their stated policy of not having one while actually having one via one of their divisions.

They realize just that the Internet has permeated their environs. Perhaps even saturated it.  Maybe it’s time for another internet Asifa. One that teaches that the interent is a useful tool that will not automatically land you a place in hell if you use it properly.