Comment / Haredi rabbis vs. the Internet, and the Internet is winning
Ultra-Orthodox schools require parents to sign written commitment that their home computers aren't connected to web.
There is no clearer sign that leaders have lost control than when they and their people can no longer trust each other. This breach of trust is at the root of an increasingly frantic campaign on the part of ultra-Orthodox rabbis against the Internet. The latest edict, announced at a gathering of rabbis and senior Haredi educators this week in Jerusalem, demands that all parents enrolling their children in ultra-Orthodox schools sign a written commitment that their home computers are not connected in any way to the poisonous web.
This is no simple step. Haredi families live their lives according to strict rules of halakha (Jewish religious law), as well as the social mores dictated by their rabbis - enforced automatically by an austere surrounding where everyone lives in the same neighborhoods and conforms to identical norms. But eventually, the relentless scrutiny ends somewhere; and while every moment of their lives is regulated by the word of the book and the orders of the spiritual leaders, the rabbis never found a way to enforce what goes on behind closed doors. They never felt they had to.
If you and your family kept up appearances outwardly, it was assumed that your behavior indoors was also beyond reproach. No family belonging to the community has ever been asked for a written undertaking that they did not eat pastrami and cheddar cheese sandwiches, turn the kettle on during Shabbat or have sex without going to the mikveh first. All of these and much much more were a given. But the Internet is different.
The rabbis have realized that, despite strict prohibitions for over a decade, many of their followers still surf the Web. And no, it's not the thousands of pornographic sites that are worrying them, or that kids could be tricked in a Web chat into meeting up with a pedophile; it is the Web sites specifically targeting their communities, especially the forums, that have struck the fear of God in them.
These forums provide digital proof of the pervasiveness of Web use within the ghetto. Until the advent of the Internet, the ultra-Orthodox community reliably regarded itself as its own closed-off world. The newspapers published within the community were heavily censored, and if it wasn't for the efforts of a small band of religious affairs reporters in the secular Israeli media, none of the rabbis' internal squabbles would have ever gotten out.
Over the last decade, though, a chain of online forums have become a platform for the release of pent-up discussion and controversy. Under the cloak of anonymity, Haredi men and women - mainly from the younger generation, but also some older ones - have removed the veil from sectional rivalries, crises of belief, and intimate social and familial frustrations, in an almost no-holds-barred exchange of views, accusations, innuendo and good old gossip.
Unlike most of the crap you read on so many forums and blogs, the Haredi writers, many of whom use nicknames that give away only their particular internal affiliation (such as their Hasidic sect or their yeshiva), are usually informed, more to the point and express themselves well. These guys and girls know what they are talking about and not only are they giving away jealously guarded communal secrets, they dare to question the actions and motives of their elders. And from within the closed walls of the community!
On the face of it, the ultra-Orthodox community has never been as powerful as it is today. The United Torah Judaism party controls the Health Ministry and the influential Knesset Finance Committee. Shas controls the Interior Ministry and the Housing and Construction Ministry, and both parties together have a lock on any religious legislation thanks to their pivotal position in the coalition. Beyond that, no one seems to be threatening their sacred cows: state funding and the independence of the Haredi education streams; the exemption of Yeshiva students and religious women from national service; and the stranglehold ultra-Orthodox rabbis have over almost all issues related to conversion, marriage, divorce and burial.
The political dominance, however, belies the growing vulnerability of the rabbis' leadership. No amount of government funding can change the fact that the increasing birth rates and higher proportion of Haredi families within the general population is rapidly creating a social and financial time bomb. Many secular observers and economists have noted the intolerable burden that a community with low participation in the workplace has on the national economy, but the greatest frustration with the situation can be found among the ranks of young Haredi men and women who realize they are being forced, by familial and communal expectations, on a life path that will be both unsustainable and unrewarding.
It should come as no surprise that nascent initiatives, for example, offering Haredi in their early twenties academic courses and even specialized army careers in the air force and intelligence corps, have rapidly become oversubscribed. For now, few are motivated enough to take the plunge and burn bridges with their families and the community as a whole; but after having a taste of the outside world through the Web, they are anxious to find ways to become part of society as a whole.
Some sociologists and historians who research the Haredi world believe the Internet will ultimately break down the ghetto walls and generate a new wave of enlightenment - a 21st-century haskala that will lead many of the younger generation into the arms of the secular camp. Even if the great majority of the community remains faithful to the ways of their fathers and mothers, the desperate attempts by the rabbis to cut them off from the Web are proof that they are no longer in thrall.