Ultra-Orthodox Jewish group declares war on computers
Gerrer Hasidic sect debates use of internet, fears it will promote slander, conflict.
Where else but on the Internet could the articles raise such a fuss? "There are no kosher movies," "No more computers," read some of the headlines on Heder Shaket, the online forum where Gerrer Hasidim conduct discussions, some of them daring, under a blanket of abbreviations and internal code. As usual in the virtual world, for a long time truth and rumor about what was permitted blended together, but an official declaration of war has finally been issued - a war against the increasing computerization of the ultra-Orthodox world.
Every Gerrer Hasid with a computer can expect a house call in the near future, meant to persuade him to get rid of the treyf device. Those with an Internet connection - the height of spiritual contamination, which only a few members of the community have rabbinical permission to use, and that for work purposes only - will receive special attention.
The purpose of the campaign is not to threaten computer users with sanctions, but rather to explain the "spiritual dangers" to which they and members of their household are exposed. If the Gerrer rebbe so wished, members of the community say, he would have ordered the computers removed from his followers' homes. But the rebbe is not doing so, perhaps because he, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, knows how difficult it is to round up the horses once the stable door has been left open. And so, the campaign's purpose is informative: Every shtibl [small synagogue] is to appoint two people to go from house to house with the message that it is preferable not to have a computer at home.
While the battle over televisions was a successful one, computers are common in ultra-Orthodox homes. They are used mainly for word processing or to watch "kosher" films (Haredi-produced family fare, often educational). But many of them are connected to the Internet. Efforts to create a kosher Internet with restricted access have not borne fruit. Haredim from all sectors of the community participate in the dozens of Haredi forums that exist. Some of the "heavy users" are from Ger, Israel's largest Haredi sect, with thousands of families.
The moral issue is not the only one. For over a year, the Gerrer community has been following the fascinating battle in the courts of Gerrer Yisrael Ackerman, who is petitioning for the revelation of the identity of "Ploni Almoni" (the Hebrew equivalent of "John Doe"), who is also apparently a Gerrer. In 2004, Ploni Almoni posted an anonymous announcement on a Hasidic forum claiming that Ackerman beat up another Hasid, a nam named Levine, whom he suspected of disloyalty to the current rebbe.
The conventional wisdom in the community is that "Ploni Almoni" is one of a small group within the sect that questions the current leadership of the community, and that behind the lawsuit of Ackerman, the scion of a respected Hasidic family, are associates of Rabbi Alter. Many believe the legal battle is intended to deter community members from using the Internet, which can provoke the use of slander. On Heder Shaket and similar forums, one can easily find content that is critical of the Gerrer leadership.
In Hasidic communities such as Ger, where allegiance to the rebbe is a fundamental value and where every individual is dependent on community institutions from cradle to grave, the increased supervision of the Internet is causing panic. One of the regulars of Heder Shaket has already told the forum that he intends to get rid of his computer. "Up to now I felt it was between me and God, but today I feel that it's against Ger and that I cannot make my own law; I must accept the new regulations," he wrote. He called on fellow forum participants to join "the measure to clean our homes."
The fate of the kosher movies, which Gerrer families watch via computer, is still not clear. One married yeshiva student from Jerusalem related that he recently spent hundreds of shekels buying Haredi educational films for his children to view, "but if during the house call they tell me it isn't okay, then I'll throw them in the trash."