Will the Smartphone Foment an ultra-Orthodox Revolution?

More and more Haredim have Internet access. Many wonder if the technology at their fingertips will make them lose the faith.

Nati Tucker
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The smartphone has already changed the way the ultra-Orthodox community looks at itself.Credit: Emil Salman
Nati Tucker

The “Haredi street” is in uproar. Lipa Schmeltzer – until recently a Hasidic rock star (take your pick from “The Jewish Elvis” or “The Lady Gaga of Hasidic Music”), but still a perfectly kosher, ultra-Orthodox Jew with long sidelocks, beard, white shirt and long black coat – has become a trance music star. In a music video he released in June, he hooked up with an American DJ, dressed like your average rapper and made music that went way beyond the normal Hasidic beat. The words may have been uttered in praise of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, but the music and outfits were definitely those of a goy band.

A few weeks later, Schmeltzer released another new song, “Bueh Bueh,” which created an even bigger storm. “Bueh” is an English attempt at the acronym for “Bracha Vehatzlaha” (“Blessings and Success”) – the standard words a rabbi offers to those who ask for his blessing. The song was not well received in the ultra-Orthodox community, and was even boycotted by parts of it.

The interesting question, though, is how did all these Haredim come to see Schmeltzer’s videos in the first place? Through the Internet, of course – either via a WhatsApp group or Facebook – on smartphones and computers. And all this despite the ultra-Orthodox rabbis’ never-ending battle against the Internet.

Children whose families have Internet access are not accepted into conservative educational institutions, and smartphones that don’t have Internet access blocked are still officially prohibited within the community. Anyone who accidently pulls out such a phone in public, such as in the synagogue or at school, will suffer a severe reprimand – at the very least – from their neighbors.

Nonetheless, data from the Bezeq telecommunications company shows a rise in the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews who say they are connected to the Internet. That figure currently stands at 35%, compared to 29% in 2012. The figures come from a poll based on what the respondents said, so in reality it’s likely the numbers are higher still. Some 60% of those Haredim who say they are connected to the Internet say they use Facebook or other social networking sites and applications.

Schmeltzer, who lives in New York, represents part of the change that is taking place in the ultra-Orthodox world. These are no longer marginal occurrences that happen in alleyways or behind closed doors. This time, it’s happening in the central plaza.

For decades, the ultra-Orthodox community isolated itself and grew, becoming more and more extremist and separatist. Now, though, 20 years behind the times, new trends are emerging.

The ultra-Orthodox scene on the Internet is ablaze – with websites, ads, forums, video channels on YouTube, and endless activity on social network sites such as Facebook. Large parts of the community, many of whom could be considered as being on the edges of the mainstream of Haredi society, have embraced the Internet wholeheartedly. They preserve their faith and lifestyle, but still use exactly the same tools as almost every other Western person also uses.

So what might happen if all the Haredim eventually owned smartphones? In other words, what would happen if everyone in the ultra-Orthodox community was exposed to the Internet? Would Haredi society lose its identity? Would it become less extreme, more secular? And what exactly are the rabbis afraid of?

Fear of temptation

Rabbi Bezalel Cohen has become a well-known figure in the area of integrating Haredim into society, education and employment. He heads a yeshiva for young men in Jerusalem, which he founded three years ago. Alongside the regular religious studies, his students also study secular subjects and do a full matriculation certificate – another sign of a major change in Haredi society. He believes ultra-Orthodox society is afraid of three things.

The first of the three fears is quite natural, but Cohen avoids using the exact term: Pornographic websites. “There is a fear of exposure to issues of modesty, to women and the atmosphere of the street,” Cohen says. “This is the biggest fear of the ultra-Orthodox leadership. Every struggle, at least as far as young people are concerned, comes from the exposure to norms that are not acceptable in the community. These issues are emphasized when they go out to battle. They say, for example, how the married life of older yeshiva students was destroyed because of the Internet. It’s intriguing and dangerous for every young, curious person. The Internet ‘street’ is far more attractive than the real street. It’s more enticing,” adds Cohen.

An ultra-Orthodox man with a smartphone.
An ultra-Orthodox man with a smartphone. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

But the temptations of the outside world are momentary, fleeting. These small sins don’t create a deep, irreversible change in Haredi society. Such a change can only come from a combination of two additional factors, says Cohen: Exposure to wider knowledge, and the ability of many individuals to band together around an idea.

“The less discussed part of the influence of the Internet is the fact that it opens up the opinions market,” he says. “The rabbis fear that an intellectual group in the ultra-Orthodox community will be exposed to information and opinions that are not acceptable to the leadership. Not everyone understands these fears, and it’s not clear how much they really are a threat – because it’s a relatively small group. Anyway, the danger was always there. There were always curious people who went to libraries and all sorts of other places to gather knowledge,” notes Cohen.

The real change, he adds, has come from the technology’s ability to shorten distances and allow people to interact and build new communities, undermining the rabbinic sources of authority. “The Internet has become a very big tool to organize an underground. Groups were created that developed a dialogue using email and forums. People with an ideological identity connected in a much easier way and found other like-minded people. Once, you didn’t know what the person sitting next to you in yeshiva was thinking. Today, you can get to know him.”

The Web isn’t the cause of change

“People ask me if the ultra-Orthodox community has changed because of the Internet,” says Bar-Ilan University’s Dr. Nissim Leon, a sociologist and researcher into Haredi society. “An illustration of this change is the previous prohibition on having a television set at home, compared to accessing the Internet in front of the synagogue. The difference between the ability to keep the command not to have a television – which became one of the defining features of a Haredi home – and the difficulty with the Internet explains the transformation that Haredi society has undergone. This is a change in power.”

The gap is growing when you think that the Internet has a much greater potential to cause damage than television.

Leon: “Definitely. The Internet offers a choice of what to watch – and television doesn’t. The choice on the Internet is maybe just illusory, but ultimately a person is dependent on their own choice of what to consume and what not. The control is in their hands.

Ultra-Orthodox men using cell phones in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman

“This is basically the story of the Internet and the ultra-Orthodox. More than Haredi society has changed, the new tools have introduced a dimension of choice. A conservative society can have such tools, where they have a component of free choice, but that’s exactly why this tool is much more dangerous for it. Television, yes or no – it was an ideological question: they are here and we are there. The Internet is already a theological question. The Internet has actually become a test of how you build Haredi life out of free choice,” observes Leon.

Here’s a recent example from an ultra-Orthodox Facebook group. A woman posted that she was looking for someone to teach a Talmud class to women in Jerusalem. She was looking for someone with a sense of mission, who saw it as an important value, she wrote. She added that it was a small group, about 10 women, but hoped it might expand later.

To the average secular person, this may not seem like a big deal. But teaching Talmud to women is almost taboo in Haredi society – yet here’s an ultra-Orthodox woman who’s not afraid to openly post about it. And this is not the exception. Others have called for teaching the Haredim core curriculum subjects such as math and English, in order to enable them to integrate into Israeli society.

These debates over ultra-Orthodox identity certainly didn’t start now, and are not the invention of the social-network generation. Fifteen years ago, Cohen was a member of various Haredi forums that were considered subversive at the time, where deep intellectual discussions on Jewish philosophy were held – but which couldn’t be held in public for fear of reprisals. Today, such discussions are more public than ever – and they have an ever-widening circle of participants.