If We Can’t Stop the Internet, Let’s at Least Hold a Rally Against It

Since last May's huge rally in New York against the Internet, the ultra-Orthodox haven’t stopped holding such events. They can't win, but they can remind participants that what they are doing is wrong.

Shahar Ilan
Shahar Ilan
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Shahar Ilan
Shahar Ilan

The coming of email: HaMevaser, the organ of the Porush faction in Agudat Yisrael, is a conservative newspaper even by ultra-Orthodox standards. Therefore it was more than surprising when half a year ago the newspaper began distributing a free online edition by sending a PDF file to masses of subscribers. This was the paper’s way of offering advertisers wider distribution than its print edition. It could be said that the moment a Hasidic ultra-Orthodox daily, which serves as a party bulletin, began email distribution was the moment email received certification as strictly kosher. The rabbis are still fighting a battle that doesn’t stand a chance against the Internet. However, even they recognize they can't manage without email, it has become such a necessity. The address for subscribing to HaMevaser is: netobmail@hamevaser.co.il.

The Rotmistrzowka report: Last Friday, right after its top headline story, HaMevaser published a report on a “special rally of Rotmistrzowka (let’s hear you say it) Hasids against the Internet.” The saintly Admor of Rotmistrzowka (now say it twice in a row, fast) fulminated in his speech that “since the days of Creation there has not been an attempt like this to destroy the education and sanctity of the Jewish home.”

Dozens of rallies: Rotmistrzowka (now three times) is not an especially large Hasidic sect, and it was very generous of HaMevaser to have given it such a prominent headline. The rally itself, however, is one of very many events against the Internet in recent months. The larger the number of rallies being held, the more possible it is to know the Internet has penetrated. I, for example, found nearly all the material about these rallies on the Internet.

Circumventing the walls: It is precisely the inability to fight it that is making the ultra-Orthodox establishment view the Internet as the bitterest of enemies. For decades the rabbis have worked very hard to build walls high enough to separate the ultra-Orthodox from the rest of the world. Then along came the Internet and circumvented the walls from above, from below and from the sides. The two main dangers it brings with it are pornography and the social networks. In Israel the main social network threat is Facebook; in the United States it is also Twitter.

The Internet spreads diseases: The wave of events began with the huge rally in the United States last May in which, according to the report in Haaretz, 62,000 people participated, 42,000 of them filling the New York Mets baseball stadium and another 20,000 at nearby Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, watched the rabbis making speeches on a huge screen. “Whoever uses the Internet without a filter is a beast, because the source of the Internet is beastliness,” railed one of the speakers at the rally. He added that “all the diseases and weird deaths inflicted on the People of Israel are only because of the Internet's spreading to their homes.”

At least there is unity: The ultra-Orthodox public deemed the rally a great success but not because anyone thought it would stop the use of the Internet. As far as that goes, no one has any illusions. Some of the people who attended the rallies sat there with smartphones in hand. Presumably many more went home to surf and perhaps to upload videos from the rally onto YouTube. The rally was considered a success because so many ultra-Orthodox from different streams gathered together for a shared purpose. “How good and pleasant it is for anti-Internet fighters to sit together."

A historic rally for ultra-Orthodox women: Since then the ultra-Orthodox have not stopped holding assemblies and rallies against the Internet in London, Antwerp and frequently in Israel. Two months ago, for example, there was an “assembly against the ravages of technology” for some 90,000 women and girls. The need for addressing women especially stems from the fact that most ultra-Orthodox women work outside the home and can access the Internet more easily at work.

Too dangerous to sell even to a gentile: The rabbis in Israel took advantage of the Days of Awe before this past Yom Kippur to ratchet up the attack on the Internet and especially against smartphones. The new Admor of Vizhnitz addressed thousands of Hasids and told them that smartphones are “a spiritual Holocaust.” Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the most important Degel Hatorah rabbis, assembled dozens of rabbis at his home and raised the claim there that smartphones are breaking up families. A few weeks later Rabbi Kanievsky ordered that anyone who has a smartphone must burn it. He likened his ruling to the law regarding a weapon, an object that harms many, and therefore must not be sold even to a gentile.

At least filter: I asked a number of ultra-Orthodox sources what the use is of the endless assemblies, which mainly send a message about how impotent the rabbis are. One explanation I received is that even if it is impossible to block the Internet, it is necessary to “reinforce values,” that is, to make clear what is permissible and what is forbidden. A second explanation was that the assemblies remind people to put limits on the Internet. One possible limit is to upload a filter program (which wouldn’t hurt secular parents either). A second limit is to surf only at work and not to keep a computer at home in order to keep the net away from the children.

The Maran app: So at least regarding smartphones, is there agreement that they are forbidden? The truth is, not really. In the recent election Shas distributed the Maran app – Maran being an honorific referring to the party’s spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – aimed inter alia at spreading the rabbi’s blessing to voters. After Hiddush - for Religious Freedom and Equality submitted a petition to the Election Committee, Shas agreed to remove from the app the possibility of asking Rabbi Yosef for a personal blessing. Shas also had to delete the promise to “pamper you with personal blessings form Maran.” True, the Sephardis allow themselves a lot of things the Ashkenazis don’t. However, if an ultra-Orthodox party is distributing an app, it is pretty clear that this battle is lost.

The Mashgiach Kashrut blog already recognizes the Internet. For updates, write to m.kashrut@gmail.com.

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