It's Not Just Porn: Why Ultra-Orthodox Jews Fear the Internet

At Citi Field Stadium this Sunday, 50,000 religious men gathered to discuss the dangers of the Web. An organizer explains why the digital era is so challenging for the people of the book.

asifa-top.jpgAttendees at Sunday's rally used binoculars to watch rabbis deliver sermons about the Internet. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

There's a reason ultra-Orthodox Jews wear long black coats, even in summertime: They've been resisting modernity since the Enlightenment era. But while their 18th century clothes may set them apart on the streets of Brooklyn, it can't stop Twitter feeds and Google News updates from infiltrating their lives.

That was the topic that drew more than 50,000 ultra-Orthodox men to the Mets' Citi Field Stadium on Sunday. (Women weren't invited for reasons of religious modesty.) A statement signed by prominent rabbis promised that the event would discuss the "serious family-related problems" caused by the Internet. "They probably mean porn," smirked Joe Coscarelli in a New York magazine post.

According to organizer Eytan Kobre, the attendees had more than pornography on their minds. "Technology poses a major challenge to us as human beings," says Kobre, who is the U.S. editor of the ultra-Orthodox magazine Mishpacha. The problem is not just what religious Jews are looking at on the Internet -- it's also the way its deluge of information is weakening their focus and challenging their worldview.

For some rabbis, the solution is simple: Religious Jews should boycott the Internet. In the large ultra-Orthodox community of Lakewood, New Jersey, a 2005 ruling forbade adults to go online without explicit rabbinical permission. But a lot has changed since then. Religious Jews aren't Amish -- they carry smartphones, Skype with relatives, and use the Internet to earn a living.

At Sunday's rally, a long list of rabbis weighed in on the problem. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism has no Pope, and while its authority may not be as decentralized as Wikipedia's, there are hundreds of separate clans and rabbis. Some of the speakers advocated for filtering software, while others insisted that Jews should avoid the Internet altogether, even for work. The speeches -- some in English and some in Yiddish -- carried on until nearly midnight, but the final verdict wasn't entirely clear.

None of this seems to bother Kobre. What matters, he says, is that his community has opened up a massive discussion about these issues, contradictions and all. He responded promptly to an emailed interview request and spoke to me from his cell phone as he drove to his office in Borough Park, Brooklyn. 


Have you seen our recent Atlantic cover story "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?"

Yes, I've seen it, though I must admit to not buying a hard copy. It's a great magazine, but I look at it online.

That's surprising. Most of the articles about Sunday's event described it as a rally against the Internet.

The motto of the event, which was approved by the top rabbinic leadership, was, "Using technology in accordance with Jewish values." But there's no question that some of the speeches conveyed a more absolutist view --- recommendations not to have Internet at all in the home, or only to the extent absolutely necessary for business. Our community is often viewed as a monolith, but we're a diverse group of 300,000 to 500,000.

What there is no difference of opinion about is our belief that technology poses a major challenge to us as human beings. On this, our position dovetails amazingly with broader human values. In fact, secular people are adopting practices you'd think had been suggested by religious extremists -- for instance, observing an Internet Sabbath each week. And we didn't invent the idea of Internet filters.

How much of an issue is pornography in the ultra-Orthodox community?

It's a huge issue. It's less of an issue in our community than in society at large. But ever since the Internet came about, there's been more of an onslaught. All of these problems existed before -- pornography, gambling, adultery. But technology is a portal through which these things enter our homes.

An Orthodox man isn't even allowed to be alone with a woman who isn't his wife. Does that make online pornography even more tempting in some ways?

It's a good point, and I think there's some merit to it. But pornography addiction is not at all limited to the Orthodox community. In fact, it's nowhere near the levels in our community that it is in secular society. The easy access to miniskirt-wearing women hasn't lessened the hunger for pornography.

Besides, we're not entirely cut off from the rest of the world. If you're growing up in New Square, up in Rockland County, maybe you can be almost hermetically sealed off. But I'm not, by any means. I work in Borough Park, the capital of American Orthodoxy, and I'm surrounded every day by huge temptations that challenge my principles. So the idea that we're more vulnerable because we're cut off from the rest of the world -- it ain't quite so.

You've also argued that the Internet is damaging people's ability to study and pray.

Yes, and these are all things Nick Carr wrote about in his Atlantic cover story, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" He talks about how the Internet affects cognition -- short-term memory and long-term memory, the ability to sit and read a book in depth, and so on.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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