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

By Jennie Rothenberg Gritz

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.

In fact, I was looking at another piece at TheAtlantic.com, a blog post by Ross Douthat. He was addressing a comment by another writer who said that Google had been immeasurably beneficial to his research. It enabled him to have obscure volumes at his fingertips. Douthat responded, "The web is very good for certain forms of writing -- the highly political and the highly personal chief among them -- and very bad for others. ... The Google effect makes it harder to write War and Peace, and harder to read it."

I was struck by that, because that kind of in-depth reading constitutes a large part of what we do. When you look at Talmud study, the study of Jewish ethics and philosophy, there's a lot of complex stuff going on there. The ability to study those works can be undermined by Google and the Internet.

So you're saying that the way the Internet presents information is fundamentally at odds with the way religious Jews want to process it.

Absolutely. You go into any Yeshiva -- secular people would be astounded at the mental and emotional stamina required to decipher those texts. My son is 14 years old. He's in 9th grade. He has to sit every morning for two to three hours at a time studying the Talmud. And he's only a high school kid -- full-time Torah scholars spend every waking moment doing this. And then you think about the way the surfing and twittering culture is scattering our attention. I don't think those two paradigms are compatible. Or at least, this is a challenge that has to be addressed.

Have teachers at yeshivas actually complained that their students are less and less able to focus on Torah study because of the Internet?

It's the talk of the rebbes' lounges -- the teachers' lounges. There's been a precipitous drop in kids' ability to read, process, remember, recall, and produce quality work.

The Internet is obviously a very modern invention. Is there anything in Jewish law that gives some sense of how to deal with it?

I don't think we're looking to mine the ancient tradition to develop a response to this. We don't need to get the big rabbis with the long gray beards to open the giant tomes to tell us how to deal with Google and Facebook. We want to be very contemporary, to listen to what psychologists are telling us and proceed from there. And yet we're being characterized as ultra-Orthodox Jews gathering at CitiField for an anti-Internet prayer rally. That's the story reporters like to fall back on.

I think it can be hard for people to think in terms of nuance when they're looking at a stadium full of men who are all wearing identical black coats.

Let's parse that for a moment. What we're saying here is, "I'm looking at a picture of people I've never met. And on the basis of the most external and superficial of indices -- the beards, the color of clothing, the monochromatic nature of it -- I'm making a value judgment about the sophistication of their thoughts and the depth of their feelings."

It's also that you're dressing the same way your 18th century ancestors did, which implies that you're rejecting the modern world.

There may be elements of truth to that. But the irony is that hipsters all dress a certain way, and the whole point is to dress entirely different from everyone else. Orthodox Jews actually have the courage to dress the same way as 500,000 of their brethren. They're the ones who challenge people by asking, "Are you deep enough to look beyond my garb and relate to me as a thinking individual?" In contrast, the hipster buys into the most external of indicators: that which is immediately apparent to the eye.

We've spoken about the ways the Internet undermines religious life. Are there any ways it can actually deepen religious experience?

Absolutely. The blessings of the Internet are astounding. Take Friday night candle lighting time -- you can look that up online. Thousands of people all over the world have had their first Shabbat experiences by finding hosts on Shabbat.com. And there are sites like Aish.com and Chabad.org, with dozens of newly authored articles and videos each week. There's HebrewBooks.org -- 50,000 Torah books at your fingertips. It's phenomenal, wonderful. I could go on for hours in praise of the Internet in the service of Judaism.

But this is really about a cost-benefit analysis. We may find out we can't have 50,000 Torah books at our fingertips and also be protected from pornography. The other alternative -- which I believe is probably what we will find -- is that these two things need not be mutually exclusive. But if we find out that they are, I'm absolutely going to forgo the 50,000 Hebrew books online. I'll go to my local Yeshiva, where they're all on the shelves anyway.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/05/its-not-just-porn-why-ultra-orthodox-jews-fear-the-internet/257561/