WhatsApp, Scourge of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Communities

The Hasidic community is debating the same thing Internet pundits are: What is WhatsApp, really?

Satmar Hasidic school (flickr/Bonnie Natko)

Very religious communities tend to have a fraught relationship with technology. The Amish's eschewal of electrical power and cars is merely shorthand for the conflicts and compromises that arise when new human things test the oldest human things.

And so it is written in the The Jewish Daily Forward that WhatsApp is the latest scourge among ultra-orthodox Jews, picking up on a story in Der Blatt, a Yiddish-language newspaper with the headline, "The rabbis overseeing divorces say WhatsApp is the No. 1 cause of destruction of Jewish homes and business."

Even before Facebook bought the company for $19 billion, the Satmar Hasids of New York were struggling to come to terms with what WhatsApp is. Is it a messaging service, which might be allowed within the community norms of technological adoption, or is it something more forbidden, like Facebook itself?

A June 2012 ban on Facebook and other social-media sites by community leaders drew attention to the various attitudes that orthodox Jews have toward Internet use. Some clearly support the bans, and Satmar Hasidic schools "require that parents use Web filters on their smartphones." But others find ways around the restrictions, according to the Forward. This latter group argues that WhatsApp does not have the deleterious social features that other social tools do.

"It’s self-created media, it’s not the outside media,” one member of the community told the newspaper. “[It’s] an inside ghetto media, not outside.”

It's fascinating, too, that the debate within the Hasidic communities of New York parallels the one that Internet pundits have been having for months: Is WhatsApp just cheap text messaging? Or is there more to it?

If all this sounds strange, consider that we all have implicit norms for technology adoption that invite ridicule if violated. This is, in fact, the focal point resistance to Google Glass. Personally, I admire communities of any type that have tried to make collective, non-market decisions about technologies. They might not work, but at least they're honest attempts to grapple with the intended and unintended effects presented by new ways of doing things.

Because sometimes it makes sense to do less than what it is technically possible. My colleague Becca Rosen argues that law, itself, is "a system for allowing less than what is possible." And what law does for official political units, norms do for subcultures.