Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Orthodox Tumult Over the Internet

    In the past two months the Orthodox community in New York went “meshuga” [crazy] over the Internet.  The usual suspects had been busy for a number of years manufacturing a problem not unlike the problem they manufactured over television when it was introduced in the 1950s.  Posters went up in Jewish neighborhoods, signed by a slew of prominent haredi rabbis (we still called them khnyocks) warning us of the terrible dangers of television and forbidding the presence of the new medium in our homes.  Even today on occasion those posters go up, and rabbis attempt to purge Orthodox homes of television.  Some families possess “closet TVs,” that are hidden away when haredi guests or, worse, spies for yeshivot which the children attend, visit.  Some yeshivot to this day threaten to expel children whose homes contain a TV.

   But these people are much more worked up over the internet than they ever were over television.  The internet is portrayed as a Trojan horse that will sneak foreign ideas into our camp and irreparably contaminate it.  The rabbis making that argument usually do not use the term “Trojan horse” since they never studied Greek mythology and don’t know a Trojan horse from that other “Trojan,” or how the two are related.  A while ago they formed a group called “Va’ad ha-kehillot l’tohar ha-mahane” (Conference of Communities for the Purity of the Camp) to combat the perceived dangers of the Internet.  As with television two generations ago, some communities attempted to forbid Jewish families from owning computers, certainly computers that were hooked up to the internet.  The big stick they would wield was a threat to expel their children from yeshiva.  But the internet proved too essential to ban.  Today few people can make a living or keep up in their fields without it.  For instance, scientists can now, with a few clicks of a mouse, access material for which I had to spend hours in the library searching the Biological Abstracts 30 years ago when I was researching my doctoral thesis.  Physicians store their patients’ medical records electronically, on their office computers, thereby reducing the likelihood of catastrophic medical errors.  Questions about a diagnosis?  Search a website to review what is known.  Since the internet has become a necessity for almost all of us in just one generation, the rabbis decided to devise ways to keep people, especially children, from accessing “inappropriate material.”   Of course, and contrary to what these rabbis would wish, we are not a monolithic community and we differ widely on what constitutes “inappropriate material.”  Some in the haredi community are experts in information technology (IT), which they could not have studied without access to the internet.  They would devise “internet filters,” that would keep the forbidden material out of our homes.  The Va’ad rented Citi Field, the stadium in Queens where the New York Mets play baseball, for a mass communal rally resembling a revival meeting, where various “gedolim” would address the crowd on the terrible dangers presented by the internet.  God knows how much money that could have been used for urgent communal necessities like paying yeshiva teachers on time and educating children about the dangers of sexual abuse, was squandered for this meeting.  They did fill the stadium, in part by coercing parents of yeshiva children to purchase tickets for the whole “mishpoche” [family], at least the men and boys.  If anything good came out of this rally, it was that some of these children were seeing a stadium for the first time.  As it turned out, the rally was long on fear-mongering and short on practical “solutions.”  Those would be offered community by community.  Midwood (haredim still insist on calling Midwood “Flatbush,” though they wouldn’t set foot in most of Flatbush for fear of their black shadows) had its own rally in an Aguda synagogue not far from where I live.

   I have a confession to make here.  My family was one of the last in Midwood to get a computer and get wired to the internet.  We tend to lag behind in adopting technology; we were one of the last to get a color TV and we didn’t have a VCR until it was about to be replaced by DVD.   A relative of mine, at the time married to a haredi man,  asked me if I had a computer.  I replied in the affirmative.  Do you have the internet?  Again, yes, of course.  I would not deprive my children of such a powerful research tool and place them at a competitive disadvantage relative to their peers both now and later in life.  She couldn’t believe her ears.  The internet was so dangerous; do you know what your children can see with it?  I had an idea – the kind of stuff we used to access in magazines like Playboy secreted in our rooms or even under the floorboards of yeshiva bathrooms.  Adolescents have a healthy curiosity about such things, always have, always will.  Maybe the Rambam’s Moreh Nevukhim, for which our kids might be zokhe to be expelled from yeshiva.  Really now, the internet is merely a tool.  A very powerful one to be sure, which, like any tool, can be misused and abused.  Matches are used by arsonists to start fires.  I don’t see anyone trying to ban matches.  We just do our best to catch and prosecute arsonists, and accept some arson as the cost of being able to use fire constructively (one of the developments that set our ancestors on the path to becoming human, but what would haredi rabbis know about that).  And by the time I acquired the tool in the mid-1990s, technology was available to prevent most of the “arson.”  AOL parental controls were more than adequate.  If anything, they were too strict.  All filtering suffers from the trade-off of blocking good   material along with bad.  How do you block "sex" without blocking "sexually transmitted diseases, how do you block "breast" without blocking "breast cancer," and so forth.  I had to ask AOL  to unblock The History Channel so that my son could use it for a school project.  The sky did not fall, and, praise God, both my children turned out fine, thank you.

   The rally in the Aguda synagogue reportedly (I did not attend it, or the one in Citi Field) featured all sorts of filtering technology, as well as spyware that allows parents to monitor their children’s every keystroke if they so desire.  I preferred to trust my children’s judgment and respect their privacy, telling them to close the browser if they see anything that makes them feel uncomfortable and assuring them that if they needed my advice I was always available.  Most of our kids are a lot more tech-savvy than we are; why challenge them to a cyberwar that most of us cannot possibly win?  Another, more pernicious twist was a filter for which a third party had the password and we would not, and spyware that sent all our online activity to a third party.  Supposedly we were more likely to stay on the straight and narrow if someone we knew was privy to our keystrokes.  Well, I have news for them.  I am a dyed-in-the-wool, liberty-or-death American.  I am also an adult, and I refuse to be treated like a child by Aguda rabbis and their camp followers.  My home is my castle.  The world’s knowledge is welcome inside.  Haredi threats and tyranny are not.

   Actually, as soon as I became aware of the anti-Slifkin posters going up, the blinders came off.  It’s been a while since I gave a rat’s ass about Aguda and its Mo’etzet Gedolei Torah.  Slifkingate, you see, is not going away.

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Blogger Jeff Eyges said...

Another, more pernicious twist was a filter for which a third party had the password and we would not, and spyware that sent all our online activity to a third party.

And there it is. That's what they really want - complete control over the lives of their followers. It isn't really about pornography (at least, not for the most part); that's just the smokescreen. They're terrified now that information from the goyishe velt is freely available. How can you keep them in an infantile state of complete subservience once they've been exposed to art, science, other cultures - in other words, when they're made aware that you don't have all of the answers (or, for that matter, most of them)?

Thu Jul 05, 01:30:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Neandershort said...

How do you keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?

Another thing: These rabbis know that without the internet the yeshiva sex abuse scandal would not have come to light, and neither would Slifkingate. They prefer to squelch such things and protect their own. But we're not going to let them.

Thu Jul 05, 03:13:00 PM EDT  

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