Living Wired, Losing Our Grip

An ultra-Orthodox rabbi--and head of a Jewish website--clarifies and defends a rabbinic ban on personal Internet use

When a group of Israeli Orthodox Rabbis decided in early January that the Internet's many dangers outweigh its value in a traditional home, the media responded as it predictably does whenever Israeli Orthodox Rabbis are involved: Israeli ferocity pitted itself against American clumsiness to see who could provide the furthest approximation from intelligent coverage.

The Israeli daily Ha'aretz accused the rabbis of "cruising into the caveman era," while the Associated Press informed us that all Internet use had been banned. Neither accurately described either the ruling or its context, nor evidenced any understanding of the legitimate concerns sensible folk might well have when young people go on-line.

Placing facts before froth, the fervently Orthodox are anything but behind the times with regard to technology. Beneath the black hats and garb lies a community that defies its stereotypes. Whether via e-commerce in the heavily Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhood of Boro Park, as was described not long ago in The New York Times, or the promotion of Jewish beliefs on-line through institutional and private web sites, Orthodox Jews are firmly on the cutting edge of the digital revolution. As a community, the Orthodox are more computer and Internet savvy than most Americans.

What, then, is this "rabbinic ban" on using the Internet? The ruling merely exhorts Jews to remove the Internet from the home, even while acknowledging its great value in the workplace. Charedi (fervently Orthodox) schools will not stop using computers; the Charedi Center for Technological Studies will neither close its doors nor change its curriculum. Charedi high-tech will be business as usual. But Orthodox parents who permit unsupervised Internet access from home will--the rabbis hope--reconsider.

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The media hysteria that surrounded this decision took it entirely for granted that denying children Internet access from their bedroom is, in fact, a bad thing. It would seem worthwhile nonetheless for parents to question this assertion.

First of all, have we considered how much is actually to be gained from home Internet access? A wealth of valuable research information, to be sure, is available on the Internet. Such information is, however, available to Internet users in schools as well, rendering the additional benefit largely one of convenience. Learning how to use Internet technologies requires a minimal (and ever-decreasing) amount of effort, especially for younger people. Computer programming can be done without any Internet connection at all. So, despite all of the hype, a fourteen-year-old in Y2K will still be able to grow into a fully functional, technologically facile adult without a megabit DSL connection shared between den and bedroom.

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