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
BY: Rabbi Yaakov Menken
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.
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.
The downsides of the Internet, on the other hand, are glaring--so much so that a parent's failure to consider them is evidence of either ignorance about what an Internet connection enables teenagers to do, or an obvious vote in favor of high technology over high moral values.
Several years ago, a PC Magazine columnist made an almost apologetic confession, announcing that he had installed site-blocking software to prevent his teenage son from browsing the Internet unrestricted. The reason was simple: he had caught his son doing just that. And much as he believed in the First Amendment, he realized that blocking software had its place. No amount of heart-to-heart chit-chat was likely to stand up to the burning curiosity of an adolescent.
Blocking software, of course, is imperfect. It is designed to be simple enough for a middle-aged technophobe to install, yet powerful enough to withstand the efforts of a sophisticated teen hacker. The idea that it can actually do both is so patently ludicrous that Scott Adams spent several of his Dilbert cartoon strips lampooning it. Bypassing a filtered Internet service provider is even easier for any teen with a modem--in both the United States and Israel, assorted companies now offer free, unfiltered Internet access to those willing to tolerate on-screen advertising.
When covering this story, the media similarly paid no attention to the troublesome issue of Internet chat rooms -- despite the recent arrest of a high-ranking Infoseek executive on charges of soliciting a (federal agent posing as a) 13-year-old child in a chat room dominated tech news for weeks. Infoseek is a unit of the Walt Disney Corporation.
In Israel, as in America, a plague of violence is sweeping the school system. Over 50 percent of Israeli teachers reported having been physically or verbally attacked by a student within just the past year. When students and parents were asked to identify possible causes, their most common answer was "the Internet" and the values learned there, whether in peer chats or by playing games that simulate--with ever more realistic detail--the process of murder. Kids, moreover, can learn most anything on the Net, including how to build a pipe bomb and which rifles are likely to kill the most people in the shortest period of time. A majority of American parents polled believe that their Internet-wired kids visit sites that they don't approve of; they just feel powerless to stop it.
Yet none of this was seriously considered by the media critics of the recent rabbinic decision. The Internet was treated instead as a holy grail to which all young children must be brought.
It is true: some people are failing to confront today's technologies in a rational manner. Not, though, the rabbis who decided that unsupervised Internet doesn't belong in the home.