Turning off the internet, THAT they say, should fix everything within Chasidism — from problems with infidelity to atheism to teenage rebellion and sexual urges or a plumbing crisis or a flopped honey tort. Rabbis have deliberated over ALL the problems caused by the internet, boasted a Citifield sport of their concerns, and are now implementing solutions. I heard of many Orthodox rabbis who are stepping up their warning against internet and are advising various precautions like filters or limited home use. Chasidic leaders, in their usual extreme way of responding to anything that threatens their tradition, are taking the highway. They are aggressively banning the internet and technological gadgets. They seem to hope that stopping the internetworks will push back down all issues that have come to the fore through the vorld-vide-veb. All the flaws and holes that have become plainly visible even to Chasidim, that’s what worries them.
Some Chasidic mosdos sent letters to the parent body demanding full disclosure of the parent’s internet activity. At the same time some religious institutions are demanding that the staff surrender their smartphones. Among my own Chasidic circles I have heard the smartphone called “treif”, one unfamiliar woman at a simcha going so far as to sternly voice her objections of the smartphone to my Angry-Bird enthusiast son. The woman reduced him to tears with her uncontained moral outrage at his bird-launching-pig-squashing activities. To this insanity I say, quoting the pigs, “hooooll!”
Chasidim are very concerned about the internet. They have reason to be. Chasidism has been changed by the internet, of that I am sure. Centuries of isolation are no more because invisible web waves brought an unfathomable wealth of resources to the palms of good pious women and to the vestle pockets of real chasidic men. Information that was completely unavailable and unknown to previous generations of Chasidim is now readily sitting on the very telephones with which Chasidic followers call their rabbis to ask their religious questions, be it about menstrual blood or a dairy fork in a meat sink. The answers available online are of a different breed entirely. Whereas rabbis respond in authoritarian halachik rulings, the internet provides not rulings, but information. The internet gives the information to the searcher and leaves the decision making to the person himself. One can find thousands of answers instead of one; through ooogles of google results, wikipedia, forum conversation or this blog (by the way, the answer is “what the heck is wrong with you?!” and for all other questions: “the naked chasidish lady would be ‘yes’ but she says ‘NO’”).
Of course this autonomy concerns the Chasidim! Of course they would like to shut the internet off and out. But the reality is clear: it’s impossible. The internet is not like any other secular influence; it is more portable, more important, more informative and more necessary than anything that’s come before. It is evolving so quickly and becoming so economical it is easy and important for Chasidim to have it at the same time as it is threatening it. Whereas old-time transgressors accessed secular media by dragging a TV into their home in a microwave box and hiding it in a closet, the internet put media – from pornography to philosophy – in the hands of the thousands of religious orthodox people in black suits right in the Citifield stadium (isn’t it amazing?). The internet is an intertwined part of modern life that can’t be extricated.
Very often I am asked about the internet and its effect on my life. Some who have been around the blogesphere for the last few years recall my early writing; naive, joyfully satirical and patriotically Chasidic. I was a married mother in Kiryas Joel, a conforming adherent. I have written about my transformation from that simple innocence to where I am now, and that the catalyst to my changes was the internet; especially the blogs. People point to my transformation and ask “Here, you see for yourself that the internet robbed you of our lifestyle, shouldn’t it be banned?”
It’s not the internet that robs. It’s the deprivation of education that does! The internet was only the catalyst that made my ignorance crystal clear. I went through this radical transformation because of my education system that made me so naive in the first place; a system in which I had been taught absolutely nothing real in terms of belief, tradition, history and ideas. I had been told I could not ask and I could not think. My mind was starved, famished, gasping for information for over twenty years, always aching with intellectual hunger pangs. My belief system was a house of cards; it came down to believing that we are so small and dull we can never learn or understand anything. When I asked questions, I was told “who are we to ask? those forefathers who were of tenfold intellectual capacity than today’s humans knew what we cannot comprehend!” and I had to accept that. Thousands upon thousands of questions unanswered, I was married off at eighteen not understanding any one of them. I had no capacity to make sense of choice (bechirah), divinity and morality – questions that lurked everywhere – but by believing that the information doesn’t exist for minds like mine.
Here’s the crime: it does! It is available to every thinking human being, and everyone should be entitled to think about them and study them and draw their own conclusions. The internet is filled with these questions and many many more, often on fully-frum Jewish forums. When I first realized that the power to think was mine, that those times I had been told I could not ask how miracles happened or why we had to keep these traditions were only fronts, I lost faith in my beliefs. I had been betrayed. I had been lied to. I had been mislead. It is as plain as day that the Chasidic education is full of misinformation upon which we are asked to give our whole lives. And a simple google search exposes it all.
That’s why Chasidic leaders are so concerned; the lies are burning under their feet.
Is Google THE problem for Chasidim then? Google is only the messenger, not the message. Punishing the messenger is simply silly, and self defeating too. What good will banning the internet do if the real problem, the problem of a belief system so weak that one angry-bird can blow it all away, continues to be taught and indoctrinated? If the betrayal continues?! If we continue to consider knowledge treif?! The intellectual robbery is bound to be discovered very easily in the age of information, no attempt to ban the internet sufficient to block it. And then what?!
Here’s what: once the betrayal becomes known not only are the old folk tales refuted, but a whole Jewish belief system loses credibility. There’s no putting the innocence back together. Everything one believed is lost. The religion becomes the face of a bitter prank, a system of misinformation that has made us mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sons and daughters in a society that is full of lies.
For the sake of all I love and are Chasidic I beg: Please, promote the ban on intellectual robbery instead.