This past Sunday was the big 'asifa' at Citi Field, called together to address the perils of the Internet.
With over 50,000 in attendance, this is clearly an issue of major concern. After all, when’s the last time you heard of 50,000 Jews agreeing on anything? I can’t even remember reaching a consensus on pizza toppings with just a handful of friends, let alone a stadium-full.
Let’s set aside for a moment the overwhelming irony that this gathering gained so much of its momentum by virtue of the Internet, and the fact that some of you will wind up reading this very article online.
The mainstream media (with whom we are proud to not affiliate ourselves) have dubbed this the “anti-Internet rally,” in an effort to portray the hareidi community as a bunch of backward, Luddite illiterates, but the truth is not so simple.
Portraying the ultra-Orthodox aversion to the Internet as fear of knowledge and/or contempt for technological advancement is the ultimate straw man argument. As someone who is both a Torah observant Jew and an Internet user, I think I can explain.
The Internet, or a non-trivial percentage of it, is an intellectual cesspool. Anyone who would argue otherwise is either being disingenuous, or hasn’t been on the Internet for very long. In addition to the illicit content (which according to reports by Forbes and Time Magazine constitutes approximately 4% of websites – much less than we would have guessed, but still a lot), the sheer idiocy on display is overwhelming.
One need look no further than YouTube (or MySpace, or Facebook, or Twitter*) to understand the following basic truth, that the Internet is where brain cells go to die. So much of the Internet’s “culture” is so toxic that…well, it’s less like the culture you find at the Met, and more like the “culture” you find in a poorly cared-for pair of sneakers (i.e. the kind that involves a cotton swab and a Petri dish).
Now the Internet may be full of garbage, but there’s also a great deal of worthwhile content, and features that can be used to enhance one’s quality of life. You can use the Internet to video chat with your grandmother who lives halfway around the world. You can learn about virtually anything via the Internet. There are even divrei Torah online, by gedolei hador! In addition to all the schmutz, there are people, including G-d-fearing Jews, making legally and ethically legitimate livelihoods by way of the Internet.
It’s like someone went to an open sewer trench with a sack full of diamonds, and dumped all the diamonds into the muck. There are two basic responses to this scenario, both of which are understandable.
Personally, I side with the former group, though I see no need to demean the latter.
And of course, there is a third type of person, a person who, seeing the diamonds, dives head first into the trench, caring not one bit for his health and lacking any semblance of decorum. These are the ones for whom we should worry, and whom, it stands to reason, the asifa was created to rescue.
And then there are those who don’t even know about the diamonds, and just dive in because they love swimming in garbage. For such individuals, the existence of the Internet is more or less inconsequential in influencing their behavior. Such people would find a way to defile themselves, regardless; the Internet just makes it more convenient.
In short, the Internet is neither inherently good nor inherently evil. It’s just a reflection of society, after society has had a few too many drinks. Used in a sober state of mind (or, for those who simply don’t trust themselves, with a content filter), it can help provide the means to accomplish great things, in the realms of both Torah and secular achievement.
Every day, there are people who use their automobiles, and their personal phones, in the commission of crimes. So unless we are ready to hand in our car keys and iPhones, we may wish to reconsider how we deal with its dangers.
I would also propose that my fellow journalists consider offering a less biased, more nuanced look at what ultra-Orthodox leaders are actually saying, but why waste my breath? I’m an editor, not a miracle worker. (Believe it or not, there is a difference.)