After the evening minyan on a recent trip to the United States, a forty-something man beseeched me to write about a website called GuardYourEyes, which provides tools for those who have become addicted to the worst sort of Internet sites. He did not explicitly tell me he was one such addict, but the fervor with which he davened suggested his personal torment.
Every Orthodox rabbi in North America with whom I have spoken in recent years has his own stories of homes destroyed by the Internet. Though the tragedies may not be uniformly distributed across the Orthodox spectrum, no part of that spectrum has been spared. Sins that once required the expenditure of energy and time, as well as the potential for humiliation if revealed, can now be done instantaneously in private, with little danger of detection. The Internet not only facilitates the ease with which one can act upon existing temptations, it has the capacity to create previously undreamed of desires.
Aware of the devastation caused by the Internet, and determined to prevent it from becoming completely entrenched, the gedolei Yisrael of Eretz Yisrael have declared war. A Bnei Brak conference for chareidi educators two weeks ago, attended by a rare cross-section of the most revered and senior rabbinical figures in the chareidi world, promulgated several decrees against home Internet use..
The baseline position was that no chareidi family should have Internet in the house. If one or both of the parents needs Internet in the house for business purposes, they must first install appropriate filters. In addition, a rav must certify that there is a need for Internet. These provisions will be enforced by requiring each child in chareidi educational institutions to provide a form signed by the parents that they are in conformity with the above requirements.
Above all, these requirements are designed to convey an unambiguous message that Internet constitutes a moral hazard that should be avoided, and even in cases of necessity, approached with the utmost caution and protections. So great is the danger that it outweighs such considerations as convenience or even educational value. Only economic necessity, coupled with layers of protection, can justify its possession.
The gedolim are waging a fight against home Internet similar to that waged by American gedolim against television almost half a century ago. As with television, they seek to make a lack of Internet a key sociological marker of who is within the chareidi community and who is not. Internet has already exacted a toll in victims far beyond that of television in that vastly more innocent period when it required prescience to forecast the degree to which it would degenerate.
Television, however, was nothing more than an entertainment medium – no would could ever claim its possession was a necessity. Internet is something quite different. At the Bnei Brak gathering, Rabbi Ahron Leib Steinman declared, "If we were able to totally ban the Internet, we would. But we can't do that, since there are those who need the Internet."
Increasingly, Internet is the principal means of conducting many of the basic transactions of modern life, whether it be banking, checking bus schedules, finding a site that calculates the proper times for prayers on transatlantic flight, or just shopping. In some cases it is only a convenience – one can live without the information or obtain it less efficiently. In others, the difference is primarily a matter of time, though the hours saved are no small matter for stressed chareidi parents, who often must perform chores with several young children in tow. At one major Israeli hi-tech company that operates separate facilities employing chareidi women visits to sites other than those needed for one's work are cause for dismissal. But the facility retains two work stations where women can do some basic banking and other such functions while on break or after work.
Internet is essential for much modern employment. And at one level, it even offers unique potential benefits to the chareidi world. An ever increasing percentage of chareidi women in Eretz Yisrael are being educated in computer-based fields. With the move of chareidi women from teaching jobs within the chareidi educational system (in which the job market is saturated) to hi-tech there has developed a host of new concerns about women working in mixed work places. A number of companies have discovered that they can employ chareidi women at relatively low pay by providing sexually segregated work places and mother-flexible work schedules in or near chareidi population centers.
Ideally, working by computer from home offers a possible solution to chareidi concerns about mixed workplaces and the need for flexible hours, but that depends, of course, on having Internet in the house. That is just one example of how the tension between competing chareidi ideals could play out around Internet.
It is doubtful that anything as ambitious as what as being attempted in Eretz Yisrael could even be undertaken in the United States – at least outside of Lakewood or some self-contained Chassidic communities. Internet use is more ubiquitous and deeply entrenched in the United States, and the Torah community is more geographically dispersed and fragmented. Even more crucial, a ban on home Internet would solve only part of the problem. Virtually every handheld device has Internet connectivity. The chareidi population in the United States does not have the same market power as that in Eretz Yisrael, which was able to pressuring the cellphone companies into offering "kosher" cellphones without Internet connectivity or access to forbidden phone numbers.
The emphasis in America will likely remain on damage control through improved Internet education, the development and refinement of better filters, "kosher" servers, and increased parental supervision. Yet even in America, the clarion nature of the warning against Internet by the leading Torah figures of Eretz Yisrael will surely have an impact.
No doubt the chareidi world will be accused of attempting to turn the clock back on modernity and taking leave of reality in its insistence on doing battle with the Internet. Yet, I would argue, it is the gedolei Yisrael who are more reality based than the secular world. The latter has not made a principled decision about how to deal with teenage Internet use and its dangers (not that the dangers are in any way limited to teenagers.) It has simply thrown in the towel.
Every single study of parental knowledge of their children's Internet use reveals that parents are nearly clueless about both the quantity and quality of their childrens' Internet use. (Orthodox parents are no exception, as a survey by Aleinu, the Orthodox branch of Los Angeles Jewish Family Services, revealed.) Few parents, for instance, dream that their child would ever be so stupid as to provide strangers with personal information over the Internet. But many do. Increasingly, teenagers spend the lion's share of their waking, non-school hours in an isolated, alternative reality. The average American teenager spends 55 hours a week – nearly eight hours a day – ensconced in front of a TV or on-line. And much of that is time is alone, behind closed doors. (Education officials in the United Kingdom have gone so far as to contemplate ways to automatically shut down computers after too many hours spent on certain sites.)
"Do not stray after your heart and after your eyes," is one of the six constant mitzvos. No doubt that battle for "purity of the eyes" must seem quaint, at best, and unfathomable, at worst, to most of our fellow citizens. But in the type of children produced by those who insist that tahara (purity) remains the ideal of Torah life, it is we who will have the last laugh.