By: Sholom Kesselman
I must admit that there is great irony in using the internet as a platform to debate the “dangers” of the internet, nevertheless here I go.
Four years ago, in 2012, there was the famous “internet Asifa” or “internet convention”, where esteemed Rabbis of ultra orthodox communities publicly raised the alarm on the dangers of the internet and fell just short of banning it outright. They strongly condemned it and characterized it as the biggest threat to Orthodox Judaism in our time. Some even went as far as classifying it as the biggest danger to ever face our religion in the entirety history.
It doesn’t take a genius to see the “dangers” of internet. Whether it be the addictiveness of social media, the immorality and immodest content so easily accessible or the forums and blogs where heretical material is discussed, it’s easy to see why this is alarming to so many people.
This sentiment is shared by many of my co-religionists and seems to be the mainstream attitude in ultra orthodox circles. Of course hardly anyone is prepared to “throw it out”- it’s become pretty much a necessity, but it is still seen as a serious threat and is believed to be a primary cause in many of our youth leaving the fold of Judaism.
But here is why I think they are wrong. I would even go so far as to say: internet may be one of the best things to ever happen to Judaism.
Over the generations we developed a strategy of insulation. We have protected our children and limited their exposure to anything that could test them or tempt them away from Judaism. We have built our communities on this foundation and become dependent on it for our very survival.
Is this a good thing? Yes and no. It’s good because we are not supposed to expose ourselves to unnecessary tests and challenges and we should always seek to minimize any and all distractions to Torah. But it’s also not good. Such Judaism suffers from a lack of depth and authenticity. If I’m only religious because I’ve never been exposed to anything else than how truly connected am I to my religion? If at the very first sign of opposition I am questioning my beliefs and commitments than how strong is my belief and commitment in the first place?
Enter the internet.
The internet age has obliterated this phenomenon. It is no longer possible to be truly insulated from the secular world. One could be in the heart of Me’ah She’arim or B’nei B‘rak and still be “living” in Hollywood or Times square. The entire world with all of its temptations and pressures is easily accessible with the tapping of a few buttons. Insulation is no longer possible and so a new strategy must be called on for combating the “world” and maintaining Judaism.
Banning the internet doesn’t work. Firstly it’s a necessity and will therefore continue to be found in most of our homes. Secondly once a child is of age, they get themselves a smart phone or tablet and then there is nothing a parent can do. Delaying your child from obtaining such devices for as long as possible is wise and installing filters on all home computers is highly recommended, but we all know that these are not full proof solutions. By the time our children hit 16 -18 they will have all the access they want and it would be delusional to think that it could be prevented.
So what then? How do we combat the “internet”? How do we maintain our strict adherence to Torah and its values in the face of such a stiff challenge?
The answer: By becoming stronger and more authentic Jews.
In truth, Torah has nothing to fear from “the world”. In a faceoff between truth vs. falsehood, light vs. dark; and substance vs. emptiness, truth light and substance should prevail. But for centuries we have avoided this fight, we have backed away and retreated, not believing in the strength of what we had.
But now times have changed and G-d has dealt us a new deck of cards. Instead of ditching this fight, we are now forced to face it head on. We need to reach in and find that inner strength, search out the real beauty and wealth within Torah, in whose presence the world has very little appeal.
We need to instill that within our children and ourselves and cultivate a real and unwavering commitment to Torah. We have to believe in it and love it so much, that we can withstand the onslaught of all temptations and pressures. We need to develop values like self control, discipline and responsibility to the point where “internet no longer poses a threat.
Of course this is a tall order and there may be casualties along the way to achieving this, but in the long run we will be better off. A new more authentic and stronger brand of Judaism will emerge, one that has been tested with the ultimate test and emerged stronger and truer because of it.
A further point:
The way we choose to define and brand the internet is extremely significant. Our children will take this queue from us and will see it the way we tell them too.
When we shield our children from it completely, the message we are sending them is: the internet is something terrible. When we define it as a monster – full of immorality and heresy, then they will come to know it as that. When they do eventually begin to use it, they will be more inclined to seek out the negativity because we told them that that is what the internet is about.
In truth, the internet is full of Torah and positivity. It can be used to promote Judaism, Torah values, goodness and is a source of tremendous light. If we define it as such, they will come to know it as that. By specifically introducing it to them (the good parts of course) at a young age and allowing them to benefit from all the good that is in it, they will forever associate internet with Torah and goodness. Even when they do discover the “garbage”, it will always be seen as secondary to the real internet which is Torah.
So I am not at all alarmed by this onslaught of technology. I believe in the power of authentic Judaism and the beauty and wealth of the Torah. I’m confident that a new generation will emerge (and is emerging), who will have the strength, understanding and value system to maintain their unwavering commitment to G-d and Halacha even in the age of internet and technology.
This is all part of G-d’s plan and its one more stage in the evolution of Judaism. Like Hellenism before it that also posed a grave threat but ultimately only enhanced the studying of Torah and development of Jewish philosophy, the internet too will ultimately come to be seen as a catalyst that created stronger and more real Jews.
This is why the internet may just end up being the best thing to have ever happened to Judaism.