JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review Jan. 25, 2000 /18 Shevat, 5760

Of ostriches and cavemen

By Jonathan Rosenblum

Fervently-Orthodox Jews are neither Luddites nor Amish, who eschew modern machinery; they seek to remain masters of technology, not its slaves

LONG-TIME SYMPATHIZERS with the fervently-Orthodox Jewish community are concerned. Shahar Ilan, writing in Ha'aretz about the proclamation signed by most leading haredi rabbis warning of the danger of Internet in the home, worries that the ban will prevent fervently-Orthodox Jews from earning a computer-related livelihood.

He needn't worry. The edict, as he notes, explicitly recognizes the central role of computer technology in the modern workplace. It applies only to the home. And a rabbinic committee was established to advise where workplace and home overlap.

Econophone As a consequence of the rabbinic proclamation, Beis Yaakov Seminaries did not remove computer training from the curriculum. Nor have the rapidly proliferating technical institutes providing computer education to haredi men and women close their doors.

Fervently-Orthodox Jews are neither Luddites nor Amish, who eschew modern technology. Computers have proven to be the economic salvation of large segments of haredi Jewry in the United States, and that trend is being repeated in Israel.

Fervently-Orthodox Jews were quick to seize on the remarkable potential of the Internet for outreach work. The Internet removes all entry barriers to Jewish learning. "Ask the Rabbi" sites established by the leading outreach yeshivot draw hundreds of queries a day. Project Genesis's web site receives hundreds of thousands of hits a month. These programs will be unaffected by the ban.

Though fervently-Orthodox Jews don't reject modern technology, they don't subscribe to the cult of the new, according to which life without the most up-to-date technology is considered not worth living. They seek to remain masters of technology, not its slaves.

On a more general level, they walk the same tightrope Jews have always walked. They function - often very successfully - within modern society, while rejecting many key values of society. They do not accept modernity's elevation of unbridled freedom as the supreme human value, nor its emphasis on the pursuit of material pleasure.

Trakdata Our Sages describe shame as one of the defining values of the Jewish people, and it is precisely that sense of shame which modern society lacks.

The Torah teaches us that every visual image to which we are exposed leaves its impact, and that impact is in some way permanent. Twice a day, we repeat in the Shema prayer the commandment not to "follow after your eyes." Much of what surrounds us today is, by the standards of the Torah, simply moral pollution.

As First Amendment scholar Daniel Lowenthal wrote recently: "Never before in the history of mankind have the moral restraints and aspirations necessary to the fullness of our nature, and to our civilization itself, been subjected to so ubiquitous and persistent an assault."

As Lowenthal demonstrates, one need not be haredi to fear for the sensory assault to which our youth are exposed. In a recent study of school violence in Israel, 50% of teachers reported being verbally or physically assaulted by students in the preceding year. When teachers, parents, and students were asked to explain the high rates of student violence, the most frequently named factor among all three groups was the media - that is, the visual messages to which children are exposed.

What distinguishes the fervently-Orthodox Jewsis that having identified a problem, they are willing to do something about it. Much of the ridicule heaped on the haredi ban on home Internet use can be attributed to the jealousy of parents who can no longer say no to their children.

A recent poll in America found that a majority of parents believe their children are entering inappropriate sites on the Internet. (If any confirmation were needed, consider that the second highest traffic on Israel's largest pornography site is 3 p.m., when many children are home by themselves.)

But most of those parents claim to be convinced that the benefits of the Internet outweigh the costs. For fervently-Orthodox Jews, no such balancing is possible. Damage to the holiness of one's soul cannot be compensated for later, any more than a dieter can compensate for a chocolate mousse by eating a fruit salad afterwards.

Few parents who claim to believe the Internet is on the whole positive have any real evidence. They have to believe that in order to avoid confronting ornery teenagers by depriving them of their toys.

For the same reason, it took hundreds of studies showing a link between violent images on TV and behavior before the message began to sink in. And it is unlikely that most parents today will heed the warnings of some psychologists that prolonged exposure to computers may alter brain physiology in young viewers and lead to a higher incidence of attention deficit disorder and youthful depression.

Almost 65% of American homes possess interactive computer games. Of the market for such games, approximately 70% is composed of the most violent type. Players of Vigilance, for instance, are encouraged to put their "violent nature to good use." The game is advertised with a shot of a high schooler, shotgun at his side and two dead classmates at his feet.

To reach the highest level of Carmageddon, players are required to run over 33,000 pedestrians. Soon interactive technology will allow participants to experience the recoil of a gun, to feel the sensation of stabbing someone, to hear the pleading of victims and their screams of pain.

Do parents whose children play such games also believe that on the whole they are salutary?

As someone who recently trashed his Internet browser, I may strike some as a caveman. But those who conjure up idyllic images of their children sitting at the computer with warm milk and a plate of cookies while exploring the furthest reaches of human knowledge strike me as ostriches hiding their heads in the sand.

I'd rather be a caveman.

JWR contributor Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post. He can be reached by clicking here.


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© 2000, Jonathan Rosenblum