Friday, January 14, 2005

Charedim and the Internet

As the pace of social and technological change quickens, the attitudinal and behavioral gap between most Orthodox Jews - especially charedim or the fervently religious - and the people amongst whom they live continues to widen. This is evident in dress, language, use of time and the reaction toward certain technological innovations. Interestingly, secularists and charedim alike often refer to the rejection by the latter of modernity.

Inevitably, the picture is more complex, if only because eons of experience have shown that like other mortals, the Orthodox are influenced by their surroundings. At times they accept local mores and attitudes, as when they invest heavily in both time and money in going on vacation. They also adapt social change to meet the expectations of their lifestyle and ideology, as when they defer - perhaps for an extended period - entry into the labor market and continue their yeshiva study. Not one of the social scientists who purport to describe Orthodox life has noted this parallelism.

There are situations where modernity is rejected. This is true of whole chunks of popular culture that are regarded as antithetical to Torah values and obligations. Technological changes that are inherently non-ideological but which have behavioral implications pose a problem for the Orthodox, particularly when as is usually true of such changes, there is utility to what has been innovated. The cell phone is one example. It obviously is functional but there are incidental, yet significant, religious issues relating to its use, including time and place. But the phone itself is ideologically neutral and the abuses that occur are secondary, resulting from the behavior of its users.

The Internet raises more fundamental issues and not only for religious persons, as is evident from global efforts to clamp down on child pornography and other illicit activities that are linked directly to the Internet. There are additional issues for religious Jews, mainly charedim, and this has generated a stream of rabbinical statement prohibiting Internet use or severely curtailing access. These statements are inherently compromised by the utilitarian nature of the Internet, a circumstance from which charedim are not exempt. Those who are in business - and quite a few are - are likely to find the Internet indispensable, as do religious Jews who want to make payments electronically or access needed information or order airplane tickets.

Karine Barzilai-Nahon and Gad Barzilai, an Israeli wife and husband team now on the faculty of the University of Washington, have examined Internet use by Israeli charedim. Their findings have just been published in The Information Society Journal. I was furnished (not by the authors) a copy of their paper about six months ago and made extensive notes at the time.

Not surprisingly, the Barzilais find that there is significant use of the Internet by charedim, exceeding what is generally viewed to be the case and the number is growing. Their data is drawn from an Israeli on-line service named Hevre which serves as a virtual community enabler that allows groups to make their own virtual community space. Of Hevre's nearly 700,000 customers, the Barzilais identify 14,000 as charedim.

There is no doubt that the Barzilais are on target. Yet their study raises several issues. Their research appears to go to the edge of violating the privacy of Internet users and this should be of concern to those who regard privacy as a primary value that is being eroded by technological advances which permit governments and others to access information that should remain private. Was Hevre authorized to provide the information that it gave the Barzilais? This question obviously applies to all subscribers, not just charedim.

On a different methodological front, it is questionable whether the statistics that we are given are reliable. We are told that in addition to their own religiously-oriented virtual communities, charedi "users of secular platforms comprise about one-third of the entire ultra-Orthodox population." This isn't possible in view of the low rate of Internet subscribers in charedi population centers such as Bnei Brak (6.4% as compared to 33% in Tel Aviv) and also in view of the large number of children in charedi families. It also should be noted that there are Israelis in the thousands who live in Bnei Brak who aren't charedi.

Other statistical questions arise from the establishment of Orthodox or charedi websites that attract visitors who themselves are distant from charedi life. An important example is Chabbad's pioneering and extensive use of the Internet.

A major problem with the Barzilais' paper is the rash of statements about charedi life that are foolish or offensive. We are told that within charedi society "deviations from communal aims and traditions are severely punished, e.g. by excommunication." After noting that a charedi reporter said in an on-line forum that "spiritual authorities have lost their legitimacy and power," the authors add, "had such an opinion been printed or aired in one of the ultra-Orthodox media channels, the reporter would have been excommunicated." Not reprimanded or even fired but excommunicated! Has anyone been excommunicated in Israel in the past fifty years? I suppose that we should thank the Brazilais for not claiming that those who deviate would be burnt at the stake.

There are other incredible statements relating to charedi Internet use by gender and the conclusion that the fact that very few users have been expelled from charedi platforms is proof of "a high level of discipline." Discipline, we are told, is "perceived as the only alternative to blasphemy." Indeed, if the Barzilais would reflect on it, their contention that there is significant charedi Internet use contradicts their repeated statements about discipline, surveillance and punishment.

In short, we have a useful article that is seriously flawed by a tendency to treat charedi life in terms of absolutes and stereotypes when in fact there is far more variety than meets the unsophisticated sociological eye.