Sunday, January 15, 2006

RJJ Newsletter - The Internet and Rabbinic Bans

Unlike other of our handiwork that may have ethical implications - medical advances and design of clothing come to mind - technological innovations inherently are ethically neutral. Much of what we now take for granted is little more than tiny chips that have the capacity to contain an astounding amount of information or to perform complicated tasks in no more than the blink of an eye. How technology is used is another matter.

As a rule, technology that is utilized for visual purposes poses a greater challenge to religious sensibilities than technology that is aural. The ready explanation is that what the eye sees has a significantly greater impact on behavior and attitudes than what is merely heard. This is akin to the familiar Talmudic principle, lo t'hei shmiah gedolah mi-re'ah. Hearing is less reliable than seeing.

This may explain why certain innovations that may be problematic from a religious Jewish standpoint do not evoke strong negative reactions. The cell phone which is now indispensable to most of us is also a frequent instrumentality for improper midos, as when it interrupts tefila. It is addictive and results in the enormous waste of time or bitul and (along with conventional telephones), it is a great catalyst for lashon hara. However, rabbinical hackles were raised only when cell phones became Internet accessible.

Because they are visual, movies and televisions are regarded as off limits by rabbinical authorities. Apart from their addictive capacity, it is easy to get along without watching any movies or television. They are diversions and nothing more. We can also get by without reading the daily newspaper and while we may know less as a consequence, what we are missing is nearly always tangential to what we must know and do.

The computer and Internet are different. Of course, they can be dispensed with, yet the universe of people who do not rely on the Internet is shrinking rapidly as the younger generation which is computer literate replaces the older generation whose literacy in this regard is often limited. This is evident even in Orthodox circles, as it is everywhere else. The Internet is indispensable to most people in business and for lawyers and other professionals. Teachers rely on it, as do students. It is a key source for needed medical information, a money and time saver for shoppers and it is vital for air travel. Before long, the Internet may be the primary means of making telephone calls. Each day, bright people are figuring out how to expand its vital uses.

Too many have also figured out how to put the Internet to less than admirable uses. There is a gray zone occupied by bloggers and by a certain genre of entrepreneurs and there is a far darker zone comprised of those who convey totally offensive material that is at once repulsive and yet also exciting to young people and many adults. There has been an explosion of such material and it has been abetted by a culture of permissiveness and the inability to constrain the Internet within national boundaries.

What is evident is that we face a serious problem. Younger people, especially teenagers, are vulnerable, as are many adults. We are faced with a destructive phenomenon that can enter the core of people's lives and alter their behavior. For religious Jews, the danger posed by the Internet may be greater still and while this may seem incongruous in view of the standards within Orthodox life, the explanation is that because we adhere to a moral code that proscribes immodesty, the intrusion into one's life of such material can be jarring and transformative, impelling those who are influenced to abandon entirely the values and standards that they were taught.

The easy part is to condemn that which is hostile to our way of life. The far more difficult issue is to determine what to do about a technological conveyer of what is highly improper when that same technology is utilized to help us do what is beneficial in our lives. It's pat to say that we should ban the whole kit and caboodle, starting with the ordinary computer. The strategy of throwing out the baby with the bathwater cannot be effective in a business and societal environment that mandates access to the information and tasks available via the Internet.

We can hope that one day courts and society will come to their senses and cease putting a constitutional stamp of approval on material that is far more harmful to far many more people than dozens of items on the Food and Drug Administration's forbidden list. There is little prospect that this will happen soon, even with world-wide opprobrium and criminal charges directed at the purveyors and viewers of child pornography. We have yet to sufficiently recognize how harmful pornography is to the children who serve as viewers.

Our options are therefore limited. Technology to restrict what can be accessed has been developed. While apparently it is not totally effective, improvements are being made, and together with parental determination to establish firm rules regarding where computers are placed and how and when they can be used by children, we should be able to attain a comfort level regarding the availability of inappropriate material.

This is not good enough for yeshivas and Beth Jacobs in Lakewood. They have decreed that the Internet is entirely forbidden and parents who transgress this decree will suffer the expulsion of their children from the schools. This isn't the first time that such a policy has been adopted; as with its predecessors, with all due respect to the Rabbis and educators who are its architects, this is not the way to go.

The new policy allows - because it must - exceptions for parents who can show just cause for Internet access in their homes and who will install the proper controls. This inevitably means that there will be loopholes exploited by some parents, while other parents may well pursue the path of deception, which is the usual outcome when something that is useful is banned. At the end of the day, the parents and their children who will be most affected will be those who are most truthful.

This protest against what I regard as a wrongful policy should not be misread as a justification of wrongful behavior. The Internet is not going away. More and more
people in our community will utilize it because it is increasingly required to get done what people need to get done. We must not target children because we have problems with the Internet and we must avoid the halachically and ethically dubious notion that we can so easily expel students from our schools. Not long ago, our schools focused on the mission of bringing children closer to Torah and mitzvos. It is painful that those who set policies for the yeshiva world are finding justifications for keeping children out of our schools. We are moving away from the great goal of kiruv rechokim to the ignoble principle of richuk kerovim. The children who we throw out or reject are out of sight and out of mind and we blissfully continue on our self-congratulatory path, proclaiming that we are people of chesed and goodness. This is the most disheartening development that I have experienced in half a century of involvement in Torah education.

What the Lakewood schools have done needs to be challenged, lest what is toxic spreads. We must not be fearful. Last May I protested in this space against the refusal of certain Lakewood schools to admit applicants whose fathers commit the unpardonable sin of working. This wrongful attitude came to a crisis point at the start of this school year when a significant number of female students had no school that would accept them. Fortunately, Israeli Torah leaders mandated that Lakewood's Beth Jacobs could not open until all of the applicants were placed. Is it possible that the Internet policy is meant to circumvent this ruling by finding a "legitimate" way of excluding students?

Instead of following the well-trodden path of issuing bans, our rabbis and educators should deal with the obviously troubling consequences of Internet access by teaching and emphasizing how restraint and prudence can reduce and perhaps eliminate the potential harm to children. Inadvertently, the employment of harsh measures conveys a lack of faith in the ability of our schools and community, as well as our parents, to properly guide our children.

I hope that those who have authored the expulsion policy will reflect on their handiwork and will pull back. The process of reflection might begin with a clause in the frequently cited Mishnah in Sanhedrin that speaks of the merit of saving a single Jewish life. The next statement, which is rarely quoted, teaches that he who destroys a single Jewish life is as if he has destroyed the entire world.