It seems that after many years of ignoring the issue the Jewish world--at least the American haredi (ultra-Orthodox) wing of it--has realized that we live in the internet age. They have also noticed that the internet and its associated technologies can be disruptive. The internet offers easy access to pornography and to relationships that can be destructive to family life and community values. This much is true for all communities, groups and people. But there is one element that is particularly destructive to communities of faith and that’s how easy it is for people to access ideas that counter their beliefs.
The community is collectively addressing this issue in a special conference that is to take place later this month in New York’s Citi Field stadium. Tens of thousands are expected to be at the event and some of the communities most prominent religious leaders are slated to speak.
It is widely expected that certain pronouncements and edicts by rabbinic and spiritual leaders will result from this event. These are likely to include an acknowledgment that the internet is here to stay and cannot be avoided completely. At the same time the rabbis are likely to rule that the internet may only be used together if it is censored by a Kosher internet filter.
The Kosher filter is no different than other filters that exist--it blocks x-rated sites as well as chat applications, social media sites, blogs etc. However, it will have a more difficult time blocking sites that contains ideas that the community may consider heretical. Statistics show that the vast majority of internet users do not access web pornography. Only four percent of the top one million sites on the internet are porn sites. Thus, whilst addiction to internet pornography is clearly an issue for some people and needs to be addressed, it is only something that afflicts a small minority of internet users.
The bigger issue, for a religious community at least, is the information and ideas that the internet makes accessible. Any community or society that asks its people to deny an empirical reality or to double think--to use the Orwellian term--must be wary of the power of the internet. This is something that dictators all over the Middle East have learned the hard way.
The only real way of overcoming this issue is by being honest. It is my contention that one of the fundamental strengths of Judaism is that it never asks its adherents to rely on blind faith. In other words, Judaism will never ask people to ignore what they see as true and believe in a dogma instead. In fact, it seems to me that, only inauthentic Jewish teachers will ask their followers to replace facts with doctrine.
Where Judaism has gone wrong, and where it becomes unsustainable, are the places where it has backed itself into an ideological corner where stated beliefs contradict clear reality. An especially egregious example of this was when some in the haredi community dismissed the fact that man ever walked on the moon. Citing a verse in Psalms which states that the heavens are the domain of God and only the earth was given to mankind (Psalms 115:16) they claimed that God would never allow man to land on the moon. This led to an absurd situation where a cryptic verse in the Book of Psalms took precedent over demonstrable reality. There are, unfortunately, numerous other examples of this that have developed over the ages.
Judaism in its authentic form, it seems to me, never demands this type of blind belief. Whenever scripture seems to contradict clear empirical facts, traditional Judaism has always assumed that we are not reading the verse correctly, rather than the other way around. Judaism very clearly delineates the difference between what we know and what we believe.
If the religious and rabbinic leaders who are to gather in Citi Field later this month want to effectively deal with the challenge posed by the internet, they must first understand that the real threat is not the internet--rather it is knowledge itself. They must further recognize that this is not something that any filter will ever be able to control or suppress.
Instead they must confront the inconsistencies that have crept into our religion over the ages and be truthful about those problems. No matter how strong the filter, it is the height of naivety to assume that students of today will just accept the things they are told without doing a Google search to double check facts.
Clearly therefore, instead of asking young people to just believe blindly, religious leaders must provide honest answers that are in line with what can be demonstrated empirically. Judaism itself expects and demands nothing less. In the final analysis, Judaism has an incredible amount to offer, especially today and specifically to youth of our generation. It would be a real tragedy if a lack of courage and political will to confront hard issues causes Judaism as a whole to loose credibility in the eyes the internet generation.