The technological progress is increasingly infiltrating the haredi sector, despite a fierce battle launched by rabbis and public activists. Due to the overwhelming objection to the use of computers and smartphones, many rabbis have ignored the questions troubling those who do use the new technologies.
Now, Rabbi Avraham Maimon has come to their rescue in a new book called "Derech Haatarim" ("Through the Sites"), which offers halachic guidance to haredi users.
Rabbi Maimon says in the introduction that he had hesitated before publishing his innovations, for fear that people would see it as an approval to use the Internet. He finally decided to publish the book after witnessing the lack of knowledge in the public, and even received the approval of some of the sector's leading rabbis.
More and more haredi entrepreneurs have been starting websites in recent years, facing many obstacles. Some wonder about the halachic validity of online transactions, and modesty and Shabbat issues raise many questions as well. Can a website even be shut down on Shabbat and re-launched at the end of the day of rest?
According to Rabbi Maimon, there are differences of opinion. Some rabbis argue that if a Jew might visit the site on Shabbat, its owners should either block the option of entering it on Shabbat or sell it to a non-Jew during the holy day. A special bill of sale has even been formulated for that purpose.
Observant website owners may receive a permit to store the website on the servers of a Shabbat-desecrating company, but are advised to work with a company owned by non-Jews.
The prohibition of enjoying acts committed on Shabbat creates a problem too. Rabbi Maimon believes that visiting websites on Saturday evening is permitted even if they were active on Shabbat.
"It's okay to read updates which were posted on Shabbat on the different websites, particularly for people who deal with public needs and have to see what has happened," he wrote. Using computers in hospitals is also permitted for life-saving purposes.
And what should be done when non-Jews enter a website dealing with Torah issues? After all, it is forbidden to teach a gentile the Torah. The book's author rules that a rabbi who delivers video lessons or writes a biblical discourse which non-Jews are exposed to is not committing an offense, as his comments are intended for Jews.
'The duty to block'
The chapter "Internet Use – The Duty to Block" is dedicated to the prohibition on looking at women, to marriage and incest.
Rabbi Maimon notes that the prohibition on looking at an immodest woman applies to women on the Internet too, and that the owner of a website which includes immodest pictures or links to such websites "is violating the prohibition of being an accomplice to a crime."
And what should a divorced couple do if it wishes to continue cooperating in a business? The book suggests that a person is entitled to maintain a website with his divorcee, as long as they keep in contact through a third person.
The Internet offers sophisticated solutions for modesty issues in the real world as well. If a man and women are in the same room, thereby violating the yichud prohibition (seclusion in a private area of a man and a woman who are not married to each other), Rabbi Maimon suggests equipping the place with security cameras which would be broadcast to the Internet, "and making the people aware that there is a webcam shooting all part of the house and that there is a guard monitoring what is happening through the screen."
The prohibition remains unchanged if some angles in the house re hidden from the camera.
The Halacha also offers solutions for adoptive parents. When an adoptive father is home alone with his adopted daughter, the webcams which broadcast the pictures from the house to his wife can provide an ultimate solution for the yichud prohibition.
The new technology, it turns out, creates halachic solutions for many other issues. The webcams can, for example, allow followers to escort their rebbes on Jewish holidays and even join a quorum in a synagogue or attend a hearing at a rabbinical court. The mitzvah of visiting the sick can also be observed through the cameras.
Honor thy father – on Skype
The webcams don't always provide a complete alternative to a real meeting. According to the Halacha, Rabbi Maimon says, if a son agrees to see his father who does not live with him only through Skype, the father is exempt from paying alimony as the son is estranging himself from his father.
A special halachic permit is also given to people who want to save money and connect to the neighbors' wireless router. This is permitted according to the Halacha, as long as the surfing does not disrupt and does not slow down the connection of the neighbor who is actually paying the Internet provider.
Don't commit adultery on Facebook
In one of the questions directed at the rabbi, a man said he had caught his wife corresponding with others on social networks.
The rabbi was asked whether this justifies a divorce and is considered adultery, which means the husband must not continue living with his wife.
The rabbi replied that only judges could rule against the woman. And what if the husband sinned in the same way? In such a case, Rabbi Maimon says, there is no doubt that a court can force him to grant his wife a divorce.