Monday, December 17, 2007

How The Torah Can Take On The internet

Technology has always been seen as a challenge to religious societies and their mores. I recall a discussion with a visitor to my home: the topic of conversation was a man in full Hassidic garb he had seen standing in the street speaking on a mobile phone. What I thought was an interesting synthesis of old and new worlds my guest considered hypocritical for reasons he clearly felt deeply, but was unable to articulate. And a famous London rabbi who resisted the use of video cameras at weddings was once criticised in this very paper for being ‘an enemy of modern technology’! There seems to be a perception that technology and Orthodoxy don’t quite mix!

Recently, computers - and particularly the internet - have thrown up a range of issues that Jewish scholars have started to tackle. The most hotly contested of these is how to ensure that the internet is used safely. The plethora of pornography, nefarious chat-rooms, violence and hate that pervades the sinister side of the web has caused immense consternation in all civilised parts of society; it has encouraged Orthodox leaders to offer strongly-worded edicts to control its use. In many Haredi circles today, use of the internet for essential business use is reluctantly permitted, whereas home use is disallowed; there are residential areas in Israel where few homes have internet access. The exponents of this view feel that the dangers of internet use far outweigh its benefits, and that a ‘kosher’ home should, if at all possible, be web-free. This opinion is reinforced with powerful rhetoric and some quite draconian measures: a number of communities have even incorporated harsh internet restrictions into their school-entrance policies.

Yet leaders of other Orthodox circles have adopted a different view: they realise that the internet is a supremely useful tool that many find indispensable, and that banning it is unlikely to actually stop people from using it. An increasingly common perspective sees the internet as the greatest opportunity for knowledge-dissemination since Gutenberg, one that the religious world should embrace, while simultaneously taking robust precautions to avoid exposure to its disreputable and nauseating parts. This view is tacitly endorsed by the proliferation of Torah websites and other Orthodox internet resources.

But while the internet has occupied centre stage in recent rabbinical pronouncements, many other fascinating issues are raised by computer use. Over the coming months, in a series of occasional articles, I intend to address some of them. Among other topics, we will consider how Jewish law deals with modern intellectual property matters, Shabbat complications generated by internet use and some surprising consequences emerging from the growth in the availability of wifi.

The application of ancient Jewish sources to a modern issue is always an exciting opportunity for Torah scholarship, but the almost paradoxical meeting of the worlds of halakhah and state-of-the-art technology is especially fascinating. I never cease to be awed by the comprehensive nature of Talmudic and mediaeval sources: the corpus of Jewish legal literature contains a vast range of precedents from which any contemporary case can be decided, no matter how extraordinary. Of course, this process has existed since the earliest times and the current issues raised by computers are the successors of topics like protecting copyright, which was addressed many centuries ago by such luminaries as Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (16th century Poland). In due course, our subjects will give way to the next generation of conundrums; we can’t predict what they will be, but we can be sure that the halakhah contains the tools with which to handle them.

I believe that halakhah can deliver cogent and relevant answers to apparently unprecedented hi-tech problems and that this is one of Judaism’s greatest strengths. The answers emerging from halakhic debate often seem to presage the conclusions that other systems of thought eventually reach by longer and slower means.

The little-understood willingness of rabbis, even of those of the most insular schools, to engage directly with every aspect of modernity is, potentially one of the greatest assets of the contemporary Jewish world, one that we should export to the rest of society. Torah scholars are absolutely dedicated to incorporating the very best achievements of the 21st century into Jewish life. Yet they are equally committed to taking vigorous precautions to ensure that negative aspects of technology (both the halakhically questionable and the spiritually damaging) are firmly excluded from Jewish society. I hope that this series affords a small taste of this tremendous resource.


Internet access in the home is only permissible if required for a person’s job. Computers without internet access will be required to have software installed which will prevent such access in order to prevent children from connecting them to the internet. Children of families that do not comply with the rules will be barred from school in order to protect the other children in the class. (Excerpts from internet ban of Lakewood, NJ)

A computer is not a toy. It is a tool, like an electric saw. A blanket ban on home computers is as foolish as a blanket ban on electric saws. But it is just as foolish to leave an electric saw plugged in, out in your living room where there are children. Education is all about teaching our children how to use life’s tools. (Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen)

See, a blog devoted to discussing the future of Orthodox internet use.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

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