Miriam Shaviv
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Why bloggers terrify the rabbis
Date: Friday, March 9th, 2007
Publication: The Jewish Chronicle

In recent days, the Charedi rabbis of Gateshead and Manchester have banned their followers from accessing the internet, using computers or mobile phones, without a written permit from religious leaders. Many Charedim, they said, had “fallen prey to the immoral lures” of the web.

The implication was that Charedi children are threatened by the easy availability of pornography online — and this is a major factor. But the true threat of the internet, as far as the Charedi community is concerned, and the major impetus behind the bans both here and in the US, lies elsewhere — in the world of internet weblogs.

These online diaries have proven truly subversive in Charedi society. In a community in which conformity is key, blogs have been used to vent frustrations, question the rabbinic leadership and express doubts about the Charedi belief system — with guaranteed anonymity.

There are dozens of blogs written by disenchanted Charedim in the USA, the UK and Israel, in English, Ivrit, and even in Yiddish. There is also heavy Charedi participation in other blogs written by questioning Jews from across the Orthodox spectrum. Together, they generate many thousands of hits each week, and have become the medium of choice in the Charedi street.

Those considered particularly “threatening” fall into three categories. First, there are those which discuss issues of theology, such as godolhador.blogspot.com, whose anonymous author stopped posting after an astounding half-a-million hits, many of them from deep inside the yeshiva world. Did God really write the Torah? Does He really exist? How do we know that Judaism is the true religion? The intensity of the discussions was such that the author of the blog himself gradually shifted from a defence of orthodoxy to more open skepticism.

Second, there are those that critique the Charedi way of life, such as the Stamford Hill-based www.theshaigetz.blogspot.com. Often written by Charedim leading double lives, these blogs provide a forum to grumble — about everything. Ongoing subjects include the role of women, endemic poverty, unpopular rabbinic edicts, and the continuing pressures to have many children, to conform, and to appear ever “frummer”. These discussions often end up as open attacks on the rabbis’ authority.

Third, there are blogs which have been instrumental in exposing sexual predators in the Charedi community. One blogger, “Un-Orthodox Jew” (theunorthodoxjew.blogspot.com), used his site last year to “out” a teacher at a Brooklyn yeshivah for allegedly molesting students, and claim that the school had covered up the abuse. The postings led to a lawsuit against the rabbi and the school. They also generated an outpouring of contempt for the rabbis who allegedly preferred to protect one of their own over the assaulted boys.

The blog was the subject of a direct public attack by former Gateshead Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon, now at America’s premier Charedi yeshivah in Lakewood, New Jersey, who claimed that a better method of dealing with such issues was to “sweep them under the carpet”.

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, admitted in 2006 that “in recent years… the authority of daas Torah [the rabbis] has been significantly undermined… Most troubling has been the proliferation of internet blogs where misguided individuals feel free to spread every bit of rechilus and loshon hora [gossip and slander] about rabbonim and roshei yeshivah [yeshivah heads], with the intended effect of undermining Torah authority in our community”.

But is “banning” the net an effective response — and does it address the real problem?

The concerns about the Charedi community expressed on blogs cannot be suppressed forever. Rather than banning the medium, the rabbis should address the message — the rumblings of discontent below the surface.

The digital world spells the end of the strategy of cultural self-isolation, the defence mechanism for traditional Jews and Judaism first suggested at the beginning of the Enlightenment more than two centuries ago. As communications devices of all sorts get smaller, cheaper and more multi-platformed, we are approaching a situation where every television channel, plus the entire web, can be accessed from a pocket-sized device. There is no longer any such thing as a hermetically sealed society.

What must replace it is an education towards responsible choices. Every group — including the Charedi sector — can retain its followers only by positive motivation. Perhaps a promotion of Chassidic simchah, or joy, would be more effective than the dour, repressive — and King Canute-like — ban.

Miriam Shaviv is Comment Editor of the JC

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