In an extraordinary gathering of nearly 60,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews, leading rabbis of the yeshiva and Hassidic world all but banned the Internet.
A halachic decision rendered by Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Wosner, one of the senior rabbis in the Orthodox world, said the Internet could be used for work purposes in an office — but only if absolutely necessary, and with the use of a filter. There was no justification for Internet use at home under any circumstances.
The ruling came during a five-hour program Sunday at the Citi Field baseball stadium in Queens, NY, in which prominent rabbis from the so-called Lithuanian (non-Hassidic) yeshiva world along with Hassidic rabbinical leaders discussed the dangers of the Internet and how to cope with them. While some speakers seemed to advocate a more moderate approach that might have allowed the compromise of a “religious” or highly filtered Internet, most were dead set against it, stating categorically that all Jews who considered themselves Orthodox were obligated to stay as far away from the Internet as possible.
Much of the program was conducted in Yiddish. Several of the speakers stressed the “historic significance” of the day, with one, Rabbi Efraim Wachsman of Yeshiva Meor Yitzchok in Monsey, NY, telling the assembled that the event was a “historic crossroads. Your strength and resolve today will decide what Judaism will look like in a few years from now.”
Those who wished to ensure their future, and more importantly their children’s futures, as Orthodox Jews, would do well to heed the words of the “gedolim” — the rabbinical leaders addressing the gathering — the audience was warned.
Speakers drew on Biblical, Talmudic, rabbinical, and general philosophical sources to back their positions. The ethos of the Internet, which values ever faster access and ever greater instant gratification was contrasted unfavorably with the traditional Jewish values of patience and perseverance.
“The Internet, is about the moment, the fleeting,” said Wachsman, terming people hooked on Web surfing click vegetables.
“People say the gedolim don’t understand the Internet,” he continued. “That could be true. But they understand the trends, and they understand that the instant gratification is the opposite of the holiness needed to become a Torah scholar. The nation of Torah, the nation that gave the world so much wisdom, is now turning into a people of yentayachne.com,” using the Yiddish term for “nasty gossip.”
At least a third of the Internet — “and that is probably an old report” — was full of content that no Jew should be looking at, he said, although he did not use the term pornography.
Wachsmann singled out for special condemnation the damage caused by social media to the stature of rabbis and Jewish scholars. He was referring to the numerous blog posts in which leaders have been excoriated for their silence and inaction on such issues as child molestation in the Orthodox community.
Several of the speakers called on yeshivas to deny admission to applicants who had Internet at home, and Rabbi Wosner included this principle in his halachic decision. Speaking in Yiddish, Rabbi Don Segal, who has been spiritual adviser in numerous yeshivas, said that even those who thought they needed Internet at work should try to find ways to avoid using it, as it was perhaps the “evil inclination” convincing them that they truly needed it.
In a letter sent to event organizers, Bnei Brak’s Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, perhaps the senior authority in the ultra-Orthodox world today, wrote that the Internet was “a great destruction for the Jewish people, with many reaching the lowest levels. There is no home that has these devices that has not fallen prey to terrible sins…. It is the obligation of everyone to gather together and destroy this evil inclination.”
Anyone who felt he had need for Internet use without a filter was required to obtain permission from a rabbi, he wrote.
Rabbi Mattiyahu Salomon of the Lakewood Yeshiva, who was the driving force behind the event, emphasized in his remarks the importance of protecting Jewish children from the ravages of the Internet, which destroys their intrinsic holiness. He also asked members of the audience to pray for the protection against “the great danger in Israel that a law may be passed to draft yeshiva students into the army. We know the Torah is the protection of the Jewish people,” he said. “[Yeshiva students] are the army, and to take them from their studies” would bring tragedy to the Jewish people.
Some 42,000 men participated in the sold-out event at Citi Field in Queens, New York, along with nearly 20,000 in a nearby stadium, added at the last minute for the overflow demand. Women were able to view the proceedings via closed-circuit TV.
Numerous protests took place outside the stadiums, including one by a group proclaiming that “the Internet is not the problem,” and another protesting rabbinical silence on the child abuse scandals. At least one blogger who had proclaimed somewhat lukewarm support for the event said he felt “fooled” by what had gone on. “Nothing positive about the Internet was discussed,” he wrote. “Websites with Torah and the ability to communicate with friends and family was ignored. In short, this event set the clock back to zero. I was wrong. Things are more bleak than I presumed.”
Officially, there was no Web coverage — for obvious reasons — yet numerous live feeds sprang up online enabling people around the world to see the event. The feeds were furnished by attendees who used smart devices to record and upload the proceedings, and many of these people were sending out tweets on Twitter describing the goings-on, to the extent that the hashtag “asifa” (the term used to describe the gathering) was high on Twitter’s trending topic list while the event was taking place.
As could be expected, many of the tweets were furnished by skeptics, with enough to populate a list of the funniest, like this one: “Were it not for social media I would not be able to keep track of the asifa.”