Can rabbis rein in Internet temptations?

JERUSALEM, Jan. 17 (JTA) — When Dov Heller was a young Chasidic boy, he remembers being unable to resist the urge to play computer games at his father’s print shop.

Today, a clean-shaven but still haredi 23-year-old, Heller owns PC Plus, the only computer store in Jerusalem’s fervently Orthodox neighborhood of Geula.

Just beside the stairs leading up to his store, devout shoppers pass by four huge posters signed by a battery of 29 rabbinical sages, declaring the Internet to be the greatest menace ever to face Jewish culture.

The decree, says Heller, has not hurt business since most customers comply with the ruling and use computers and the Internet strictly for business. However, Heller is well aware of the Internet’s lure and does not think the ban can be enforced.

“They could enforce prohibitions on television because you cannot hide an antenna on your roof, but this cannot be stopped,” says Heller, who with his hip blazer and black kippa looks like a cross between a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and yeshiva student. “Put a 16-year-old in front of the Internet and you know where he will go. It could change an entire generation.”

Judging by the severity of the Internet ruling, the rabbis seem to agree about the potential impact of the Internet on the traditional lifestyle of the insular Orthodox community. The ruling urged Jews to do anything possible to prevent connecting to the Internet. It warned of a “terrible threat” to Jewish sanctity.

It also declared that computer games are off limits. At PC Plus, there are some games on the shelves, but none of the highly graphic and often violent titles that are popular with secular children. Instead, customers can choose from an array of Torah software products, as well as specially designed multimedia CDs with Chasidic music and rabbinic tales bearing titles such as “the psalms that saved dad.”

The notices also include a number for the special Beth Din (court) on computer related issues, which has received hundreds of calls after the ruling was released.

Established a few months ago, the court’s jurisdiction is to decide what is prohibited and permitted, said Micha Rothschild, the court’s general secretary, but not to enforce the decree. “We do not invade people’s privacy,” he said. “But we do advise institutions how to behave.”

Some sages, including Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, did not sign the ruling. Some observers speculate he may realize that the Internet is unstoppable, while others expect Yosef to sign a separate order soon.

Nevertheless, the ruling clearly marks the latest attempt of haredi leadership to resist technological change. In the 1940s, rabbis banned the radio but eventually recanted. They had more success with later prohibitions on television and cinema, since these are things that can be publicly monitored.

“The big change for the rabbis is the privacy of the Internet,” says Menachem Friedman, professor of sociology at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv and an expert on religious Jews. “The loss of supervision and the inability to know what people are doing is frightening for them — and the most dangerous thing for haredi society.”

Out on the streets of Geula, most people appear to agree with the rabbis, even though many have never used the Internet.

“Our goal is to remain a holy and special nation,” says Pesach Berman, 42, who owns a chain of shoe stores. “The moment we are exposed to the Internet, we will be exposed to all sorts of things that the goyim do and we will start to deteriorate.”

Meanwhile, Orthodox groups in Israel and abroad realize the Internet can be harnessed to help preserve tradition, and have built a plethora of Web sites for precisely this reason. But cyberspace is a very dangerous place for the devout and balancing between desirable and undesirable content can be tricky. For example, the Internet domain name tora.net has been shrewdly snatched up by pornographers.

Some religious groups have already created innovative solutions to these problems. The KosherNet, for example, is a Brooklyn-based Web site that filters content in the same way that parents protect their children using popular tools such as Net Nanny.

The problem is that filters are not foolproof. This is why Michael Malach, a haredi software programmer from Jerusalem, is working on a product that will work in the opposite way. Instead of filtering out kosher content from everything on the Web, it will only allow access to a small number of specific, rabbinically approved Web sites.

“I want to create the technical solution that will allow religious people to use the Web, but of course, I will first ask for the rabbis’ approval,” Malach says. He realizes that a ban on the Internet is unenforceable, but also thinks that most haredim want to obey the rabbis.

“We do not live in Iran, and anyway, people do what they like in the privacy of their homes,” he says. “The ruling of the rabbis is based upon an appeal to the inner morals of the public.”

Shabsi, a 25-year-old former yeshiva student who prefers not to give his last name, feels uncomfortable about contradicting the rabbis — but has no regrets about logging on.

The week the rabbis issued their ruling, Shabsi joined an Internet service provider so he could access the Net from his office computer at a cellular phone store in Geula. The access icon is hidden deep in the bowels of his PC where nobody, he hopes, can find it.

Shabsi says he wants to learn how to use the Internet because he believes it will be an important tool for business in the future.

“I do not agree with the fact that they put a total ban on the Internet like television,” he says. “On television, everything is bad, but here there are good things as well.

“A frum Jewish boy has to have somewhere to let himself out,” he adds.

Raymond, a yeshiva student from New Jersey who also asks that his last name be omitted, has used the Internet several times but only after asking his rabbi and getting a study partner to come along as a chaperone to ensure he does not wander off into forbidden cyberterritory. He also believes the rabbinical ruling from Israel will be taken very seriously by fervently Orthodox communities in the Diaspora.

“Perhaps they cannot enforce the ruling,” he says. “But we can say that if you want to be part of our community then you must stick to our rules. It will put us in a technological ghetto, but Jews did not have opportunities of other nations for thousands of years and we are still around.”

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