Charedi society in Israel and the diaspora is going though a complex period, which includes multiple and significant challenges both internally and externally. One of the central challenges it has faced in recent times is the internet—the virtual world that has changed social life throughout the world in ways still difficult to entirely grasp.
Charedi society espouses cultural isolation. It zealously guards its educational autonomy and wishes to live as a walled community protected from the spirit of the age. Until recently, it seemed that wherever they lived, Charedi Jews were able to somehow separate themselves from the culture of the outside world. The overwhelming majority of Charedi individuals avoids watching TV; it is likewise unacquainted with sports and other products of the modern world. Charedim do not go to the movies, and (generally) do not read secular newspapers. Yes, the traditional wall was never free of cracks—no wall can be entirely hermetic—but it was good enough to keep out the cultural heroes of the wider world: pop stars, movie stars and soccer stars. The Charedi public was not connected to mass media, the most powerful form of socialization in the modern age, and this disconnect protected them from acquaintance (certainly close acquaintance) with western culture. The protection from exposure to the secular media shaped Charedi society and allowed it to develop in its own unique way.
Twenty years ago, in the innocent days of my youth, who ever watched secular TV? Who ever read Haaretz? Encounters with western culture were rare: occasionally on buses, now and again when visiting relatives, or at a waiting room for the dentist
Internet, which allows us to hold the entire world in the palm of our hand, to see from one end of the earth to the other, threatens to collapse the walls erected round Charedi society with so much toil and sweat. Advanced technologies are blurring the distinction between the private and public spheres by changing the most basic rules of the game, and this blurring presents a grave threat to the barriers that uphold the integrity of Charedi society, which suddenly finds itself exposed to secular culture at a high level of intensity. Twenty years ago, in the innocent days of my youth, who ever watched secular TV? Who ever read Haaretz? Encounters with western culture were rare: occasionally on buses, now and again when visiting relatives, or at a waiting room for the dentist. The few who followed sports had to walk to the nearest kiosk or listen attentively to the radio. The average Charedi individual never watched a feature film. His understandings of the secular world came from shared travel on public transportation and billboards on the highways.
For a very significant portion of the Charedi community today, this description sounds almost pre-historic. I am not speaking of those groups sometime dubbed “new Charedim,” but rather of families who are entirely Charedi, who are cautious in every detail of “Harediness” and who send their children to the “best schools.” How many “normal” yeshivah students, from standard yeshiva institutions, have never seen a movie in their lives? The answer tends to zero. And that’s the tip of the iceberg. Percentages of Charedi homes with an internet connection have climbed above 50%; the walls of separation are losing their effectiveness, and knowledge “from the outside” flows in. Clips are shared on WhatsApp, and if you don’t have a smartphone then your friend does: “A friend of a friend is also your friend.” There are no more secrets—no secrets concerning the insider mechanisms of Charedi society, and none about the “world outside.” All the sensitive news items that Charedi newspapers refrain from publishing are well-known. A Charedi woman who lights a torch on Yom Ha’atzmaut. A Prime Minister’s speech that touches on the Charedi world or religion. A secular TV series dealing with the Charedi public. An investigative piece on the yeshiva world. It all flows in.
The walls have been breached. And the guilty party is: Internet.
Caredi society sought to create a protected cultural greenhouse; it achieved significant successes after difficult struggles. This has not been the case for the struggle against internet use. Why is this challenge different from all other challenges? Can our traditional community tools be effective in dealing even with this challenge, or perhaps—as the Chazon Ish famously said of the use of the Yiddish language—the battle is taking place on another field, and our outdated weapons are no longer relevant?
In this article, I will seek to survey how Charedi society has tried to cope with the challenge internet use presents to its isolationist core. I will examine what was done to prevent the penetration of internet and explain how this battle is indeed different from struggles against other modern means of communication: the press, the radio, and the TV. Why did Charedi society succeed in stemming the tide of other threats, while it fails to do so in the case of the internet? Following on, I will analyze the primary changes that may emerge in Charedi society due to internet access. Finally, I will make my own suggestion as to how we can cope with the challenges of the internet in a more effective and beneficial manner, even enlisting it to strengthen and empower Charedi society.
Media Challenges: Milestones
Media has always presented a weighty challenge for Charedi society. In the century preceding the internet, and especially following the establishment of Charedi society in Israel, it dealt with media challenges with great success, managing to build a protected community conducting largely shielded from surrounding culture.
The first challenge was print media, which became a highly influential means of communication by the end of the nineteenth century. In the Jewish world, it served as a mouthpiece for views and opinions of that age—Haskalah, socialism, and Zionism, among of course many others. The Charedi rabbinic leadership of that era warned of the media’s potentially harmful influences, and issued prohibitions against reading newspapers and magazines. Within several years, rabbis and community leaders began to publish papers of their own, seeking to create an alternative to the secular press. Alongside the recognition that people will consume newspapers regardless, they understood the advantages of print media, enlisting it to create a Charedi identity and to rally Charedi communities in ways that hitherto could not be achieved. The result was Charedi newspapers, their content adapted for a Charedi reading public, representing its various streams. Some of these operate until today. The challenge had become an opportunity—utilizing modern means of communication to spread internal Charedi ideas and organize community life.
A few decades passed, and a new media appeared: movies. Now Charedi society needed to cope with the entertainment provided by cinema. At first these were films screened in theaters, and the way to cope was relatively simple: to refrain from going to theaters. Movie content hardly matched the spirit of Charedi society, the atmosphere of movie theaters was wholly inappropriate for most members of Charedi society, and the threat was relatively minimal.
The home transmitter that appeared several decades later—television—presented a new, dual challenge: The enemy was not outside in the theaters, but inside, in the homes. Moreover, TV went beyond airing entertainment content, but even served as a useful tool to provide news. Thus, with the advent of Israeli TV and its transformation into a popular and influential medium, the struggle took on a new form. The significant fear of the negative influence of TV led Charedi leadership to openly publish their opinion against its use. Their words were published in the Charedi press, which (as noted) had long since become an important organizational tool of the community.
[O]n the advice of Charedi activists and with rabbinic blessing, educational institutions initiated a policy of refusal to accept students from homes containing the “impure device.” Ultimately, the custom encompassed the overwhelming majority of Charedi educational institutions
These rabbinic proclamations were not just tidbits of moral advice. In 1967, the Bais Din of the Edah Charedis decided to impose a communal ban on anyone who brought a TV into their home or watched it outside of it. In addition, the Bais Din strictly forbade renting an apartment or a store to anyone who used this device or even traded in TV sets. In addition, on the advice of Charedi activists and with rabbinic blessing, educational institutions initiated a policy of refusal to accept students from homes containing the “impure device.” Ultimately, the custom encompassed the overwhelming majority of Charedi educational institutions.
Haredi society was triumphant in its unrelenting war against TV. The avoidance of TV become a clear marker of Charedi society, singling it out from other religious groups. TV sets could not (and still cannot) be found in Charedi homes, and Charedi children new nothing of Hollywood or popular shows.
Secular radio broadcasts were another means by which secular society threatened to expose Charedi individuals to content deemed inappropriate to their way of life. Here, too, Charedi rabbinic leadership forbade consumption of radio broadcasts, and in the early years of radio broadcast placards forbidding the “dangerous device” were prominently visible on Charedi streets. But in radio use could not be entirely banned. Radios were in every car, and radios could not be separated from everyday home stereo systems. The rabbinic struggle against radio was also less strident, perhaps because this medium did not threaten the cultural separation in the same way as television. As the Sages say: Hearing is not the same as seeing.
The broader response to secular radio emerged from private initiatives. Charedi radio stations began airing contents adapted for Charedi consumers, broadcasting Chassidic music and Torah lessons, alongside Charedi-oriented news and analysis. The founding of Charedi radio derived primarily from commercial considerations, following mass entry of radio into Charedi homes during the Gulf War. At first, Charedi stations aroused rabbinic opposition, but this dissipated over time, and today these stations enjoy relative legitimacy. Certainly, opposition to them has almost entirely been forgotten. A poll conducted in 1995 showed 36% of Charedim declaring they listen to the radio, and 46% saying they abstain from it. By contrast, a TGI poll conducted in 2017 had about 50% of Charedim declare that they listen to Charedi stations, while many of the remaining 50% were not ideological abstainers. Naturally, Charedim who listen to radio will sometimes listen to secular radio stations; struggle against listening to such stations has thus been a relative success, but to a far lesser degree than television.
Computers, which slowly entered Charedi homes, made it possible to watch movies burned onto discs, threatening to undermine the successful struggle against TV. While this led to some entry of movies into Charedi society, the social influence of computers remained minor, and did not require rabbinic intervention. And then came the internet
The next challenge came in the form of home computers, whose penetration into Israeli households allowed for viewing recorded content on hard and floppy disks. Opposition to computers was more complex, the computer being not merely an entertainment tool, but useful for many purposes, including writing Torah content or using Torah databases. Computers, which slowly entered Charedi homes, made it possible to watch movies burned onto discs, threatening to undermine the successful struggle against TV. While this led to some entry of movies into Charedi society, the social influence of computers remained minor, and did not require rabbinic intervention. And then came the internet.
Hitherto, consumption of secular content via the computer was minor and relatively controlled, thanks to the difficulty of obtaining the relevant content; a Charedi person could hardly allow himself to frequent a movie store. But in a post-internet world, content of all types became available at the click of a finger. This changed the picture entirely. With a connection to the internet every home computer became a channel of unlimited information and media content. For the Charedi community, this was nothing less than an enormous tsunami striking against its walls of isolation. The internet included both the dangers of the free press—nonsense and gossip, crudeness and vanity—but even the dangers of the visual media, exposing the community to content that contravenes halacha and the traditional Jewish way of life. New threats were also added: Easy access to pornographic content threatened the sanctity of the Charedi camp, and exposure (on Charedi websites) of the “behind the scenes” of Charedi power centers threatened the status of Charedi leadership. One hundred years of separation and efforts to preserve the sanctity of the community were being put to the test by this new means of communication.
Internet Wars: A Race Against Technology
In 1997, the Israeli Internet Exchange (IIX) began to operate, a center of data transfer allowing every private consumer in Israel to connect to the global internet network for the first time and access almost infinite information. In its time, this event did not receive significant coverage in the Israeli media and certainly not on Charedi media. The agenda of Charedi public leaders was crammed with weighty political and educational questions, and no-one could predict the coming revolution, set to have so much influence on the entire world and threaten the foundations that underlay Charedi society.
Another quoted the words of Rabbi Shmuel Wozner zt”l: “The internet causes serious diseases … and brings all the troubles in the world; from the time of the creation until today, there has never been such a destructive and dangerous tool.”
In 2000, three years after the internet made its first appearance in the Holy Land, the Charedi rabbinic leadership officially prohibited (via the press and billboards) any internet use and defined it as a threat to the sanctity of the Jewish People: “Sll who enter it will not return and its trap has already caught many souls in Israel.” The prohibition led to prominent and particularly threatening public campaigns. One noted that “In 2011 alone, 67 Charedi men got divorced and sold their women and children because of internet and non-kosher media.” Another quoted the words of Rabbi Shmuel Wozner zt”l: “The internet causes serious diseases … and brings all the troubles in the world; from the time of the creation until today, there has never been such a destructive and dangerous tool.” Such sharp words are not heard on a daily basis. Rabbinic leaders identified the threat of the internet and declared total war against it.
The war intensified, but at the same time it became clear that this was a different kind of struggle than that of television or the secular press. The main difference between the Internet and other means of communication was its broad and daily uses. The internet is not merely a database, but even an interpersonal means of communication, rendering both the mail service and even everyday phones outdated and inefficient. Not long after internet use became widespread, email began to replace paper mail. Statements and reports, to say nothing of business negotiations and bank transactions, moved almost exclusively to the web. In just a few years the internet became a vital tool that was hard to do without, certainly for those involved in the modern world. Bank activities and payment of bills, ordering products and booking flights, receiving messages and updates for groups and transferring files between locations—all these are executed today via internet connection. The world has become computerized, and the internet serves as the transportation route for required information. How will the yeshiva student send his next article for publication in a Torah journal? How will the school secretary transmit work pages to a long list of teachers? With a disc? Many computers today don’t even read discs, to say nothing of “burners.” It quickly became apparent that the internet is not just a means of entertainment or channel for foreign cultural content, but a tool very hard to refrain from using.
The struggle was therefore complicated. Use of internet became more widespread among Charedim, and the steps taken against it became harsher still. Yet they were not particularly successfully. Television easy to identify as the instrument of a sinful culture, and quickly became forbidden to the Charedi home. But computers were present in many Charedi homes, and for men or women who worked they were a vital necessity. The rabbinic struggle failed to make the internet taboo in Charedi society, and despite exceptionally harsh statements against it, it took root among large swathes of the population.
We cannot ban it entirely, since it is required for daily life, so that we need to “preserve the wine.” On the other hand, we must be wary of it and “break the barrel”—ban it and exclude it. This complexity is a challenge for which we have no historical experience
In 2010, Rav Steinman zt”l explained at an awakening convention that the internet is a new kind of threat. He quoted the Gemara in Bava Basra: “It is like a slave who told his master: Preserve the barrel and preserve its wine.” The Gemara discusses Satan’s task by comparison to that of Job. Job had to preserve his loyalty despite severe hardships, but Satan was given an almost impossible task: To test Job but not harm him personally—to break the barrel but preserve its wine. It would have been much easier to break the barrel and spill its wine; to preserve the wine without the barrel is a real challenge. The same is the case with the internet, Rav Steinman explained: We cannot ban it entirely, since it is required for daily life, so that we need to “preserve the wine.” On the other hand, we must be wary of it and “break the barrel”—ban it and exclude it. This complexity is a challenge for which we have no historical experience.
Filtering Technology and Internet “For Work Purposes”
In 2005 a rabbinic committee was established which recruited professionals to create an internet connection that filters out content deemed inappropriate for the Charedi public. A special package including 150 permitted internet sites at home and for business received the committee’s approval and was marketed for Charedim who needed internet “for work purposes.” But despite initial optimism, it quickly turned out that websites considered to be clean and safe for surfing led via links to problematic websites, sometimes containing improper advertisements and other inappropriate content. It also surmised that because of their dynamic nature, “clean” sites could later incorporate inappropriate material. The committee therefore recommended an alternative approach, which would only permit access to relevant sites for certain professions. The problem with this plan was the lack of options for characterizing precisely what sites are needed for each business: The variety and dynamic of the working world, alongside the dizzying turnover of the internet, did not allow for effective control of exposure to relevant sites.
While for some time rabbinic leaders hoped to exclude internet from the Charedi public space, over time it became clear that this was a losing battle. Bereft of alternatives, in 2007 internet was openly permitted for livelihood purposes, despite the dangers inherent to its use. For the first time, Charedi papers printed the word “internet”
While for some time rabbinic leaders hoped to exclude internet from the Charedi public space, over time it became clear that this was a losing battle. Bereft of alternatives, in 2007 internet was openly permitted for livelihood purposes, despite the dangers inherent to its use. For the first time, Charedi papers printed the word “internet” in an advertisement by the Committee on Media Matters which permitted businesses to use filtered internet. Recognition of internet became official.
Private Charedi initiatives quickly emerged trying to create content filtering programs for computers, under the understanding that this would be a growing market in Charedi society. Nativ, a private company under Charedi ownership, developed software that blocked surfing almost entirely save email and a limited number of websites related to businesses and official institutions. Later, the filtering software was replaced “kosher internet” provided by the ISP’s themselves. These offered several filtering tracks, the most open of them filtering explicitly harmful sites alone, and the most closed allowing predetermined sites alone. At the same time, internet search engines headed by Google developed rapidly, making the job of filtering harder as information on the internet became even more accessible and faster to find. Filtering means were now required to sort through an enormous sea of information, and their effectiveness was now doubtful—at the very least for people who needed rapid access to the net.
Smartphones, Wi-Fi, and Kosher Cellphones
After about a decade of wars against entry of the internet into Charedi society, when it seemed that a relatively effective solution had been found in the form of filtering options, a new and dangerous actor suddenly burst onto the scene. In June 2007, Apple presented the first “smartphone”: A cellphone combined with a media player and handheld computer that could connect to the internet. The smartphone immediately became an international hit. In June 2010, Samsung presented its own smartphone series based on Google’s Android program—the Galaxy. Within a few years many companies began making smartphones for mass marketing. In 2013 alone, about a billion smartphones were sold.
Moreover, Wi-Fi technology made it possible to connect to the internet even without a modem. Many public places deployed wireless networks that allowed free surfing through smartphones and laptop computers. After a decade full of struggles, the internet had become far more accessible.
The smartphone became central to human life. The enormous importance of the smartphone was even formulated in legal terms by Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak Amit in a ruling dealing with smartphone theft:
The theft and robbery of a cellphone is not like the theft and robbery of money or other objects. The smartphone has long since become man’s best friend. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in the cellphone lies a person’s life story. […] It contains significant moments and memories from a person’s life, alongside information and vital details for his daily functioning: pictures of himself and his loved ones, addresses and phone numbers of acquaintances and friends, a diary, memos and a calendar, and more.
The danger of exposure to improper information thus became a true anxiety. The issue of smartphones went beyond the problem of the personal computer, whose connection to the internet required a personal subscription; every young boy and girl could now hold a small device containing all the dangers of the internet. The filtering options based on internet providers were no longer of use; internet could now be accessed via the wireless network.
To deal with this challenge, a body called the Rabbinic Committee on Media Matters was founded in 2007, authorized by several leading Charedi rabbis, to provide “kosher” certificates for mobile phones. The committee drove a hard bargain with cellphone companies and signed clear and inviolable business contracts with them, ostensibly representing the entire sector. Every company committed to creating and maintaining “kosher telephone numbers” that could not support internet surfing at all. These kosher numbers were designated to devices approved by the committee, and marked with a special prefix, allowing for easily recognition of whether a community member had kosher devices or not.
To embed the norm of “kosher cellphones” among the public, the committee enlisted the tool that had served effectively in the fight against television, making it clear that schools would not accept students whose parents used devices that were not approved by the committee. At the same time, the rabbis issued several letters against “impure devices.” Smartphones were vehemently condemned, defined as the very embodiment of impurity and a “destructive angel.” Various halachic polemics began to develop based on rabbinic instruction to extirpate smartphones: Can a person break his friend’s cellphone on the grounds of the instruction to “drive out the evil among you”? Is there a commandment to return a lost non-kosher cellphone? Rebbes of Vizhnitz and Slonim issued a harsh statement to their Hassidim that those who have a non-kosher phone are forbidden from bringing it with them while receiving a blessing or shaking their hand. Others proclaimed that those possessing smartphones must not serve in any public capacity, including as the Chazan. Yated Neeman published a proclamation, citing from of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky that the iPhone (and similar instruments) must be burned, and may not be possessed “even for needs of livelihood.”
The youth suddenly discovers a phone on the sand, which he knows he can use to call rescue services; but alas, the device is not kosher. “Oh, it is an iPhone; better to sacrifice my life than transgress,” murmurs the youth. The next drawing shows a gravestone with the epitaph “Our dear young martyr died sanctifying God’s name.”
This uncompromising war now began to focus on the part of the community previously excluded from all public discussion: children and youth. A significant portion of advertising campaigns appealed directly to children, encouraging them to warn their own parents of the dangers involved. A comic book written by Charedi author Kobi Levi (entitled “Net Fish”) depicts a young Charedi boy lost in the desert under a burning sun, on the brink of dehydration. The youth suddenly discovers a phone on the sand, which he knows he can use to call rescue services; but alas, the device is not kosher. “Oh, it is an iPhone; better to sacrifice my life than transgress,” murmurs the youth. The next drawing shows a gravestone with the epitaph “Our dear young martyr died sanctifying God’s name.” In 2016, playing cards were handed out to Charedi children including the harshest of messages against using cellphones. According to reports, some eight million cards called “Shomrim/Guards” were printed with hundreds of drawings, exegeses against “impure devices,” and descriptions of the harm caused to those addicted to the devices. The source of the cards was a hard-core Charedi community in Europe, and their blatant and downright violent messages, including incitement of children against parents for owning a smartphone, were offensive even for some Charedi rabbis.
Despite it all – despite the harsh and unprecedented struggle, and despite the boycott enforced by communities and the education system, it turned out that smartphones are made of tougher stuff. For many, the smartphone was not a means of entertainment or leisure but a vital work tool for business and managing the household. The situation of needing smartphones alongside the fear of social sanctions created a radical social norm: Many Charedim began to hold two cellphones in their pockets, a “kosher phone” for internal-community communication (and for phone numbers given to institutions) and the other a regular smartphone for business and pleasure. Energetic entrepreneurs even started to provide a device that can receive two SIM cards, one kosher and the other not. The campaign was successful at the public and rhetorical level; at the private level, infringements were rampant.
The partiality of the campaign’s success, alongside the real need for internet access, created disagreements among the leadership. Some rabbinic leaders believed that like home internet, bans and condemnations would not help, and technological solutions were needed. At the beginning of 2013, private entrepreneurs contacted the Rabbinic Committee on Media Matters to request permission to distribute the “kosher smartphone 2.0.” This was a smartphone that included several rabbinically-supervised apps, as well as a block on free surfing via a web browser. The committee took the conservative line and refused the request.
But the story does not end there. It turned out that many in Charedi society did not see the smartphone issue as a zero-sum game of either accepting committee norms or owning a non-kosher phone and being “outside the camp.” Smart entrepreneurs understood that there is a sufficiently significant market share interested in filtered smartphones, even without a rabbinic stamp of approval. Despite the refusal of the Rabbinic Committee, in 2013 Rami Levi Communications (together with Afik-Cellular) launched what was marketed as the “first kosher smartphone in Israel.” The operating system did not include a web browser and had no access to Google’s Appstore, but rather an independent Appstore with 1,000 apps of “appropriate content and quality.”
In the wake of this move, an entire market of “kosher smartphones” emerged in various models, under a variety of rubrics such as “protected,” “supervised,” “kosher-matching” and “kosher-supporting.” Rabbinic approvals were not long in coming, and today one can find smartphones approved even by such illustrious rabbinic authorities and the Bais Din of Rabbi Nissim Karelitz of Bnei Brak. Many Chassidic groups also established community mechanisms for supervising the use of smartphones. For instance, Ger developed a device called “delta” with a unique surveillance system allowing oversight of all uses of the device. WhatsApp messaging is also permitted in a limited fashion: One may not use it to share pictures or movie clips, and one can only join one or two groups (naturally, many manage to circumvent these rules). At a large convention it was also made clear that even those who received permission to use smartphones must not take them out of their pocket while in synagogue and in Charedi concentrations; neither may they contact other Charedi individuals via WhatsApp.
The Rebbe of Karlin-Stolin articulated the winds of change when he stated that there was no place for a wholesale ban on the use of technology, because it would be a decree the public cannot abide by. He compared smartphones to cars, which we use notwithstanding their dangers
The Rebbe of Karlin-Stolin articulated the winds of change when he stated that there was no place for a wholesale ban on the use of technology, because it would be a decree the public cannot abide by. He compared smartphones to cars, which we use notwithstanding their dangers; even for internet, usage is acceptable provided we abide by the rules. “It is a waste to invest all this energy in efforts to entirely prevent types of technology,” a booklet published in his name read. “Instead, it is preferable to invest all resources in improving the types of filtering, which can be improved and made more efficient at many levels, with the aim that everything should be conducted in an entirely holy manner.” Rather than blanket prohibitions, he argued for public education on the dangers of incorrect use of “the internet and its many devices, and all the forms of advancement and development at this level.
What has happened in practice? It turned out that despite the fierce struggles, many members of Charedi society are connected to the internet in one way or another. In 2005, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics reported that just 10% of Charedi families were connected to the internet, compared to 61% of the general Jewish Israeli population. They also found that some 50% of Charedi households contained a personal computer, compared to 71% of the general public. In 2007, despite the escalation of the public campaign against it, 55% of Charedi households had a personal computer, and some 57% of those households had an internet connection. In other words, at least 30% of Charedi households had internet access. A 2016 survey found that the rate of internet-using Charedim had gone up to 49%. Even though this is a far lower rate than the general public (88%), the fact that almost half the Charedi community is connected to the world wide web is significant. For comparison’s sake, the percentage of Charedim with a TV set in their home is miniscule.
Another survey from March 2016 found that half of Charedim asked (56.4%) reported that they are exposed to the internet very often (34.3%) or often (22.1%). Some ten percent are exposed occasionally and just 12.7% were never exposed.
We already mentioned how the struggle against smartphones was far more intense than the fight against the internet. But even here it turns out that the campaign’s success was partial alone. According to an estimate published in March 2016, the number of unfiltered smartphones in the Charedi sector stands at between 70 and 80 thousand. Others estimate this number as being between 110 and 130 thousand. At the same time, it is estimated that 25,000-30,000 additional Charedim own a smartphone with rabbinic approval of one kind or another.
The extent of the change can be seen in the enormous growth of Charedi news sites. Kikar Hashabat, the most popular Charedi website, garners 2,987,432 pageviews each month. Behadrei Charedim is in second place with 1,694,988 pageviews a month (the data is correct as of writing writing, May 2018). Significant percentages of these views (27% and 36%, respectively) are from mobile devices. At workplaces, exposure reaches up to 54%, while exposure at home is 34%.
The most prominent difference between Charedim and other population groups is the low level of social media use. Of those who use the internet, just 24% (16% of men and 9% of women) advertise and communicate on social media, as opposed to some 70% of the general population. Still, some 60,000 young people between the ages of 24 and 45 are on Facebook, and there are large Charedi groups on this and other platforms.
Bottom line, Charedim are connected to the internet despite the leadership’s best efforts. Charedi leadership was able to counter the threat of secular press with a kosher alternative. The threat of TV and movies was countered by making non-consumption an identity marker. Charedi society tried to protect itself from internet by similar method, but this strategy has enjoyed limited success
Bottom line, Charedim are connected to the internet despite the leadership’s best efforts. Charedi leadership was able to counter the threat of secular press with a kosher alternative. The threat of TV and movies was countered by making non-consumption an identity marker. Charedi society tried to protect itself from internet by similar means, but this strategy has enjoyed limited success. Many Charedim use the internet, continue to see themselves as Charedim, and send their children to Charedi schools. They are willing to bear the costs—both financial and moral—of possessing two cellphones and falsely declaring before school acceptance committees that they have no internet connection. As teachers themselves tell the students: Just ask your parents to sign.
Internet Threats and Opportunities
What are main dangers of internet use? Can they perhaps be turned into opportunities? This will be my discussion in the present chapter.
Many studies have been conducted on the influence of internet on the cultural, social, and political landscape around the world. Without doubt, among the most significant influences of internet is the encounter it creates between conservative societies and contemporary culture. The spaces of the internet serve as a sort of new “battlefield” between modernity and tradition. The two streams meet at virtual crossroads and fight anew for the human soul.
In their article “Civilizing Technology: Internet and Religious Fundamentalism,” researchers Karin Barzilai-Nehon and Gad Barzilai point to four possible categories of confrontation for the traditional community in the virtual realm: hierarchy, patriarchy, discipline, and separation. The authors show that each of these categories serves as a source of tension, but also presents a tool that traditional society quickly learns to use for its own purposes. Below, I will note the issues I believe to be the main focal points that emerge from this and other studies, when applied to Charedi society. I will begin with the threats latent in internet use and proceed to the opportunities.
The first fear that internet raises, as mentioned above, is the breaching of the separation walls surrounding Charedi society, driving a process of cultural assimilation. Unfiltered internet, and to a great extent even internet connections at varying levels of filtering, allow people almost unlimited access to all kinds of content. We need not even elaborate on the danger of abominations. Beyond this, secular news sites expose us to a culture that is inappropriate to Charedi Torah life, and the easy access to movies and TV shows can exert huge influence on viewers specifically and on society at large. Access to internet threatens to “pollute” the Charedi realm with external values, opinions that run against community norms and content that is inappropriate for a Charedi sphere that takes pride in “cultural purity.” The challenge of isolation from general society in an internet age is crystal clear, and this seems to be the main concern for those trying to close the breach. Charedi society makes enormous efforts to preserve the walls of separation; after years of careful building and preservation, comes the internet and quietly threatens to bring them all tumbling down.
The challenge of isolation from general society in an internet age is crystal clear, and this seems to be the main concern for those trying to close the breach. Charedi society makes enormous efforts to preserve the walls of separation; after years of careful building and preservation, comes the internet and quietly threatens to bring them all tumbling down
But the threat to Charedi separation does not end with secular entertainment sites. Cultural content of secular leisure can, albeit with some difficulty, be filtered out for those who are interested or prepared to limit their surfing options. But the challenges exist no less and perhaps even more when it comes to Charedi sites offering articles, discussions, and opinions that are not subject to the accepted level of supervision in Charedi society. At the edge of this spectrum is outright heresy, but at its center are discussions, criticisms, presentation of opinions, and exposure to content that broaden horizons and develop critical and broad thinking which in the past was limited to the few. Today, this critical thought challenges those exposed to it with fundamental questions. One can note as an example the “Stop! Here We Think” internet forum which was particularly active between the years 2002-2010, and which was a kind of starting gun for breakthrough discussions in the Charedi virtual world. Some claim that it had many consequences for shaping the Charedi world in the present age, and it certainly served as the harbinger of a new age in which Charedim could be exposed to a range of views and take part in a new sort of discussion.
Like other traditional societies, Charedi society has a strictly hierarchical structure. Rabbinical leaders, mediated by courtiers, politicians, and businessmen, navigate the course of the great Charedi ship in the many areas that require navigation. They determine the accepted norms in learning institutions, define “Haredi policy” on public issues such as public transportation on Shabbos, and guide the social and political conduct of Charedi society in general. Being open and unsupervised, the internet is a direct affront to Charedi society’s hierarchical structure. On websites, blogs, message boards, and platforms one can hear and air—to large groups of eager listeners—harsh criticisms of rabbis and public figures. Thus, reports that the rabbinic leadership would prefer to hide away are just a Google search away, and the public is thus exposed to struggles over money and power taking place in the dark corners of rabbinic courts. Publication of such matters, alongside occasional scandals that are better unmentioned, necessarily weaken belief in Charedi leadership, as well as the willingness to blindly comply with all instructions.
A good example of this phenomenon is the coverage of the power struggle that has plagued Ponevezh Yeshiva over the past decades. The harsh in-fighting that took place under the radar and without any reports in official Charedi media channels suddenly received broad exposure on the web, including photos and movie clips—to the degree that both sides began making use of internet media to spread their version of events
A good example of this phenomenon is the coverage of the power struggle that has plagued Ponevezh Yeshiva over the past decades. The harsh in-fighting that took place under the radar and without any reports in official Charedi media channels suddenly received broad exposure on the web, including photos and movie clips—to the degree that both sides began making use of internet media to spread their version of events. Juicy reports ultimately made their way to the general media, and suddenly the entire State of Israel became aware of the violent struggle—verbal, physical and legal—of the storied institution.
In the same vein, the Charedi internet surfer is exposed to debates and disputes among rabbis, and to various interests of powerful parties within rabbinic courts. This information was not widespread in the past, and the fact that this has changed could have significant influence on society. I will refrain from passing judgment on this recent development. Some argue that this is a welcome development, which will lead to transparency and better conduct; others ckaim it floods the public square with matters better kept quiet, and that we should trust rabbinic leadership to successfully deal with internal problems and navigate its way among interested parties. For our purposes, the emphasis is on the phenomenon itself, which dramatically threatens the hierarchy of the Charedi community.
Another aspect affecting Charedi hierarchy is the institutional angle. Previously, the ability to reach a broad Charedi audience was contingent on going through official organs, which could filter out unwanted or competing powers. Today, anyone who wishes to open a new educational institution, institute for higher learning, or employment project can reach masses of Charedi households by advertising on the internet. If the establishment press in the past enjoyed a monopoly or something close to it concerning information flowing to the Charedi individual, today the Charedi home can be reached and even greatly influenced by virtual access. If the newspapers used to be kingmakers of public leaders and institutions, the situation today is far more complex.
A central part of Charedi living is related to identity. Charedi society is intensively involved in developing an independent identity, which proudly stands in contrast to the general Israeli one. The dimension of identity is vital for the preservation of the isolation that stands at the heart of the Charedi idea, and also for the maintenance the central institutions of Charedi society: educational institutions, various communities, welfare institutions, private Batei Din, charity funds, and so on. To preserve Charedi identity, society sees fit to present general society and the Zionist project specifically in a negative light.
Thus, on Yom Ha’atzmaut institutional newspapers are careful to mock the state and its accomplishments, minimize the value of its institutions, and stress the spiritual harm for which it is responsible. The state education system is regularly portrayed as a failed system lacking in content, military activity is presented as dependence on the charity of Uncle Sam, the justice system comes in for particularly harsh criticism, with judges being portrayed as ignorant at best and corrupt at worst, and Israeli culture is described as decrepit and contemptible. This negative image of the non-Haredi “other” advanced by official organs of Charedi society preserves a strong and separate Charedi identity: We are different from them not only in religious practice but even in our culture, education, morality, law—in everything. We, the Charedim, fulfill the Biblical injunction of being “a nation that dwells alone.” The “Haredi State” is the most isolated of states; it need to enforce a strong isolation to set it aside from the corruption of the State of Israel.
When the Charedi person encounters his non-Haredi counterpart, something that takes place on innumerable platforms in cyberspace, the encounter stresses the common denominators of both sides, eroding the negative image of the “secular world” that Charedi society fosters
The internet challenges this idea from two distinct directions. The first is a movement toward engagement and involvement with the general public and the State of Israel. When the Charedi person encounters his non-Haredi counterpart, something that takes place on innumerable platforms in cyberspace, the encounter stresses the common denominators of both sides, eroding the negative image of the “secular world” that Charedi society fosters. Exposure to people and opinions outside of Charedi society allows the Charedi individual to understand the enormous achievements of the state on the one hand, and the complexity of religion and state issues on the other. He learns to appreciate the state systems, absorbs the importance of its national holidays such as Memorial Day for fallen IDF soldiers, and emotionally participates in national challenges big and small. The fact that he himself consumes parts of secular culture necessarily leads him to conclude that the creators of that culture are not as corrupt and decrepit as he was led to believe.
The second direction is that the Charedi surfer will often encounter criticism of the Charedi world from outside of it. In the past, Charedi individuals could only learn of what non-Haredi counterparts thought of him through the mediation of Yated Neeman. But the easy access to secular media, and the selected pearls therefrom that quickly spread to all corners of the web, altogether change this reality. The Charedi individual suddenly get to see himself in the mirror: what does the non-Haredi press think of him, how does non-Haredi Israel regard him, and what critiques (or praises) do they articulate about him. It is fascinating to note the high exposure on the Charedi street to TV shows about Charedi society such as Shtisel, Kipat Barzel, and recently Shabbabnikim. In the same vein, every article published in the general media on the Charedi community is endlessly shared on Charedi WhatsApp groups. By way of demonstration, Hebron Yeshiva was recently placed into panic mode when several students allowed themselves to be interviewed for a secular television program, and created a somewhat negative image of “apartment buying norms” for grooms in the Lithuanian yeshiva world. The program was aired solely on secular TV, yet despite this the yeshiva tried to apply pressure to have the segment taken off the air. The average Charedi person thus slowly absorbs the fact that things are not as black-and-white as they are sometimes made to seem; each community has pros and cons, faces that are pleasant face and those that are less welcoming.
In sum, internet threatens to change the rules of the game in many aspects. It does not defer to people bearing titles, group or gender identity, cultural manners and accepted norms. And if this was initially a virtual reality alone, limited to a world that has no physical representation, over time physical and virtual realities begin to adopt more complex relations. The internet changes reality simply by existing—even without intending to. Hence the enormous importance in coping with it. In this context, we should not ignore the many opportunities it offers.
Chabad provides us with a good example of how to use the internet to complement other means of communication, and to deliver rabbinic instruction to masses of adherents. The same is true of the religious-Zionist community, which has impressive virtual platforms for Torah study and for halachic responsa—a model that has been successfully copied by the Charedi “Din” website, and the Kol HaLashon Torah platform. Clearly, rabbinic leaders and teachers can use the virtual internet platform to great effect, turning it into a source of learning and influence.
The internet is a fact of life; it is important that those who use it recognize not only its threat but also the beneficial and uplifting content it can provide. An example of a Charedi website that successfully used the internet for this purpose is the Akshiva site. This site provides responsa services in matters of faith, outlook and general life issues for Charedi individuals who need help in a wide range of matters. The internet allows for easy access for those who need answers, leaving them with the option of remaining anonymous. They can thus pour out their hearts without fear. Unfortunately, respondents, including respected rabbinic figures, remain anonymous; they do not wish to publish their names as responders on a website.
The internet can thus be a tool for spreading Torah among the broader public. There is an enormous variety of Torah content that can be reached easily and quickly via the web: Databases of Torah literature, Torah lessons in all their diversity, also worksheets and source pages on a wide range of topics, and so on. In the same vein, the internet is a convenient platform for long discussions among participants from all over the globe. Students of Daf Yomi can find havruta partners by means of the internet and designated forums. Book lovers can connect to Otzar Hachochma, finding friends who are eager to listen, engaging in deep discussion, and exchanging words of wisdom despite the geographical distance.
The internet is a platform. It is changing all accepted norms of communication, rendering time and place irrelevant, blurring classes and allowing anonymity. It cannot be wholly censored, and it is impossible to maintain cultural isolation at the level it existed before its appearance. […] We need to learn how to use it.
The internet is a platform. It is changing all accepted norms of communication, rendering time and place irrelevant, blurring classes and allowing anonymity. It cannot be wholly censored, and it is impossible to maintain cultural isolation at the level it existed before its appearance. It therefore threatens the old Charedi social order, and the challenge is to preserve those values most central to Charedi society given this new complex reality. The internet is a tool, a powerful tool which has changed our lives. We need to learn how to use it.
Summary: Coping with Internet
We return to square one: coping with internet. There are three ways by which to deal with the virtual world:
- Boycotting the internet and entirely detaching from the virtual realm;
- Use of technological tools to block information and limit access;
- Using the virtual realm for good and beneficial uses, through direction and education.
The Charedi community today uses all three in numerous ways. Naturally, there are not mutually exclusive, and certainly the second and third methods can be used in tandem.
The first path, of complete boycotting and detachment, is supported today by a relatively small number of rabbis and communities. On the other hand, even those who are more lenient take care to stress at every opportunity that this is the preferred path, and the reason they refrain from adopting it is because of practical constraints. Yated Ne’eman presently allows the advertisement of the sale of kosher smartphones for livelihood purposes, but they do not allow pictures of the device. The paper’s Pesach section in 2018 was put out under the sponsorship of the filtered internet provider Etrog. Alongside this, several weeks afterwards the paper published a letter on its front page signed by rabbinic leaders noting the obligation to sever any possibility of surfing from personal computers. The path of complete abstinence from internet access is thus also energetically adopted by elementary and secondary Charedi schools; the almost universal norm in Charedi society is that there is no room for any access whatsoever to internet for youth. Many Charedim using open or filtered internet themselves will deny their children access to the web.
Filtering methods cannot absolutely control content, and some can be bypassed without much effort. They are reasonably effective for immodest content, but less effective for written information, which is much harder to filter out. Cheap workers in India certainly do not know how to do it
The second path, of use of technology to reduce the risk, is presently used by various companies. Some of these focus on service for computers and some on “kosher smartphones.” The solutions they offer divide into two main methods: screening the banned or approving the permitted. One system bans almost everything save certain sites that are approved, and another uses various means to sift the bad from the good, the permitted from the prohibited. These solutions are useful for many uses of the internet, especially those that are most vital. But they are nevertheless deficient in a number of respects. One is related to the quality of filtering. Filtering methods cannot absolutely control content, and some can be bypassed without much effort. They are reasonably effective for immodest content, but less effective for written information, which is much harder to filter out. Cheap workers in India certainly do not know how to do it. This deficiency prevents rabbis from granting a wholesale permit to such filtering techniques, but also denies people who need free access to written information to find appropriate filtering options the. Another deficiency that prevents users from choosing this option is negative user experience; as of now, filtering systems inevitably disrupt the flow of information. These reasons, along with the high cost of the service, lead to many Charedi individuals to consume unfiltered internet.
Aside from some lonely voices of rabbis and public figures calling for this approach, there is no significant organization in the Charedi space that caters for the interent user, the parent and the educator interested at looking reality in the eye and coping with the challenge of internet by teaching how to use it properly
The third path, which is almost absent from the public sphere, is an educational and value-based discourse regarding the great challenges of internet. Meaning, educational institutions that put the I-word on the table and discuss its dangers and its advantages, making it clear that the internet can be used for better and worse purposes, while proposing a positive horizon for its use. I believe that the absence of such education leads to high percentages of the Charedi public being exposed to challenging content without the tools to deal with it—let alone the challenges of time wasting and addiction shared by all humanity. Aside from some lonely voices of rabbis and public figures calling for this approach, there is no significant organization in the Charedi space that caters for the interent user, the parent and the educator interested at looking reality in the eye and coping with the challenge of internet by teaching how to use it properly.
The honorable platform publishing the article is perhaps testament to the great benefit that can be procured from the new virtual world in favor of building the future of Charedi society. Correct use of the internet could help us pass down the Jewish heritage to the next generations effectively.