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Is the Internet Kosher?

By Mark Mietkiewicz

That question has concerned many people who are worried about the ease with which the Internet can expose users to pornography, of course, but also to scenes of violence, unbridled gossip, and to just be a temptation to waste precious time. Over the years, different solutions have been proposed.

A 1999 article in Haaretz reported on a ban on Internet use by the ultra-Orthodox Council of Torah Sages which said the Internet threat “puts the future generations of Israel in grave danger in a way that no other threat has since Israel became a nation.” For professionals who are dependent on the Internet for their livelihood, the court imposed the obligation “to seek every possible way to reduce usage,” and then only to use it at the workplace. [http://bit.ly/jweb01]
Apprehension of the web is not limited to Israel. In 2005, the Cleveland Jewish News wrote about the school Mosdos Ohr HaTorah, which required parents to sign a guarantee that they have no home access to the Internet. “We feel that the filth the Internet has is just a click away, and it is against what we stand for,” says Rabbi Shmuel Berkovicz, the school’s Hebrew principal. “Therefore, we ask parents to pledge that their children will never be on the Internet.” [http://bit.ly/jweb14]
Opponents of the Internet would not be comforted by the results of a 2007 survey of Israeli youths which found that:
– 24 per cent said that they had a face-to-face meeting with a stranger they met online
– 60 per cent have visited pornographic websites, the majority said accidentally
– 35 per cent had seen violent images
– 19 percent report they were accidentally exposed to websites advocating hate crimes. [http://bit.ly/jweb03]

Over the years, solutions about what to do about the Web have become more nuanced. In a 2007 talk titled, How Open Is Too Open? Halachic Guidelines For Internet Use, Rav Hershel Schachter does not minimize the risks but feels that simply saying “Don’t!” doesn’t realistically address the problem. He warns that an outright ban of Internet in the home can create a temptation to surreptitiously seek access elsewhere. Rav Schachter recommends placing the computer in a public area in the house so that use – by children and adults – can be monitored. [http://bit.ly/jweb15]
What else can you do to protect yourself and your family? Suggestions range from better communication to the use of technological controls:
– Speak to your children about safe surfing and agree on rules for online safety. [http://bit.ly/jweb16]
– Follow advice found at U.S. Dept. of Justice’s Parent’s Guide to Children’s Online Safety. [http://bit.ly/jweb17]
– Install software which regulates or monitors Internet use. [http://bit.ly/jweb18]
Commercial services like thejnet.com and Yeshivanet.com provide limited access to the web.

So far we have been talking about kosher surfing but what about running a website? Back in 2000, Wired.com carried the article, Ban the Web? Not Lubavitch Jews. In it, Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin said he was sympathetic to concerns about the Internet. At the same time, Chabad has been a pioneer in setting up sites about Jewish learning, holidays and explaining its own philosophy. Rabbi Shmotkin explained “It’s not the medium itself that is kosher or not kosher. It’s how it is utilized.” [http://bit.ly/jweb20]
In the World Wide Web’s prehistoric years (circa 1996), I came across an “unofficial” English-language website for a Hasidic sect which I would have assumed would want nothing to do with the Internet. This piqued my curiosity so I spent some time looking through the site and its entries about the group’s Hasidic dynasty, its saintly leaders and good works. I then came across a sole page in Yiddish – with no pictures or graphics – that presented a different message. It said: If you can understand this, you shouldn’t be here.

Mark Mietkiewicz is a Toronto-based Internet producer who writes, lectures and teaches about the Jewish Internet. He can be reached at highway@rogers.com.

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