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Addicted to the Internet? A Modern Orthodox problem

It takes serious discipline to surf the web solely for spiritual growth
Young Jew plays on a cellphone in a synagogue during morning prayers. (Serge Attal/Flash90)
Young Jew plays on a cellphone in a synagogue during morning prayers. (Serge Attal/Flash90)

It is no exaggeration when I say that my not yet two year old daughter is addicted to cell phones, thank God not her own, but her parents’. The reality is that we are addicted to ours as well. While I cannot speak for my wife, I must spend more than two hours on my cell phone on any given day, perhaps more if I make or receive any calls. This is all on the Internet; Facebook, reading news and articles, looking at pictures, scouring Wikipedia and other crowd-sourced explanations of the world around us. And then probably the same time again on a laptop, tablet or computer.

I make this admission not because I am proud of my cell phone, laptop, computer and tablet use, but because it is a reality, and one that impacts the way we live a meaningful and engaged religious life.

My Rabbi, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Rabbi Jeremy Wieder instituted a rule several years ago that during morning seder, the one-on-one learning time that we have with our peers, and during shiur, the structured class time, electronic devices were prohibited, sans one laptop for database searching. While Rabbi Wieder knows that many of us did not always follow the rule, in the most part we benefited from the ban. I for one, found that my learning became more focused, as did my bittul Torah, the time in which we would digress from the topics at hand in the Talmud or the works of Jewish law, to topics of social relevance. The addiction to my phone, tablet, laptop and the Internet, though not removed completely was abated even if only in the hours between nine am and three pm.

Rabbi Weider also produced another statement which as a standalone had nothing to do with this aforementioned topic, though when juxtaposed with it one can see the relationship between the two. His statement was along the following lines; we, as members of the Modern Orthodox world need to place more emphasis on the Orthodox than the modern, which unfortunately is the reality for the majority of our community.

How does this statement interact with the earlier discussion around our addictions to electronic devices and the Internet? I believe quite simply, the fact is that electronic devices and the Internet epitomizes the modern – and we can either use them to distance our engagement with our orthodoxy, or we can use them to advance it.

The multitude of devices that I can connect with can provide two outlets; a modern approach to my engagement with the Jewish world, through the myriad of texts and ideas available, ways in which to socially engage with Jewish peers and organizations, places where I can act on Jewish thought and deed. The other is an outlet where I can forget about my Judaism and engage solely with the modern; procrastinate on social media, movies and music. The latter is easy, but a growing problem in our Jewish world. The former, is a lot harder, it requires concentration and a sincere desire to use the Internet solely for our spiritual growth and transformation.

The reality is that for many of us, we find a balance. There are countless positive uses for the Internet and electronic devices that enhance our spiritual lives. Daf Yomi participation has surged in this and the previous cycle due not only to translations of the Talmud, but also due to a rich array of shiurim and learning guides. Rabbi’s such as Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence, the new Senior Rabbi of Kinloss Synagogue in London, and prolific online author Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, engage viewer and reader through a series of video blogs or written blogs on topics of parasha, Jewish thought, critique and philosophy. Database and online libraries of texts such as Bar Ilan, Hebrewbooks.org, crowd sourced annotations and translations all allow interaction with traditional texts albeit in a modern way. Finally, social media has enabled discussions usually relegated to the confines of the Yeshivot, through groups such as Seek and You Shall Find, a Facebook discussion group that allows members to pose questions, usually launching a slew of comments that bring in every possible rabbi, midrash, philosopher and author on a topic.

But I worry for my daughter, and for others, especially those who have only known a world of portable connected devices. People who see their parents constantly connected, who are expected to engage with their education both secular and religious via tapping of keyboards or glass protective screens.

We have already heard of the ongoing phenomena of ‘half shabbat’ where limited cell phone use is an acceptable expression of religious observance, in the most part hidden from more authoritative figures like parents, teachers and rabbis. Numerous institutions such as schools and yeshivot are trying to stem the growing rate of children and youths being introduced to pornographic or questionable material through the unregulated use of mobile connective devices. There are growing rates of online harassment, bullying and causes of suicide that are directly connected to an over engagement of social media. These examples and many others show the negative impacts of our constant ability to be online and engaged with the world around us.

We are not going to remove electronic devices from our lives, nor are we going to limit the power of the Internet. To do so would be of disservice to our own growth and development as well as the education of our next generation, but we need to realize the potential dangers and pitfalls that being constantly connected can present us with. We need to find a way in which we can adequately engage with the modern, while enhancing, furthering and prioritizing our orthodox engagement and observance.

We need to be Modern Orthodox. Emphasis on the Orthodox.

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About the Author
Originally from Auckland New Zealand, much of Alon's time over the past ten years has been for the growth and development of community. Alon has an MA in Sociology from the University of Auckland, and is a graduate of Yeshiva University's Semicha program. He is the Rabbi of the ACT Jewish Community in Canberra, Australia. Alon also holds a degree in Medieval Jewish History.
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