The great ‘Internet Asifa’ held back in May of 2012 and attended by tens of thousands of mostly right wing Orthodox Jews still reverberates in my mind. Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman, an American Rosh Yeshiva and popular motivational speaker got up at that gathering and introduced the keynote speaker, Rav Shmuel HaLevi Wosner, ZTL of Bnei Brak by quoting a passage from Rabbenu Yona’s Shaarei Teshuva. He said that when the multitudes of Israel gather and decisions are made by the leaders for action, anyone who separates himself from the group has no portion in Olam Haba.
After which Rav Wosner said that it is forbidden for anyone to have the internet. That ruling was back pedaled a few days later to exclude those that desperately need it for work and even then only with filters. But the sentiments remained the same. The internet was defined as evil and to be avoided at almost all cost. Chasidic Rebbes like those of Satmar had no use for these exceptions. They forbade it completely. One of the 2 Satmar Rebbes boycotted the event because they had heard that the internet wouldn’t be entirely banned. (Nonetheless, it seems that most Satmar Chasidim seem to ignore the ban.)
Although Rabbi Wachsman told people they would lose their eternity by not listening to Rav Wosner, most non Chasidic American rabbinic leaders have taken a far more rational and practical approach to the internet. But among much of the Charedi world in Israel and among Satmar like Chasidim even in America there is still an extreme contempt for it. I believe that’s because of the far greater isolation that exists.
This is old news. What is not old is the emergence of a saner Chasidic voice in Israel whose views reflect the more rational approach that the rest of Orthodoxy subscribes to.
In fact there is not much daylight between what I have said in the past and what Rav Boruch Meir Yaakov Shochet, the Karlin-Stoliner Rebbe said about it recently. I don’t know much about the Karlin-Stoliner Rebbe other than I have heard of him. But According to an article in the Jewish Press His words not only echo mine, it’s almost as if he has read my blog on these issues. Here, from the Jewish Press is what he said about the internet and smart phones:
1. According to Torah one cannot prohibit something which may also be used for positive ends.
2. As technology is becoming more advanced every day, it makes no sense to issue frequent prohibitions which would surely be eliminated by new prohibitions following the next innovation. This belittles the image of today’s sages and results in fighting symptoms rather than the real problem.
3. A rabbinical decree which the people are unable to abide by is no help at all. A high percentage of Haredim are using the Internet, and turning a blind eye on the problem is bound to cause harm. The Internet cannot be prohibited, much like the use of a car–which may result in an accident, cannot be prohibited.
4. Finally, the Karlin-Stoliner Rebbe is by no stretch of the imagination a liberal, emphasizing that he only permits using the Internet through massive filters, and also pointing out that just the way some people should not be allowed to drive a car, some Chasidim should not be permitted to own a smartphone.
I believe that most Modern Orthodox rabbis would agree with this approach. Especially when children are in the picture.
Why has it taken so long for this view to emerge among the right wing? The culprit in my view is isolation. You cannot effectively deal with the real world if you are not really living in it. This applies to the myriad of issues facing the Orthodox world. Not just devices which carry the internet. You must be part of the real world in order to understand what you are dealing with.
In all too many cases elderly leaders that are unfamiliar with the things they are asked to comment upon end up making mistakes – which later have to be corrected when they become better informed. As was the case with Rav Wosner who had to back pedal on his total ban on the internet at that gathering.
Relying on others who themselves are isolated or have agendas of their own to tell you what it’s like ‘out there’ and then ruling based on that can lead to tragedy. This is not to impugn the integrity of those leaders. It is to highlight the necessity of living in the real world in order to make informed decisions about it. And not to rely on others whom you believe have the best of intentions. But may in fact intentions that are not so honorable.
I also have to wonder why an American Rosh Yeshiva like Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman didn’t realize this enough to hold back on the kind of dire spiritual consequences he implied would happen for those who did not follow Rav Wosner. An elderly Rav from Bnei Brak who lived for decades in a bubble called Bnei Brak and therefore had little if any real life experience in the rest of the world during that time. Did he believe that Rav Wosner had Ruach HaKodesh? And no matter what he said – it was Daas Torah? Clearly Rav Wosner did not use Ruach HaKodesh if he had to back pedal a day or two later. And how does all this impact the Charedi view of Daas Torah?
Well, at least there is one Chasidic Rebbe in Israel that realizes what most of the rest of us do. He didn’t rely on Ruach HaKodesh. He used his God given mind – and used common sense on this issue. Hopefully more right wing rabbinic leaders – even the more extreme Chasidic ones – will come around. When they do, it is just a shame it will have taken so long.