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Will Corona usher the internet into the Haredi Orthodox home?

The web has proven critically important for health. Now rabbinic leaders must forge a strategy to enable their community to reap its full benefits
Illustrative: Ultra orthodox jewish photographer Moshe Friedman edits his pictures on a laptop, after photographing a wedding in the ultra orthodox neighborhood of Meah Shearim, in Jerusalem. August 28, 2012. (Nati Shohat/FLASH90)
Illustrative: Ultra orthodox jewish photographer Moshe Friedman edits his pictures on a laptop, after photographing a wedding in the ultra orthodox neighborhood of Meah Shearim, in Jerusalem. August 28, 2012. (Nati Shohat/FLASH90)

The dire circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic are pushing prominent Haredi Orthodox figures to acknowledge the hazards of keeping the internet out of their homes, though so far any changes have been limited and temporary. 

In Israel, after being diagnosed with the coronavirus, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman was forced to defy the strict rules of his Gerrer hasidic sect and install a computer in his home that is linked to the internet so he can communicate with other government officials.

In North America, the influential Lakewood yeshiva leaders issued guidelines that allow internet use during home isolation, though its rabbis stressed that this is a temporary step made necessary by the urgent situation (“sha’as ha-dehak”). They also emphasized that this easing of policy does not extend to children, for whom there should be “no relaxation of technology standards… even [for] Torah purposes.” Video conferencing apps such as Zoom are still off limits for kids, the Lakewood directive says.

It’s no secret that many Haredi Jews use smartphones covertly. Academic studies have pointed to widespread internet use, evidenced by the abundance of Haredi-oriented blogs and websites. Still, the disproportionately high spread of the COVID-19 virus within Haredi communities shows that information is not getting through and that limiting digital access endangers lives. Without the internet, people were less informed about the potency of the virus, less exposed to fast-rising fatality numbers, less familiar with the rules of social distancing and hygiene, and slower to transition to safer conduct.

After Corona, rabbinical leaders may revert to prior policies that either reject the internet completely or limit it to the workplace. But now that web access has proven it can save lives, it will be difficult to put that genie back in the bottle. On the other hand, if the rabbis face the new reality directly rather than trying to avoid it, a strategy can be developed for maintaining and even enhancing the Haredi lifestyle in an internet-saturated world.

This wouldn’t be the first time the Haredi community will have dispensed with a major taboo. Much of the Orthodox rabbinic world once looked at psychiatry as tantamount to heresy. Eventually the broader benefits became too clear to ignore. Today many of the most sectarian-oriented institutions have mental health consultancy arrangements. Bnei Brak’s Mayanei Hayeshua hospital has a full-fledged psychiatric department with both religiously observant and nonobservant practitioners.

But while embracing psychiatry was a major leap, acceptance of the web has more far-reaching implications for the Haredi world because the internet’s value to the community far exceeds just delivering emergency information. The internet can provide other significant benefits to Haredi communities as they struggle to deal with the pandemic. Despite mass isolation and social distancing, millions of people throughout the world have been able to do their jobs remotely. They also keep up their health regimens, participate in religious functions and maintain contact with close relatives and friends.

The threat that Haredi leaders see in the internet is comparable to how their predecessors perceived the rise of the modern state. Some Orthodox groups were relatively successful in limiting exposure to specific components of modern culture such as formal secular education. But the impact of the state was far more pervasive. Regardless of one’s ideology, it entered the home and seized control of foundational aspects of life. Avoiding contact with the state and its apparatus became nearly impossible. Survival dictated achieving pragmatic accord with the overall environment.

Haredi populations did not necessarily become patriotic activists in their host countries, nor did they desist from defending their rights when they felt impinged upon by the state. But they did develop workable models that enabled them to function within the prevailing systems. The challenges of the internet to core Haredi Orthodox values, including rabbinical authority and rules of modesty, can similarly be reconciled.

Just as acknowledging the state’s dominant role in life was the first step to reaching a workable modus vivendi, recognition of the foundational role of the internet in contemporary existence is critical. It will generate effective tools for engaging the web with minimal damage to fundamental Haredi ideals.

Indeed, these trying times have produced profound initiatives that can serve as inspiration for developing future Haredi approaches. Other leaders and lay practitioners have harnessed the universal reach and power of the internet to strengthen and advance religious life under current circumstances. Pathbreaking web portals have been adopted for engaging Torah study, worship, family rituals, communal activities and dissemination of critical halakhic decisions (often with life and death implications). Many already existed, but social distancing and isolation have transformed the internet sites and mobile apps into the focal vehicles for ongoing religious involvement. They have even prompted figures of Jewish authority who were previously ambivalent to embrace these innovative channels.

Within the diverse and wide spectrum of Haredi Jewry, select individuals and clusters have exhibited an encouraging level of adaptation to the digital world over the past few years, and especially in response to the present predicament in fighting Covid-19.

In this vein, I was so delighted by the wedding that took place this past week of a close relative who was educated in elite Haredi institutions. The families, attentive to the health hazards and legal limitations on being present at the chuppah, set up dedicated YouTube and Zoom links, and a WhatsApp mazal tov chat group. These facilitated maximum engagement by friends and loved ones from across the globe – including parents and siblings – who were prevented from traveling. The well-wishers who appeared on my screen throughout the day of the wedding as well as the scenes of simultaneous dancing and singing during the event itself emanated from Jerusalem, Bet Shemesh, Flatbush, Monsey, Lakewood, Passaic, Manchester, Melbourne and other prominent points on the Orthodox world map.

Such grassroots initiatives offer a glimpse of the positive opportunities for using the internet that can benefit Haredi Jews in better times to come. Rather than being forced by the coronavirus to bring computers into their homes, like Israel’s health minister was, rabbinical leaders should seize the initiative and find benefits in the digital world. Starting now to develop sustainable internet strategies is the best way in the long term to ensure both the future physical and spiritual health of the Orthodox home.

About the Author
Adam S. Ferziger is professor in the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University, where he holds the Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch Chair, and is co-convener of the Oxford Summer Institute on Modern and Contemporary Judaism, University of Oxford. His most recent monograph, Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism (Wayne State University Press, 2015), won the National Jewish Book Award in the category of American Jewish Studies.
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