Judaism and the Internet

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    Will Hill

    The Internet has had a profound effect on cultures across the globe. Information which was once only available to the scholar can be accessed by children. People are able to communicate with people that they previously never would have been able to meet. New ideas are spread, and old ones are resurrected.

    Religion has also been effected, and effects, the Internet. Of course different religions relate to the Internet differently, in accordance with their own doctrines and philosophies. And certainly individual participants in those faiths approach the issues in their own way, influenced by their own level of exposure and their own level of agreement with the doctrines and philosophies of their faith.

    Judaism too has had to confront the arrival of the Internet. Judaism has systems in place which allows it to deal with contemporary issues within the framework of halachah. The Internet, however, presents a more difficult type of problem than many other modern developments in Jewish law. Modern mass production of food has easily submitted to principals of Kashrus as codified in classical literature. Likewise, classical literature has principals which has allowed Jewish medical ethics to be determined by current Poskim even though our technology in this field is far beyond what was ever present before. Modern authorities have used traditional sources to determine use of electronics on the Shabbos is prohibited by Jewish laws prohibition of “melachah” (loosely translated as work).

    The Internet however raises question that do not fit so nicely into the framework of halachah. Simply speaking the technology itself does not present difficulties, it is the use of the technology that raises the issues. And since the technology can be, and is, used for things both permissible and forbidden under Jewish law the questions become much more philosophical.

    Within Jewish thought the world is ours for the service of the Creator. Some things are to give us a chance to serve the Creator through abstinence in deference to the divine prohibitions while others are there so we can actively serve through the commandments. Still others, such as permitted food and sleep, have the ability to be used for good or bad. It is our duty to use these permitted to use these in the service of the Creator rather than in service of our animal lusts. Toward this end the Jewish world has utilized the Internet in a number of ways.

    Through the centuries Judaism has developed a library of significant size. Starting with the written Torah 3000 years ago our faith has placed great importance on the written word. Eventually the Jewish Oral Torah (which we believe was given along with, and “coded” in, the written Torah) was committed to writing in the form of the Talmud Bavli. The Talmud along with its standard commentaries is typically printed in 20 volumes even though it uses concise language and uses abbreviations frequently on every page.

    Then there are other wittings such as the commentaries on the T’nakh (Hebrew Bible), Midrashim, and various codifications of Jewish law makes the wittings of Jewish interest quite extensive. In the middle ages it was quite possible, if not frequent, for Jewish scholars and Rabbi’s to not have access to many key works. Against this background Jewish tradition considers it an act of piety to loan books for others to fulfill there duty to study the Torah.

    The printing press has obviously lead to more accessibility to such works, however it still remains expensive to gather such a large library. A number of such works are now available on-line. One web site contains the T’nakh, the Talmud, the Yerushalami (an parallel Talmud that is less authoritative for a number of reasons), and the first systematic code of Jewish law “Yad Chazakah” by Rambam all in there original Hebrew. Another site, E-Daf.com has the entire Talmud Bavli online according to the traditional Vilna layout. It actually uses images so that one can read the page without downloading additional software.

    Another site, has a large portion of the “Kitzur Shulchon Oruch”–the Concise Code of Jewish Law in English translation. The Tanya is also available on line in English translation, which is a primary work on Chabad Chassidus philosophy. The Shulchon Oruch, the primary work on practical Jewish law as applies today, has various sections translated in different places across the web. Furthermore, many many articles are available on various topics of Jewish law and thought by contemporary authors.

    Likewise, just as society at large has come to use the Internet for commerce so too has the Jewish world. Those who practice Jewish law require a number of different ritual items in order to observe properly (or more conveniently). Unless one is close to a large, established Jewish communities, these items may not be readily available. And even communities that are large enough to have stores which specialize in Judaica may not have access to various “luxury” Judaica.

    And just as books are available on various web sites, publishers of contemporary Jewish books have made their products available on line. The major publishers such as Artscroll, Feldheim, and Judaica Press all have web sites from which you can order books.

    Another, very new use for the Internet is to provide formal training in Jewish law. The Shema Yisrael Network (www.shemayisrael.com) has developed a program which offers S’michah (ordination as Rabbi) in the laws of Shabbos, Yorah Daya (Kashrus), and Jewish Business Ethics (Choshen Mishpat). This program allows one to study Jewish law with an experienced Rabbi. Upon completion of the the learning one will have an exam and meeting with the Rabbi’s in person in Israel the student will be granted the s’michah. Although this program has certainly raised eyebrows and is not able nor intended to replace traditional institutions, now individual far away from the large centers of Judaism are able to study on-line while having direct contact with the instructor.

    These uses are some of the ways in which the Internet is used in a way consistent with the Jewish view that all one’s intents and actions should be to serve G-d. The “mundane” is used as a tool to accomplish the divine will.

    Despite the positive uses of the Internet, there are many more problematic issues Judaism faces as well. Despite these actualized ways of service of the Creator, the Gedolei HaDor remain cautious and advise only the most limited use of the Internet by the observant Jew. To them the pitfalls of the technology outweigh the potential at this point in time.

    The most obvious problem is that of the immodest dress. The issue of pornography on the Internet has received much attention in the Media. However in Jewish law the definition of “nakedness” is very strict, including area’s most would consider “asexual”. Even if an area is not required to be covered it is nevertheless forbidden to look at these area’s to derive sexual pleasure. So not only are the overtly sexually suggestive sites forbidden, but the more subtle appeals to sexuality used particularly in advertisements are as problematic as they are frequent. An option is available to turn off graphics, but this makes browsing difficult and is only as good of a solution as the self discipline of the surfer. Kleen Web filter by KosherNet offers its service to the “kosher consumer” that eliminates [as much as possible] material that is unequivocally forbidden while making available higher levels of protection.

    Another issue is that of “bitul z’man”. Judaism places high emphasis on using one’s time efficiently. Bitul z’man is the Hebrew term for wasting time. There are of course many ways by which one can waste time on the Internet. This area, too has been noted in the secular media. Many individuals have become addicted to the Internet, forsaking healthy human relationships for virtual friends. Games, chat rooms, and many web sites may have beneficial uses in a limited manner, however overuse is contrary to the Jewish view of proper time management.

    However there is another, perhaps more serious problem which seems to be the root concern of our Torah leaders. Judaism has always recognized the way in which humans are influenced by ideologies to which they are exposed to. People don’t like to think of themselves as gullible or easily influenced, but companies do not spend untold amounts on advertisement for no reason. Human opinions are influenced by what people are exposed to, and as the saying goes “garbage in garbage out”.

    Judaism obviously is “biased’ toward the correctness of our own ideology, but with so many conflicting ideologies, philosophies and opinions spread throughout the Internet, many if not most are wrong by mutual exclusion. Yet it is exactly this open exchange of ideas, good ideas and bad, that has become the heart and soul of the Internet.

    And although secular society is clearly more less concerned with influence by bad idea’s than the ideal of open mindedness, here to secular media has recognized the problem. Particularly “neo-Nazi” web sites and other such hate sites are a concern to parents across America. While other philosophies may not be as evil it is highly questionable whether exposure to other bad ideas is wiser.

    Therefore Torah leaders of our generation in America and Israel have recommended that Jews restrict Internet access for home. Likewise they have recommended that children not be given access to Internet because they are very impressionable. But, this should not be taken as a condemnation of technology per se, since these authorities do not have the same reservations about e-mail.

    The tension in Jewish thought and practice seem to reflect to general approaches to secular influence throughout Jewish history. On the one hand it is unavoidable and one must try to stand strong and live a Jewish life in the midst of it. On the other hand it is wise to limit such hostile exposure, though such hostility is often more the means of presentation of the “secular knowledge”, while the knowledge/technology itself could be used to further Jewish ideals. Though there is a tension, I do not believe these approaches are contradictory or mutually exclusive. Rather the reflect a balanced approach Torah takes to such issue but cannot quite be achieved by finite man. Therefore within the Jewish community some are more “conservative” than others, but insofar as the community lives up to Jewish ideals a balance is created…and hopefully each community and time will take the approach most appropriate for their situation under the guidance of their Rabbis.

    Yirmeyahu Allen


    will hill:

    you couldn’t find a shorter article to prove your point??

    poor mod that had to moderate it!!!


    Yasher Koach.

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