Digital Divide

Though Israel boasts a burgeoning high-tech industry and a predominantly Net-savvy populace, many of the country’s charedim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) view technology, especially the World Wide Web, as something of a mixed blessing. Sure, many charedim support their families by writing code, and several sites such as help Diaspora Jews answer questions about Jewish law, but earlier this year the Council of Torah Sages banned the Internet from its followers’ homes. In a harshly worded edict, the panel of Talmudic scholars that represents the majority of charedi sects branded the Internet a “terrible danger” that’s “1,000 times” more hazardous than television (which was cast out of ultra-Orthodox homes about 30 years ago). Some sects even declared personal computers in the home off-limits.

Rabbi Yitzhak Halperin may be one of the few people with the power to relax the ban. He’s the 75-year-old founder of the Institute for Science and Halacha — something of a cross between a high school laboratory and a yeshiva — that develops technology to “expand observance of halacha and decrease its desecration.” In other words, the Institute detects loopholes in Jewish law, then builds Rube Goldberg-style contraptions such as the “Sabbath Telephone.”

Some rabbis equate the act of dialing, which initiates an electric current, with creating fire, a Sabbath no-no. The Institute’s phone, which looks like a rotary-dial unit circa 1972 that underwent a face lift with a drill, operates in the opposite manner. By inserting a golf-pencil-sized dowel in holes that correspond to each number, users interrupt a continuous flow of energy, which triggers the dialing mechanism. It’s completely kosher, since nothing in halacha forbids dousing a fire.

Halperin’s right-hand rabbi, Shmuel Strauss, defends the Institute’s unorthodox mission.

“If the lawmaker is human,” explains Strauss, “sometimes he makes mistakes. If you see a loophole in the law, don’t take it, respect the intent of the lawmaker. But if the Lawmaker never makes a mistake and never overlooks anything, and still there’s a loophole, then what’s it there for?”

Despite maintaining a Web site ( to benefit his Institute’s fundraising efforts, Halperin allows no loopholes for Internet use in the home. Hunched over a leather-bound volume of Judaic teachings, the end of his Moses-like white beard resting on the yellowing pages, Halperin dismisses the World Wide Web as a potential “poison,” and he justifies the ban as a bid to shield religious children from online pornography and violence.

Writer Jonathan Rosenblum, an official spokesperson for much of the charedi community, also applauds the restrictions.

“The Torah teaches us that every visual image to which we are exposed leaves its impact,” says Rosenblum. “Damage to the holiness of one’s soul cannot be compensated for later, any more than a dieter can compensate for a chocolate mousse by eating a fruit salad afterwards.”

Rosenblum, who recently rid his home of the Internet, elaborated in his Jerusalem Post column: “Charedim don’t reject modern technology, but they don’t subscribe to the cult of the new, according to which life without the most up-to-date technology is considered not worth living. They seek to remain masters of technology, not its slaves.”

Maybe so. But charedim may have other motivations for shunning technology; perhaps Windows offers a window on secular society that entices those questioning their commitment to a religious lifestyle?

“The Internet is the charedim world’s latest fear,” argues Laura Sachs, deputy director of Hillel: The Association for Jews Leaving Ultra-Orthodoxy. “Their greatest fear is exposure to the outside world, a threat to their way of life. They don’t let their people read outside newspapers, listen to outside radio, see movies or theater. … I think their fears are correct. The minute these walls come down, they’ll have a lot of problems keeping people inside.”

Charedi leaders dispute the notion that the Internet might spur an exodus.

“Nonsense,” scoffed Rabbi Yehezkel Fogel, dean of The Charedi Center For Technological Studies, a 4-year-old college serving ultra-Orthodox students. “Whoever believes this is making Judaism a very cheap thing. Judaism would not be alive 5,000 years later if every new trend would endanger it.”

Conceding that the ban may merit reexamination as the Web becomes more ubiquitous, Fogel foresees a halachic solution to the conundrum: a “clean” ISP, sort of a charedi Intranet. A business plan for such a system recently crossed his desk. Others envisage the emergence of a monitoring system that covertly transmits random screen shots to the head of the household.

But Joshua, a 22-year-old yeshiva student strolling trough the charedi enclave of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, suggests another alternative that could gain popularity. Joshua’s parents, who keep in touch with American relatives via e-mail, quietly defied the rabbinical order. Administrators at the religious school that Joshua’s 11-year-old brother attends demanded that his parents sign a written pledge to keep their home computer-free, which “they couldn’t believe,” says Joshua, swinging a black plastic shopping bag containing new Nikes. “My parents know it’s dumb, but they signed anyway,” he added. “Why go head-to-head with the rabbis?”