This Blog Post was Inspired by the Internet Asifa

Last Friday, I listened to the Internet Asifa, a rally which – you may have heard – was organized by the Haredi Orthodox community in CitiField on May 20. I first heard about this event, of course, via facebook. There was a particular negative vibe to the posts about this on facebook. I personally saw posts ranging from that this was a “chillul Hashem” (a desecration of G-d’s name) to saying that it was a giant waste of time and resources.

Here’s how Tablet Magazine represented it :

This Sunday, there’ll be a sellout crowd at Citi Field, a rare sight at the home of the New York Mets. But the big draw isn’t a baseball game. It’s an ultra-Orthodox rally against the Internet that had sold out all 40,000 seats more than a week in advance. An organization called Ichud HaKehillos LeTohar HaMachane (Union of Communities for the Purity of the Camp) raised $1.5 million for the massive asifa (rally) protesting the “evils of the Internet and the damages caused by advanced electronic devices.”

Here’s how it played in the Jewish Press:

Tens of thousands of Ultra-Orthodox Jews will participate in a huge rally to be held on Sunday evening, May 20, at Citi Field in Queens, New York, to combat the evils of the Internet and the damages caused by advanced electronic devices.

And here is the beginning of the article covering the event in The Jewish Week:

In Hebrew, English and Yiddish, speaker after speaker inveighed against the evils of the Internet in the most strident of tones before 40,000 haredi men at Citi Field on Sunday night. The Internet was called “a minefield of immorality,” “the opposite of kedusha” [holiness], “shmutz” [filth] and, in the words of Ecclesiastes, “vanity of vanities.”

As an Orthodox Jew who uses the internet rather a lot, I got a lot of questions about this event before it happened. In fact, one of my primary questioners was my mother, who wanted to know what this was all about and what it meant about the relationship between my Orthodox Judaism and my use of the internet. I got out of her questioning by simply saying “I’m not one of those Orthodox Jews.” And I’m not. I’m a modern Orthodox Jewish woman and I definitely would not have fit in with that crowd.

In fact, I got a small sense of glee from the fact that I listened to the Internet Asifa on YouTube, while actively building a website. (By the way, you can get a sneak peak of Canfei Nesharim’s new website here.)

However, in the process of listening to the Asifa, I heard something that actually spoke to me.

Most of the rally, which is four hours long and available here, is in Yiddish. So frankly I didn’t understand much of it. But my relationship with the YUHSChinuch community gave me the inside tip of skipping to 1:25, where a particular English speaker comes through with a very clear message. And I must say, his words reached me. Through the internet, through YouTube and into my computer, his words reached me. Here is my best effort at typing up some of what he said:

We are here to heed the call of the gedolei hador (leaders of the generation) who have recognized and identified that this issue is the test of our generation, something that threatens our continued existence as the Am Hashem… as the holy nation.

What is the test of technology? The internet even with a filter is a minefield of immorality… The internet is no longer a tool or a device. The problems are no longer just that it’s an easy or quicker way for someone to access inappropriate material.

Today the internet is a culture – it’s a psychology – it’s a way of life… This is reprogramming our way of thinking, our emotions, our relationships, our hashkafas, our sensitivity, our very life… You can see it in the ebbing of the light, in the vacant eyes… the jittery inattentiveness of our children, flippant and callous language and attitude … The wisdom of our holy Torah is timeless and eternal. It’s about seeing into the future. The internet is about the moment, it’s about the instantaneous, the artificial, the superficial, it’s about if you’re bored you click onto something else, it’s about being fleeting and empty. Even secular educators and psychologists have been decrying, the children are being turned into vegetables.

[The gedolim] understand life, the subtleties and the trends. The internet mindset is the opposite of Kedusha (holiness). The instant-instant-instant gratification leaves no room for perseverance, endurance, coping, the very qualities that enable us to survive as a people, that a student needs to become a Torah scholar.

We don’t need this. We can be bigger and better than this.

I learned several things from listening to this English speaker, whose name I do not know. First of all, the way that this rally had been presented to me was a rally against the internet, as if these haredim were arguing for the internet to disappear. My understanding, from the English that I heard, was something quite different. This was a religious gathering and it was simply a call to the attendees to stop using the internet. I also gathered from him that the request was not necessarily to avoid the internet completely. He said: “Every one of us can go further than we thought of going tonight.” He used examples of previous generations who had televisions in their homes – something that few if any haredim would do today. What he was suggesting, from my view, was that we create boundaries around our use of the internet and prepare to reduce its use in our lives.

Now listen, I’m not about to tell anyone to give up the internet. I’m a modern Orthodox Jew and I’ve found the internet to be extremely useful to me. It’s helped me get a message out to thousands of people. On facebook alone I’ve found several excellent interns and volunteers who have helped forward my message. And I feel pretty strongly about using those tools to spread the messages of Jewish wisdom, and the importance of protecting the environment.

But when I listened to his words, I had to admit he kind of has a point. The internet does take over our lives. I’ve actually said out loud that when you use it actively, “Facebook becomes an organizing principle of your life.” And as you know – as I’ve written here before – I’ve found taking “unplugged days” where I separate myself from facebook and email to be extremely cleansing.

Jewish wisdom is about the long view, and the internet’s instantaneous nature keeps us in a short-term mode that has deep consequences for our society (and yes, for the environment). So it made me think: should I be putting limits on my own internet use?

I was listening to the Asifa on Friday afternoon before Shabbat, as I worked hard to finish pages of our website. After I finished my work for the day, I turned off the computer (and turned off the power strip to save energy). And then I saw myself: before getting into the shower to prepare for Shabbat, I picked up my phone and checked facebook for several moments. Those moments turned out to be important when Shabbat drew nearer and I was running out of time to prepare… and I realized that my addiction to the internet has its own spiritual consequences.

So here is the little pledge that I made, the commitment that “goes further than I thought of going.” I made a little commitment to turn off the internet at least 1 hour before Shabbat – and not even to check facebook during that time. It’s a very small thing, and some might think it’s embarrassing to make such a small commitment. But it’s mine, and as I bring peace into my life instead of rushing around just before Shabbat, I believe it can make a difference.

I was a little surprised to find myself agreeing with the Asifa. After all, like I said, I'm not one of those Jews. Maybe you aren't either. But is there anything about this that's inspired you to put limits on your own internet use? Is there anything you could do to own the tool, rather than having it take over who you are?

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