In the future, the great Internet rally of 2012 might be seen as the prescient start of a global movement to grapple with the impact of this amazing and beguiling series of tubes: addiction, distraction, stupidity, the erosion of privacy and intimacy have already been identified as some of the web’s deleterious effects. But to the 50,000 ultra-Orthodox who came to New York’s Citi Field last month on the urgings of their rabbis and yeshivas, the problem had a rare urgency. All these downsides make the Web un-kosher, and for a community steeped in piety and tradition – one in which television is already mostly prohibited – the Internet is clearly a force to be wrestled with, or at least to kvetch about.
How exactly to make the web safe for Haredi Judaism, the most conservative form of Orthodox Judaism, isn’t so clear. While some of the rabbis who spoke at the giant four-hour rally – organized by a group called Ichud HaKehillos LeTohar HaMachane, or the Unification of the Communities for the Purification of the Camp – insisted on an absolutist approach (giving up the Internet entirely, even for business), most acknowledged that this Internet wasn’t going anywhere. Instead they recommended a careful regime of oversight, discretion and web filters, programs like JNet and KosherNet, which allow users to “blacklist” or “whitelist” certain websites. (A guide to the Internet issued by the organizers of the rally raised many other issues: “Can you use another Wifi without permission, ie, is it considered stealing?” “Can you access an Israeli website when it’s Shabbos there, but not yet Shabbos here (Friday afternoon)?”)
Meanwhile, at a counter protest across the street, some former members of the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) community argued that this was all a distraction from the child abuse scandal that has recently embroiled the rabbinical system. Facebook and the web have been instrumental in discussing the issue, bringing victims out of hiding, and organizing protests like theirs. It was a reminder, albeit not the one the rabbis imagined, that the Internet isn’t just unavoidable for things like business (and hard to resist for all kinds of non-kosher entertainments): sometimes, the Internet can do good too.