Orthodox Jews, the Internet, and the Ecumenism of the Trenches UPDATED

I understand and even share the concerns of the 40,000 Orthodox Jewish men who gathered at Citi Field in New York to discuss the problems of the internet. BBC has a decent video on the event (sorry, no embedding allowed), but too much time is spent with the point-missing counter protesters. Memo to the media: when 40,000 people gathere to speak on a single point, you don’t spend half your time on a couple dozen disgruntled protesters who are complaining about an entirely different issue (child molestation).

The Jews are right to worry about the influence of the net. Naturally, the protesters run their Marxist playbook, in which every single issue is recast in terms of power relationships. That’s not even close to being the issue at hand. The issue is the influence of a pervasively immoral culture which is brought into the house via the internet in ways it never was with TV or print or radio. We can’t effectively shun this technology (like the Amish) because we need it for work and communication, but we must realize that it’s fire and handle it with due care.

What moderns don’t understand about Orthodox Jews is that they don’t really want to be part of your world and they don’t accept your value systems. I don’t either, but the Orthodox are more determined and tenacious. They’ve had to be. Their lives are revolutionary and counter-cultural. They exist at right angles to modern society, greeting it with a mixture of caution, argument, contempt, and pity. Do people not get the clue from the way they live and the way they dress? They are wholly other, and that’s how they want it. They can also be rude and argumentative (try shopping at B&H Photo or in the Diamond District in New York some time), which I just attribute to their insularity and history as an embattled minority. They don’t act all that different than Amish.

At a time when the Mets can barely fill half of Citi Field, the Orthodox Jews attracted an overflowing crowd to discuss the temptations of the internet:

For the attendees, many of whom said they came at the instructions of their rabbis, it was a chance to hear about a moral topic considered gravely important in their community: the potential problems that can stem from access to pornography and other explicit content on the uncensored, often incendiary Web.

Inside the stadium, a dais was set up by the back wall of center field, where rabbis led the packed stadium in evening prayers and offered heated exhortations to avoid the “filth” that can be found on the Internet. English translations of the speeches appeared on a jumbo digital screen, beneath an enormous “Let’s Go Mets!” sign.

Still, many attendees readily conceded that the Internet played a big role in their lives.

Shlomo Cohen, 24, of Toronto, said he used the Internet for shopping, business and staying in touch with friends — “Everyone needs e-mail,” he said.

Mr. Cohen said he came to Citi Field on Sunday because the rally was a good way to remind his community to keep temptation at bay.

“Desires are out there,” Mr. Cohen said, adding that men could be particularly susceptible. “We have to learn how to control ourselves.”

I believe it was Chuck Colson who coined the phrase “ecumenism of the trenches.” Pious Jews, Muslims, and Christians have far more in common with each other than we do with the secular world. We are all at war with the excesses of modernity. It’s an uncomfortable thought for some, but I have no doubt that I would have found more like-minded people at Citi Field than I would have at any gathering of “progressive Christians”.

Here in the trenches of the culture wars, I’d rather have a Muslim on my left and a pious Jew on my right than any of the 52% of Catholics who voted for Obama. It’s no longer Christian against Jew against Muslim. It’s those who believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob against the world. The sooner we figure that out, the stronger we’ll all be.


Regular reader Noe (formerly an Orthodox Jew, now on her way to Catholicism) took me to task for elements of this post, and rightly so. As I say in the comments, I’m wary of both the phrase “ultra-Orthodox” and of the media’s prurient obsession with sexual abuse in religious communities. I understood that the men gathered for this conference were Haridim: the most intense and insular strain of Orthodox Judaism, usually called “ultra-Orthodox” by the media to distinguish them from Modern Orthodox. I didn’t mean to imply that they represented the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy, but since I dislike being characterized as a “fundamentalist Catholic” or “conservative Catholic,” I don’t like to do it to others. In this case, however, I should have been more precise.

I also understand that, culture war or not, they probably wouldn’t have a thing to do with me, since I’m Catholic. On the other hand, I do believe that observant religious people of all beliefs are capable of finding common cause as the secular world grows increasingly hostile.  Whether any of us are capable of doing that is another matter.

In any case, I think her perspective on this community is valuable and worth highlighting, so I’m promoting it from the combox to the post.

I understand all your apprehensions, especially your hackle-bristling over the media’s next step from abuse in Jewish communities to abuse in Catholic institutions. As in insider among mainline-Orthodox and “Modern Orthodox” (of the observant variety), the closest comparison to Charedim and Chassidim is…imagine some fringe-Right Catholic friends who harbor ideological sympathies with Schismatics, imagine they’ve been in this way for generations – AND then throw in similarly-generational Schismatics. There is no Magisterium, no Pope, etc, etc – in these communities, rabbinic authority circles around specific individuals who are presumed to have “daas Torah”, which is closest to the rare instances of the Pope speaking “Ex Cathedra”.

Power emanates from the charisma of such leaders, not simply from knowledge of Jewish law or designated communal authority – or even accountability; their decrees rarely include justification from the wealth of legal literature or precedent. The concerns of the community ARE legit, but like fundamentalists of the islamicist variety, emphasis is put less on personal responsibility or equipping people to maintain it as there is on enforcing norms from the community itself (men are taught less to guard THEIR eyes – women and girls are taught THEIR responsibility to enter deeper and deeper forms of body-hiding “modesty” for example).

The internet is not only a legitimate concern to them as faith communities (emphasis on the plural), it is also a huge threat to these power structures that they have in common [with certain non-combatant Islamicist communities we would NOT defend the internal actions of] – as are the cultural and legal views of the “goyim” that come with insiders attempts to address abuse in their communities (since – effectively – no such independent, third-party structures exist except legalistic perspectives that have been used systematically to settle situations “outside of court” as it were, where abusers are at best kept away from children and families of the abused told to hold their tongues. I know directly of such ‘arrangements’).

The Catholic Church, at least in its humanity, is an institution where there is accountability, however poorly it may manifest itself in certain instances – in these Charedi communities, there is no institution where discussion is made, made accessible – there are many of them (and in-house discussion is LARGELY inaccessible to lay-members), with little accountability and HUGE sanction against “informing” on a in-group member to the gentile legal mechanisms or media. These are what the protestors make noise about, the sleight-of-hand, Falkland-Islands play that directs media attention and communal fervor away from chronic abuse problems, complicity and institutionalized inaction and the demands it puts on the community and authorities, and towards “the Internet” and the demands it puts on communities and authorities to unify and ‘stand stalwart’, yet again, against The World (which means Catholics everyone else – except the occasional Conservative politician that seeks them for block votes).

One should not for a second doubt that this is as much for general media consumption (and Iphone journalists in and outside the stadium), as it is for their sense of cohesion in abiding rabbinic authority; they get to make their communal abuse issue seem small by noting how many are rallying vs. protesting and how ‘off-topic’ the protestors seem… here authorities can have a pep rally, make decrees, issues condemnations, and reintroduce people to filtering technology they’ve been told about for over a decade now.


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Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.