Frum but fair about Facebook

By Orlando Radice, May 24, 2012

Did you hear the one about the gathering of 40,000 Charedim in New York to protest against the immorality of the internet? They heard about it online.

The joke isn't too far from the surreal truth. In the sea of black-hatted men who filled the New York Mets baseball stadium last weekend to vent their fears that the internet is eroding the holiness of their community, many were tweeting about the event, and numerous live feeds enabled Charedim around the world to view it online.

For the liberal Jewish observer, it is impossible to view the Charedi approach to technology without a heavy sense of humour and paradox. Indeed, when a rabbi orders his followers to burn their mobile phones or someone creates a "kosher" Facebook that allows the religious to network without "meeting" members of the opposite sex, it all smacks of the work of a clever comedian.

We may laugh, but it's not necessarily because we disagree with the moral message. It's a practical issue: our lives are often so saturated in technology that anyone who questions this looks absurd. So distant are we from the archaic Orthodox world-view on this subject that it is as if someone is asking whether or not we should eat or sleep.

But the Charedim do not have a monopoly on absurdity in relation to technology. Last week, Mark Zuckerberg presided over the flotation of Facebook, creating one of the world's highest-valued companies. However you look at it, there is a delightful symmetry between the very Jewish drive to master new forms of knowledge and the Charedi priority to master its ancient forms. And if we are to believe Harry Ostrer, an US geneticist and author of a book on the "Jewish" genetic signature, it may not be coincidental. The idea that the very same genetic code that draws Charedim away from technology drives other Jews towards it is an irresistibly Jewish - and also amusing - paradox.

It all smacks of the work of a clever comedian

The less amusing aspect of the Charedi anti-technology campaign is that, in some cases, there is a darker motive. The internet has allowed those who have suffered abuse to break through the wall of silence that encircles the Charedi community and make their horror stories known. The result has been a flood of successful convictions, and while many abusers are still being protected, the web remains a crucial outlet for a community that lacks accountability.

Shameful cover-ups aside, resistance to the democratisation of information seems to run hard against the message contained within Tikkun Olam (healing the world). This moral invective requires a knowledge of what is happening beyond one's own sphere of existence, something that the web arguably facilitates better than any other media.

And yet, within the Charedim's doomed last stand against global culture 2.0, there is a profound insight to which all paid-up "users" should be paying urgent attention. Consider the web as a source of pleasure and social life, and then pause over the words of one of the speakers, Rabbi Efraim Wachsman. "The internet is about the moment, the fleeting… a source of instant gratification."

Plenty of wise commentators outside the Charedi world agree with the essence of this. In his book about online dating, Liquid Love, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman describes human-to-human relationships online as profoundly unstable, because "you can always press 'delete'." The result of online dating, he says, is that love is becoming fragile and emaciated, haunted by the thought that there might be someone better to "invest" your time in just around the corner.

Much has been said about the oxymoronic implications of the phrase "social media", and it should come as no surprise that those groups that are probably the truest "communities", such as the Charedim, object most to the false familiarity and narcissism of web-worlds such as Facebook. In the words of Manuel Castells, the world's foremost communications scholar: "Our societies are increasingly structured around the bipolar opposition of the Net and the Self". Together with Rabbi Wachsman, I'll leave you to work out the implications of that.

Last updated: 2:47pm, May 24 2012