Two Charedi news websites closed down this week and a wave of resignations has hit other sites following the strictest rabbinical ruling against the internet to date.
A letter signed two weeks ago by some of the most senior rabbis of the Charedi community in Israel, including Rabbis Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Aharon Leib Steinman and the leaders of the main Chasidic sects, reiterates a “severe prohibition of private usage of internet in every home”. But it particularly singled out the ostensibly Charedi websites which have flourished in recent years, supplying insider news and gossip to tens of thousands of eager readers.
These sites, according to the letter, disseminate “lies and terrible impurity”, besmirch the community and cause many to “use the filthy internet which has caused many to commit many serious sins of the Torah of a nature that should not be mentioned”.
The rabbis forbid any use of these sites and urged their followers to boycott any business that advertises in them. The three daily Charedi Israeli newspapers eagerly published the rabbis’ letter on their front pages.
This was not the first letter of this nature by far, and for the first few days the managers of the websites thought that this storm would also blow over. But they were privately informed by the rabbis’ representatives that this time they meant business and the next step was official ostracism.
The result so far is that two websites, which had invested large sums in design and a team of reporters and editors, have already closed down. Other sites which are trying to hold out have suffered a rash of resignations by editors and writers who are afraid of the consequences of defying their rabbis.
The oldest and most popular Charedi news website, Be-hadrei Charedim (In the inner rooms of the Charedim), is currently owned by a non-religious internet company and will therefore continue to operate.
But its two editor-founders, David Rotenberg and David Povarsky, announced this week they are leaving in the wake of the rabbis’ edict.
In a farewell letter, Mr Rotenberg explained that he still believed that the Charedi websites, while being far from perfect, were preferable to leaving the community’s web users no alternative but the secular sites.
Many Charedi educators have compared the challenge posed to the community by the internet to the successful campaign waged decades ago against the television.
There the issue was clear-cut. The rabbis ruled that the sets were forbidden, and the communal pressure was sufficient to ensure that they were kept out of the homes of the faithful. Everyone could see if there was an antenna on the roof and the slightest suspicion of ownership would disqualify children from studying in schools and yeshivahs and deal a fatal blow to their chances to their chances of a decent shidduch.
But things were not so simple when it came to banning computers. Some rabbis did try but others accepted that the new machine brought with it possibilities for added income for financially strapped families and was a useful tool for Torah research and publishing.
While some rabbis warned that the computer was a distinct threat to the “pure camp”, others insisted that it could be used in sanctity and that a total ban would condemn the community to a backward existence.
A similar debate emerged regarding the internet. Rabbis who permitted owning a computer insisted that this was on condition that it would not be connected to the world wide web, with its corrupting influence.
Others agreed to their followers surfing the web as long as they were doing so using one of the tailor-made programmes filtering out sites including pornography, heretical information and even lashon harah.
But many of the writers and editors on the Charedi websites are certain that the real reason for the new ban is not immodest pictures, but the inside picture that Charedi sites provided of internal Charedi politics, and the forum they provide for open discussion about internal affairs. That enraged the machers who then incited the rabbis — with devastating results.