The Internet: Orthodoxy's Confrontation with Modernity--Guest Blog by Ronald Stekel

Submitted by mdangel1 on Fri, 04/01/2016 - 15:32

(Ronald Stekel was an active member of the British Jewish community before having made Aliyah.)

There are groups of Jews whose Rabbinic leaders have banned aspects of modern technology. One can see them with posters that cry out that they have no internet or computers, and they are proud of this. They believe it to be an ideal to be emulated by other Jews. I believe that it is dreadful.

When Noah left the ark he planted a vineyard and the Torah describes how he subsequently got drunk, and the demeaning events that followed. It would have been understandable if the Torah had banned alcohol but instead the Torah sets out a totally different approach.

The Torah required wine to be an integral and essential part in Temple sacrifices and today every Seudat Mitzva starts with wine. There is a Torah requirement to take wine, with its potential to generate malevolence and to convert it into something that creates Kedusha.

God tells us that he has put before us life and good and death and evil….and we should chose life. This is not limited to choosing what is good and abandoning what is bad but includes following the precedent that is God given, and to take things with a potential for evil and mortality and to change them to create something good and life giving.
I believe that God gave us a Torah that is unbound by time and is relevant for all time. Each generation, has to meet its own challenges and has to demonstrate how the Torah is significant and relevant in its own era and circumstances.

Following the development of printing, Hazal did not look at the wide range of both good and evil publications and as a result ban it. Instead we have a range of religious books and publications that have spread Jewish learning around the world. We have taken what has a potential for bad and use it for good and created Kedusha.

My first Rav, Rabbi Mordechai Knoblewicz z’’l, once told me that he had two congregants who had survived the Shoah. They were in the same camp, and over Shabbat the two would jointly do work meant for one person to avoid transgressing the Halakhic definition of work. Even in the horrors of Auschwitz, they gave the challenge of Torah adherence their priority over the horrendous circumstances that they, and so few others, survived.

This practise is used to this day. In my own home in London, before we made Aliya, I had to call Hatzala on Shabbat for a friend who was staying for the weekend. After assessing the situation, they decided to phone the ambulance service and when the call was finished the Hatzala volunteer asked me to help him, and we put the phone back on its cradle together.

Today our challenges are very different from the past. We live in a level of affluence undreamed of by previous generations of Jews around the world, and in particular we have to confront the technology of our time. We have to demonstrate publicly that God’s Torah is as relevant today as it was in previous generations.

While some people use computers for evil and salacious publications, Torah true Jews use it to create Jewish life and distribute Torah publications. A member of the Daf Yomi group I learn with has the Artscroll Shas on his iPad. There are so many thousands of wonderful Torah apps and sources available to anyone who seeks them and wants to use technology to honour God’s name.

In the city of Leicester in England, there is a very small Orthodox community who are led by a Chabad Rav. When I asked him how he dealt with his children’s education he told me that they received a full and comprehensive education on line and that they had friends, with whom they learnt, all over the world. Without this internet facility he could not be there, and the community would be lost without him.

One can understand that there are some people who so fear the temptations of modern technology that they try to avoid it. But for them to hold this as an ideal and condemn the use of technology and Jews who use it is tantamount to telling us that the threat of technology is greater than the power of the Torah. Their choices suggest that a Torah life cannot survive in the modern technological twenty first century and that by implication the Torah is time bound and that we have to retreat to a time when this technology did not exist.

Before assuming his duties as Chief Rabbi in the UK, Harav Lord Jakobovits Z’’tzl was Rabbi in the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in New York. In his address to the community on his last Yom Kippur there he included the following in a sermon that he gave:
"Our first and foremost task, as I saw it, was to be an edah, a corporate witness testifying that traditional Judaism is very much alive, and confronting the prophets of doom who forecast long ago that Orthodoxy could not survive in America, certainly not amid the affluence, elegance and modernity of an area as fashionable as ours. We have demonstrated a Kiddush ha-Shem in the most public manner for the world to see.
No one, anywhere will ever again be able to say that strict Orthodoxy is incompatible with modern life, that our unadulterated traditions are only for foreigners and old fashioned people, that you cannot reach the top of the economic ladder and still remain faithful to all our ancient convictions and practices.

We are the edim, witnesses, to prove that it can be done; that Judaism can flourish in Fifth Avenue as in Williamsburg or Jerusalem, in the twentieth century as a 100 or 1,000 years ago."

This principle underpinned Chief Rabbi Jakobovits’ period in office and it is as relevant today as it was when he gave the sermon. As Orthodox Jews we must demonstrate to other Jews, and to the world at large, that the Torah has been given to us for all times and all circumstances and that we too are witnesses that one can live one’s life fully in the Halakhic world as well as in the modern world. By using technology for good, we thereby proclaim to the world a Kiddush ha-Shem.