Can Judaism Survive the Internet?

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Slate has another article in their unofficial series on orthodox Judaism and specifically on chasidic Judaism. In this article, the Internet is presented as a supreme danger to Hasidism.

On this issue, the secular media and the leadership of the chasidic groups agree. The Internet is a Pandora’s Box for a chasidic Jew. There is no way around it. The article does an effective job of explaining why the Internet poses such a hazard to chasidic Judaism. I don’t think an honest chasid would disagree with their assessment.

The question then becomes what to do about it.

There are basically three choices that the chasidic community faces. 1) Redouble efforts to protect the community from the Internet. 2) Carry on as is. 3) Adjust their doctrines so that they are less susceptible to the harms of the Internet.

I don’t think Option 1 can possibly work. The Internet is ubiquitous. The only way it could work is to literally kick anyone with Internet access out of the community. I doubt that this can be done.

I don’t think Option 2 is viable either. The truth is that more and more chasidic people are disenchanted with the chasidic lifestyle. I don’t believe it is a greater percentage of chasidic Jews that are disenchanted, rather with the ever increasing size of their communities, there are simply more people who are going to leave. It’s a numbers game. If the defectors reach greater proportions, I do believe the community will find it necessary to address the problem vis a vis the Internet. They will either choose Option 1 or Option 3.

And so we arrive at Option 3. The article mentions that many chasids find the information on the Internet incompatible with the chasidic life. To a large extent this is true. But are those things that they find incompatible vital or integral to chasidic or orthodox Jewish life?

Is mocking evolution and science a necessary component of chasidic life? Is family planning a direct contradiction to chasidic life? Does chasidic life require that the non-chasid be stigmatized and delegitimized?

On these issues, the Internet is bound to “win” against tradition. There is just too much compelling information out there to even hope that tradition can stave off the attacks from the Internet. But these are not necessary beliefs to Judaism, rather ultra-orthodox, ultra-insular Judaism has adopted these as new tenets of belief. But these tenets are doomed to be forsaken by the Internet generation. They are just too flimsy to survive under scrutiny.

When one is told that the sky is green and the grass is blue, it doesn’t take much to realize that is a lie and the person who told the lie is a liar. Liars don’t make for good educators and leaders. Tradition cannot be passed down with lies.

In this respect the less insular orthodox Jewish communities provide better options for dealing with these questions. There are communities that handle these questions pretty well.

The other issue that the article raises is that the chasidic community has some built in “protections” that don’t squarely address the Internet, but they do make it harder to leave. Those are the early age of marriage and child bearing as well as the dearth of secular education.

This means that even if a chasid finds things that make a chasid want to leave the community, it’s really hard to leave. If one already has a family, and one already has a life on the inside, it can seem impossible to make a life on the outside. Especially if English is a second or third language and one does not even have a high school education. There are also the the benefits of staying in the chasidic community. If people want to stay, but cannot handle the beliefs of the community, you have a sticky situation.

Finally, I think the non-chasidic community can do a better job of welcoming and embracing chasidic defectors. There are many negative stereotypes associated with chasids in the non-chasidic community. Even if true, they are not the fault of the people born there, and it is incongruous to use those stereotypes against those chasids who are trying to leave.

I believe that with more viable and friendly options in the non-chasidic community, we will see fewer defectors file into the secular ranks and more ex-chasids in the non-chasidic community with beliefs and practices that are better equipped to withstand the onslaught of the Internet. But there is certainly work to be done in the non-chasidic communities as well. We’ll get there soon.

UPDATE: The answer to my question posed in the headline is – YES! Judaism can survive the Internet. I am not so sure Chasidism can.

Link: Slate

  • MarkSoFla

    If people want to stay, but cannot handle the beliefs of the community, you have a sticky situation.

    If I may coin a word – Chasiprax 🙂

  • Menachem Lipkin

    IMO, this is the real issue the frum world has with the internet, whether they realize it or not. Pornography, while an issue, is a side show. Pictures of naked ladies are not going to challenge the foundations of orthodox Judaism.

    Nor is this just an issue for Chassidim or Chareidim. Yes, they’ve created a house of cards built on ignorance and misinformation, but much of our basic foundational narratives, simplistically understood and accepted by most, can be easily challenged or refuted with a few simple internet searches.

  • I think you’re absolutely right with option 3 being the only workable option. Unfortunately, Chasidic society, almost by definition, cannot embrace it; they cannot adapt by becoming more moderate, only by circling the wagons. (Let’s not forget, this isn’t new. Frum Jews lost thousands to the Haskalah. The Chasidic response, following the Chasam Sofer, was myopic rather than visionary. Chadash asur min hatorah. “Ban everything.”)

    Which leads me to one of your later points, about non-Chasidic communities being the answer. I think this is an incredibly important point.

    I often hear MOs say to ex-Chasidic OTDs: “Why throw away the baby with the bathwater?” Setting aside what exactly is the baby and what is the bathwater, my question is: where are the MOs when individual Chasidim are still within, struggling to make sense of their screwed-up environments?

    When MOs tell OTDs: “You can be religious and still get an education, still engage with broader society, still use the Internet and have access to knowledge and information.” Well, why isn’t the MO community telling this to the kids currently in Satmar and in Skver and in Viznitz and in Bobov? Where’s the MO community when a yeshiva bachur wishes he could go to med school or law school? Where are they when a young man or woman is being led, at 17 or 18, into a marriage they did not choose? When they’re told to just keep making babies without any idea what this means for them and their futures? Why isn’t the MO community there to tell these kids: “You don’t have to do this?”

    Of course, I think we know the answer to that. The MO world, strangely, still romanticizes Chasidim as the bearers of something old and authentic. As extreme and fanatic and shortsighted as Chasidim might be, the MO world is not concerned about their Yiddishkeit. And that’s a huge mistake. Because the Chasidic worldview is simply unsustainable. Both those who remain within and those who fall away are losing out. The former by having access only to a vapid and superficial religious framework and the latter by the lost years and their educational handicaps and their broken families and a somewhat disoriented view of life in general and the secular world in particular.

    So yes, the answer lies in the non-Chasidic (particularly MO) communities. But it appears that the MO community lacks the assertiveness to speak up about it, only daring to speak to those who’ve already left — and by then, I’m afraid, it’s already too late.

    • S.

      Shulem, practically speaking, how would or should MO kiruv work?

      • kweansmom

        YU should make its own version of “Footsteps”.
        Maybe “Babysteps”?

    • kweansmom

      A chassid who is online, looking, will find many MO people to communicate with.

      However, in my experience when a MO blogger criticizes the chassidic community online they are attacked by commenters saying to stop bashing charedim and that the MO should live and let live. And there are usually a few choice remarks about sinas chinam and going to gehenom.

      • A. Nuran

        The Charedim always demand respect and tolerance. Always.
        They never reciprocate. Ever.
        This is one of the reasons outreach and meeting them half way and so on haven’t worked.

    • G*3

      Any MO institution offering to “rescue” Chassidishe
      teenagers from early marriage, or to offer education, would be vilified in the
      Chassidich communities. They would be condemned as worse than the goyim, because
      at least we know that goyish institutions are traif, but these MO are like
      chazeirim, showing off how their kosher while really being the worst form of
      tummah. What 18-year-old would seek out such evil people?

      • MarkSoFla

        This is, in fact, exactly what would happen (and what does already happen).

  • the foundations of the hasidic community cannot possibly survive in a age when information is so accessible, and with the current trend it will be unavoidable within the next 20 years, even for a tight knit, closed community. i think the current hasidic doctrine is in a checkmate net of which it cannot get out of, and if they dont adjust their way of life will be extinct within the next generation or two. the only possible solution aside of moderation might be moving the community to the middle of nowhere and live amish style, but that would result in extreme poverty, hence their lack of skills would not allow them to maintain an independent economy, and i just dont see enough hasidic jews making that sacrifice.

    • Velvel Belkin

      I take anybody to task who says chassidim will not be here in 20 years , I will bet 100s of dollars they will . They are growing stronger and stronger , and even with the OTDs which are minimal their birthright way outweighs that. I am not making a moral judgement on them , I am just saying they will be here.

      • MarkSoFla

        I agree that they will exist and still be very strong in 20 years. However, I also think there will be [more] rot from within, and it is very possible that that rot eventually destroys it or dramatically changes it.

      • Tuvia

        you are correct. the haredi BTs I know are going right, right, right. (I just wish I could get in their heads and understand what is really going on.)

  • Even Reform Rabbis sem to be in awe of chassidim and constantly quote their sayings. I think it’s time for the non-chassidic Jewish world to recognize that there are people trapped within a cult that does Jewish practices, but to an extreme and mixes these practices with rebbe worship, typical of a cult. That gives the real Jewish world a chance to reach out and help those who want to escape.

  • Bob Miller

    How can we really know what will happen? With HaShem’s help, human ingenuity can find new ways out of old boxes. I’m not sure if commenters here are suggesting or gloating.

  • Eli

    If you’re basing thing on anecdotal evidence, then even non-Hasidic Judaism won’t survive the internet…based on my own personal history.

  • A. Nuran

    As one of my favorite authors says:
    “What can be destroyed by the truth should be”
    If Chassidism dissolves on contact with any facts outside its xenophobic little bubble it should change or die.

  • L120

    I disagree.

    • Who do you think you are? @berelshain?

      • L120

        🙂 I forgot about him. Instead of attempting to mount an intelligent rebuttal, I thought those two words would suffice.

  • G*3

    > Is mocking evolution
    and science a necessary component of chasidic life?

    Chassidus is, among
    other things, the Jewish analog of the pietist movement. It was a reaction by
    religion to the scientific revolution and the demystification of the world. They
    went the other way, and brought back all the mystery and mysticism. So, yes,
    mocking, or at least marginalizing science is a necessary component of

    Mocking evolution is a
    (widely successful) attempt to delegitimize evolution and maintain the convincingness
    of the Argument from Design.

    > Does chasidic life
    require that the non-chasid be stigmatized and delegitimized?

    Can’t speak for Chassidim, but
    in the yeshivish world, the answer is a resounding, “YES.” Though that mostly
    applies to people to the left of the community.