Monday, May 21, 2012

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Internet, and Social Justice.

I had a vision at breakfast last Friday. As I munched on my Raisin Bran, reading the New York Times, the lights flickered, and I saw it:
A baseball stadium. Citi Field, to be precise. Not filled, as I'm used to, with drunk, thirty-year-old Mets fans, but submerged in a sea of black hats. Forty thousand Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men had gathered to protest Mayor Bloomberg's denial of shelter services to hundreds of vulnerable homeless people in New York City. From where I was sitting in the Upper Deck, I couldn't make out the field very well, but the jumbotron made it easy to see and hear. A lone figure stood on the pitcher's mound, making a speech to the crowd. It was impassioned, and not, as I recall, very empirically grounded. But the crowd was rapt.
"He has blinded himself," he said. "Our mayor has closed his eyes to the poor, and forgotten that they're human beings. Human beings! Not numbers on a report to the administration."

Of course, that's not what really happened today. As I write this blog post, there are indeed forty thousand Haredi (Ultra Orthodox) Jews in Citi Field, another twenty thousand in Arthur Asche Stadium, and many, many others watching on broadcasts across the country. But they aren't protesting New York's homelessness policy. This weekend, a meeting convened by the Ichud Hakehillos LeTohar HaMachane, the Union of Communities for the Purity of the Camp, has absorbed the attention of Orthodox Jews across the country. The subject: restricting access to the internet. This meeting is not going to result in a prohibition on the internet—that would be a little extreme—but will instead "raise awareness" of its dangers. The internet, after all, can be used to access pornography, which is prohibited by Jewish law. It can also waste time and divert people into frivolous pursuits. Take a look at this quote from the New York Times article on the event:

Posters promoting the rally have filled Williamsburg in recent days, playing off biblical themes. The event is being held right before the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which marks the giving of the Torah.
“Accept it Again, Like One Person With One Heart” one sign says, adding, “No one should miss it.”

How did this happen? How can it be that a community that has dedicated itself to God has ended up focusing on this? The same Bible from which these posters draw their themes is the Bible that enjoins Jews to "seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow." It is the Bible in which Abraham challenged God himself because he was concerned that God was acting unjustly to a city of Gentiles.  The Haredi community, by its sheer numbers, has the potential to do immense good. Imagine, as I did, that they protested the city's policy regarding its homeless citizens. In the first place, its forty-thousand-man meeting would do more to give Jews a good name than all of the piety of the last forty years. It would be a powerful spur on the government to change its policy. (Already, politicians in New York regularly make deals with Haredi leaders in order to secure the votes of their communities.) Plus, by the way, it would be moral in itself. So to miss this opportunity and instead insist on the "purity of the camp" is an abdication of responsibility to Jews, to New York City, and to God.

I don't have a problem with the Haredi community's discomfort over the internet in itself. I've got a puritanical streak myself. I sympathize fully with the religious impulse to purity, and I think that it's appropriate for the community to restrict its access to the internet if it wants. But whenever I'm tempted to be understanding of the meeting that happened today, my vision from last week flashes again in front of my eyes.

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