Thursday, August 23, 2012

Hasidic Jews Versus the Internet

I've posted a number of articles recently about conservative Christians who seem to believe that any person or institution with beliefs different from theirs constitutes a dire existential threat. In those posts I've also pointed out that any religious belief that cannot withstand the basic facts of everyday life must be a flimsy belief indeed and that these Christians should have nothing to worry about if have genuine faith in their spiritual path. According to this article from Slate, though, perhaps I spoke too soon. Apparently widespread exposure to the Internet has resulted in Hasidic Jews abandoning their conservative beliefs in record numbers.

Many of the former Hasidim I interviewed started using the Internet innocently, with no intention of ever leaving the community. Pollak got an email address when she worked an office job briefly between high school and getting married at 19, and was initially hesitant even to read basic news from Yahoo. Vizel told me she at first was interested only in politics, books, and clothes, avoiding anything "that didn't reconfirm my existing beliefs." But online, once she’d started her own anonymous blog, she struck up an email conversation with a Brooklyn rabbi, presumably not Hasidic, who suggested that, contrary to what she'd been taught, she might not be obligated to have as many children as possible, and she might even be morally permitted to use birth control. She was learning, in other words, that she had choices.

“I had a theory that [H]asidic life provided security from infidelity, drugs, violence, loneliness—which made it incredibly valuable,” Vizel, now in her mid-20s, wrote me recently in a series of emailed interviews. “I slowly began to learn about the price we pay.”

Even if the aforementioned Christians are right, though, driving out the atheists and Pagans and occultists is not going to do it. The Internet is everywhere, and all you need to connect these days is a smartphone. The only solution to that I can imagine is for these folks to start their own country and set up nationwide filtering controls on every relay passing through like the Chinese do, and even then that system has proven impractical for completely shutting down unapproved communications. Alternately, they could ban the use of Internet technology by their members, but such a prohibition would likely result in profoud disadvantages navigating the modern world or in some cases even holding down a good job.

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