The New York Times published an article titled, “Ultra-Orthodox Jews Rally to Discuss Risks of Internet” yesterday. I found it interesting for all kinds of reasons. More than 40 000 ultra-orthodox Jewish men filled Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets, to hear, as the article explained,
about a moral topic considered gravely important in their community: the potential problems that can stem from access to pornography and other explicit content on the uncensored, often incendiary Web.
I particularly liked that the event was more a coming together to discuss how to protect themselves from the problems the Internet might bring than their simply being rounded up to hear edicts from their betters.
Another aspect that I, as a non-Jew, appreciate is they came together to discuss solutions for themselves. The article gave no indication that they wanted to save all of us by imposing their restrictions on us, as I can imagine would have been the case had this been a gathering of strident Christians or Muslims.
I was surprised by a quote from 24 year-old Shlomo Cohen of Toronto. He said,
Desires are out there. We have to learn how to control ourselves.
Self-control is certainly the answer, but desires are not ‘out there.’ Desires, both good and bad, are within all of us. The things we want are out there but to externalize the danger is to make it much harder to control. If the desire is not within ourselves, then neither is the fault, should we fail to exercise self-control.
This is but one of the reasons I disagree with how religion vilifies even thinking about things it labels as inappropriate. Even among the ten commandments, Christians are told not to covet anything your neighbour has. It’s certainly not a good idea to fixate on your neighbour’s possessions, or his wife, but I can’t imagine that anyone hasn’t violated this rule in a passing thought. It’s natural and it happens with no ill effect. The only time it goes wrong is when the thinker allows those thoughts to become action.
Hold me responsible for my actions and leave me alone with my thoughts.
I initially questioned the need to set up external barriers to the parts of the Internet that the Jews revile. If they revile them, why would they allow themselves to go there at all? I still question this to a degree but I suspect that at least part of the reasoning involves knowing one’s own limitations.
An example I can give has to do with birthdays. I have a terrible memory for them and with few exceptions, I would forget most people’s birthdays if I relied only on my memory. Does this mean I love the people in my life any less? Indeed, even to this day, I can’t remember the exact day my parents were born. I know the months, and that my mom’s is very early in the month of her birth, but nothing more. I sure as heck do love my parents! I know my weakness so I take an action to make up for my deficit in this area. I have all the birthdays listed in iCal with alarms to remind me in advance. Is this cheating? I’d argue that it is not.
The situation isn’t so black and white with using Internet blocking software to keep themselves away from temptation, but at its core, I believe it’s a matter of knowing one’s own limitations so I understand it. I also respect it because it requires a degree of self-knowledge.
What I don’t respect is taking this too far. Take the ultra-Orthodox practice of separating the sexes when possible. There were 40 000 men at Citi Field. Women could watch from ‘viewing parties’ set up in their neighbourhoods. And of course, watching is not participating.
I found it an interesting article with another example of modern technology causing trouble for beliefs founded long ago.