Recent news stories about wedding witnesses disqualified for their smartphones and a rabbi-led iPhone smashing ceremony need not generate feelings of alienation among moderates. We all need to remember a simple message: Even a united global Torah community has sub-communities with different customs and standards. What works for some people may be totally inappropriate for us. However, responsible Internet usage is a universally obligation, even if it takes different forms in different communities.
Over the past few months, Torah leaders have reminded us that filters are not enough for a kosher online experience. While someone with enough time and skill can always bypass a filter, even those with no such desire or ability need more. Filters, at their best, keep out the shmutz and other inappropriate websites. Frum Jews have a higher standard than that. As we rapidly transition to a digital age, we have to remember that people are still people and the Torah is still our guide.
R. Mordechai Kamenetsky tells the story of people paying a shivah call to his grandfather, Reb Yaakov. The large crowd required additional chairs. As individuals went to the basement to bring chairs, Reb Yaakov encouraged them to take a chair for someone else. In that way, he explained, you can turn a simple necessary act into an act of chesed. We, too, can raise our time online from a necessary chore into a mitzvah, an opportunity to help others spiritually.
Calls for restricting Internet usage to business needs will fail. We increasingly accomplish our household needs online. We not only shop, pay our bills, file our insurance claims and the like on the Internet but we also learn online about medical symptoms, home maintenance, travel destinations and much more. Information has been overwhelmingly transferred to the Internet, which has in turn become the primary information resource for our everyday lives. If you want to know a museum’s hours for a summer Sunday family trip, you check its website. If you need directions to a wedding hall, you use Google Maps. And if you want to know whether New York State vehicular law allows a u-turn from the right lane, you search for it online.
More than that, Torah sails through the cyberwaves in previously unimaginable ways. Some yeshivas place recordings of every single shiur online so alumni and others can learn from their rabbeim. I can access literally hundreds of thousands of hours, perhaps millions, of high-level shiurim on my smartphone. One website provides the entire text of Tanach, Mishnah, Tosefta, Talmud Bavli, Yerushalmi and Mishneh Torah. Another contains tens of thousands of sefarim for free download. Ten years ago, I was a frequent visitor of the New York Public Library’s collection of obscure sefarim in Midtown Manhattan. Now I just download them onto my iPad. The process of learning has not changed but the method of accessing texts and classes has, particularly for those who have left yeshiva.
Time Is Precious
We cannot avoid the Internet so we must embrace it with basic guidelines. In addition to the filters and image blockers we install, three Torah principles must stand at the forefront of our minds. The first is bitul zman, wasting time. Everyone needs down time to relax, shmooze, recharge your batteries and allow for random thought association. We are more creative when our minds have some time to expand beyond our normal corridors of thought.
But beware of the Internet time hole. Websites make money by keeping you online for long stretches of time. The easiest way to counter that effort is keeping a log of how much time you spend online each day, outside of work-related activity. Hashem gave you enough common sense to know that spending hours on end each night engaged in leisure activity is simply wrong. It is a waste of your short time in this world. When you keep a log, you gain the power to make informed decisions about how best to spend your time.
Second is tznius. While we often speak of tznius in terms of how we dress, we know that it also applies to how we act. Filters and image blockers can remove pictures that fail our standards of modesty but our conscience must guide our interactions with others. Your online interpersonal conduct must follow the same high standards as your offline public interactions. The language you use, the aggressiveness you exhibit and the intimacy of your interactions with others on the Internet must demonstrate your best behavior. Oversharing, flirting or developing close relationships with members of the opposite gender are just as inappropriate online as off.
Every interaction we have with others, particularly in public, is an opportunity to make a Kiddush Hashem. With nearly the entire civilized world active on the Internet, your time online is just such an opportunity. Whenever you are online, regardless of which website you are visiting, try to make a Kiddush Hashem. Act with sterling midos, show respect to others, let the whole world know that you and your community–Hashem’s chosen people–serve as positive role models.
You are smart enough to know that even when you are correct, insulting others will offend. You know that honey attracts more than a sting. When you are online, you are in public and need to be the honey that attracts people to the Torah. You must demonstrate that the Torah refines people into exemplary individuals worthy of emulation.
The three Torah concepts we discussed are only some of the many that should guide your Internet use. Most importantly, you have to realize your obligation to rise above the chaos of the Internet, just like your offline behavior rises above levels exhibited on the city street. We must not only avoid improper online behavior but actively show the beauty of a Torah lifestyle. In doing so, we raise our Internet activities into mitzvah acts, spreading Hashem’s glory across the world.
Rabbi Gil Student blogs at TorahMusings.com and maintains a website dedicated to responsible frum Internet usage, InternetInJewishHome.com.