A few months back, one of my columns explored the ways in which the introduction of electricity in late-19th- and early-20th-century America affected religious ritual — unquestionably for the better. The impact of the very latest technology, from the Internet to third-generation cell phones, on American Jewish life of the 21st-century appears to be far more complicated, especially for those deeply pious American Jews determined to hold the outside world at bay. The relationship between the two is so complicated, in fact, that “kosher cell phones” have recently come on the market, catering to the haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, consumer.
Many of us know of or have interacted with Hasidim who own and operate large-scale businesses that sell computers, cell phones, cameras and sophisticated electronics. We’ve also heard of or actually seen cell phones whose ring tone is a Hasidic nigun and cell phones rigged to beep when it’s time to mark the Sabbath or daven mincha or ma’ariv, the afternoon and evening prayers. But a “kosher cell phone”? What manner of creature is that?
In much the same way that the designations “kosher” and “treyf” are used to refer not only to ritually acceptable foodstuffs but also to socially acceptable or unacceptable forms of behavior, these designations are now being publicly applied to the latest forms of technology as well. Advertisements placed recently in Der Yid and Der Blatt, two of the Satmar community’s Yiddish newspapers, made clear in strong and unequivocal language that only certain cell phones were acceptable: those that bore the rabbinic endorsement, the hekhsher, of the Vaad Harabanim Le Inyenei Tikshoret, the Rabbinic Commission on Communications. And what kind of cell phones might those be? Those that eliminate many of the features of the “third-generation” phone. On the rabbinically approved phone, there’s no Internet, no camera, no text-messaging options. A “kosher cell phone” is one that resembles nothing so much as, well, a phone. What’s more, calls are limited to those within the network of other “kosher cell phone” users who, as it happens, are readily identifiable by the sequencing of their phone numbers.
For the members of the Satmar and other likeminded, tightly knit religious communities, then, technology is fine, but only up to a point. Pass that point and it becomes not just suspect but downright dangerous, even illicit.
Much the same can be said of the Internet. A source of parnasa, of livelihood, for many observant Jews, as well as a vehicle of community — why, there are even online Hasidic courts or hofyn (see, for instance, www.rebbe.org/index.html) — the net is also a potential source of temptation, exposing its users to unsettlingly new and unfamiliar people, ideas and sensibilities. To make sure that doesn’t happen, or at least not too often, a universe of filters, from Jnet with its logo of a butterfly net to YeshivaNet, which boasts of “decapita[ting] the internet,” has emerged, offering a new form of consumer protection. Contractual and consensual rather than coercive, these filters work together with individual clients to design a system that, on the one hand, prevents unbridled access to potentially nettlesome sites such as YouTube, Google and MySpace and that, on the other, affords limited, customized access to the Gap and other seemingly more benign venues such as banks.
What’s at stake here is not simply distrust of the modern world, although that surely has something to do with it. What’s at stake, as the work of Samuel Heilman, Edward Portnoy and Nathaniel Deutsch make vividly clear, is the relationship between the individual and the community. Whether it’s the haredi yeshiva world of Lakewood, N.J., and Baltimore, Md., or the Hasidic world of New Square, N.Y., and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the community and its conventions reign supreme. The Internet, however, stands that on its head. In its erasure of boundaries and its embrace — and even occasional reinvention — of the self, this technology celebrates the individual. When seen from this perspective, it’s hard not to think of the Internet as a mixed blessing.