Religion & Technology (Ultra-Orthodox Judaism and the Internet)

Much (most?) of the press about the recent rally at Citi Field Stadium by ultra-orthodox Jews focused on its “anti-modern” “strangeness” by highlighting [1] the exclusion of woment from the event and [2] expressions of extreme rejection of the internet by parts of the community. Combining the worst ethnographic tradition with journalistic sensationalism, so many of the photographs that appeared in the press seemed as if meant to animate the exotic angle of the story. “Look at these strange, scary, awful people!” (How then is one to photograph “these people”? This is not a trick question. There’s no easy answer. Maybe give them cameras and let them photograph themselves [as per Margaret Olin in Touching Photographs, chp. 5])

For a far more nuanced discussion, see Jennie Rothenberg Gritz’s interview in The Atlantic with Eytan Kobre, the organizer of the rally. The discussion is incredibly intelligent, proving that there is much more to this story about religion, orthodoxy, modernity, and technology than meets the eye. Like Kobre, I also think the internet is a great thing in general and a great thing for Judaism, even as I share many of the same concerns about the internet re: the flatness of the medium and the atomization of attention and consciousness.

Alas, a great many of the prejudicially anti-orthodox online commentators very obviously missed this nuance. For them, the story was all and only about the extreme insularity of ultra-orthodox Judaism. But I guess that too is part of the story –the reactionary stupidity of some-many ostensibly liberal secular people. What I like about the interview is the conversation between two “actual” people, not types or binary bits.

As for the photograph, my favorite part is the bright blue line of color of the advertisment banner streaking over the neat black garbed rows of men.

I selected this bit from the interview. :

The Internet is obviously a very modern invention. Is there anything in Jewish law that gives some sense of how to deal with it?

I don’t think we’re looking to mine the ancient tradition to develop a response to this. We don’t need to get the big rabbis with the long gray beards to open the giant tomes to tell us how to deal with Google and Facebook. We want to be very contemporary, to listen to what psychologists are telling us and proceed from there. And yet we’re being characterized as ultra-Orthodox Jews gathering at CitiField for an anti-Internet prayer rally. That’s the story reporters like to fall back on.

I think it can be hard for people to think in terms of nuance when they’re looking at a stadium full of men who are all wearing identical black coats.

Let’s parse that for a moment. What we’re saying here is, “I’m looking at a picture of people I’ve never met. And on the basis of the most external and superficial of indices — the beards, the color of clothing, the monochromatic nature of it — I’m making a value judgment about the sophistication of their thoughts and the depth of their feelings.”

It’s also that you’re dressing the same way your 18th century ancestors did, which implies that you’re rejecting the modern world.

There may be elements of truth to that. But the irony is that hipsters all dress a certain way, and the whole point is to dress entirely different from everyone else. Orthodox Jews actually have the courage to dress the same way as 500,000 of their brethren. They’re the ones who challenge people by asking, “Are you deep enough to look beyond my garb and relate to me as a thinking individual?” In contrast, the hipster buys into the most external of indicators: that which is immediately apparent to the eye.

We’ve spoken about the ways the Internet undermines religious life. Are there any ways it can actually deepen religious experience?

Absolutely. The blessings of the Internet are astounding. Take Friday night candle lighting time — you can look that up online. Thousands of people all over the world have had their first Shabbat experiences by finding hosts on And there are sites like and, with dozens of newly authored articles and videos each week. There’s — 50,000 Torah books at your fingertips. It’s phenomenal, wonderful. I could go on for hours in praise of the Internet in the service of Judaism.

But this is really about a cost-benefit analysis. We may find out we can’t have 50,000 Torah books at our fingertips and also be protected from pornography. The other alternative — which I believe is probably what we will find — is that these two things need not be mutually exclusive. But if we find out that they are, I’m absolutely going to forgo the 50,000 Hebrew books online. I’ll go to my local Yeshiva, where they’re all on the shelves anyway.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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7 Responses to Religion & Technology (Ultra-Orthodox Judaism and the Internet)

  1. mads says:

    I don’t care what they’re wearing. What distresses me is the absence of women. Why are we considered fearsome and dangerous? Why can men’s and women’s modesty not be preserved during what the rest of us consider normal contact in society?

    • zjb says:

      Sure, that’s obviously part of the story. But to reduce the story to ultra-orthodox anti-modernism is to miss the way in which this is a very modern movement. I don’t have to like it. But I’d like to put a human face on it.

      • mads says:

        What? Fifty one percent of the world is not human?
        Run little girls, run run run across the bridge.

      • zjb says:

        hi mads: of course you’re right. but the fact that they (the little girls) don’t (run across the bridge) says something about the workings of impacted social forms like the ultra-orthodox. also, i’m not sure they could afford the rents or real estate in secular manhattan. that too is part of the picture, yes?

  2. palmsundae says:

    You think the mass media is too harsh in exoticizing these men as part of their info-tainment business. Maybe the media are not harsh enough? How can anyone justify an all-male “educational” event about technology and contemporary life? How can these “religious” people seek self-government outside civic laws (like not reporting child molesters to the police) while at other times lobbying to deny other people’s civil rights (such as marriage equality)? You also didn’t mention that the rally was sponsored by a web filtering company that markets to the ultra-Orthodox. I feel no sympathy at all.

  3. zjb says:

    No, with all due respect, neither you nor Mads are getting it. It’s not that I don’t agree with both of you on the counts you raise in your posts against “the ultra-orthodox community,” although I have to suspect that this too is something of an “invented construct.” At any rate, my interest in the interview at the Atlantic was not about “sympathy” or suspending criticism. I was only interested in the interviewee’s take on technology and the internet, and the more nuanced and complex things it highlights about the ultra-orthodox community. That’s all. I don’t see how listening to what other people, even prejudiced people, means having to assent to anything. But nor do I see how listening to “such people” should draw such prejudice from readers who pride themselves on not being prejudiced. On this point, I found what the interviewee had to say was interesting. On other points, I wouldn’t and I havn’t (as per my remarks about the recent sex abuse scandal with the Brooklyn DA’s office). That a web filter company sponsored the event makes the phenomenon at hand (ultra-orthodoxy, contemporary modernity, anti-modern modernity, anti-postmodern postmodernism) even more complex.

  4. hayyim rothman says:

    i agree with zack to the extent that all other considerations aside, it is necessary to listen to others so as to understand what they actually think. how is one to oppose it or criticize it if one does not even understand what it is? beyond that, the voices in the orthodox community on this issue are extremely divergent. the biggest complaint i have heard is that there was no clear message offered. people spoke about the topic but speakers were far from consensus in terms of the practical implications. really what it comes down to is that each community/institution will make its own standards, which is exactly what went on prior to the event.

    as to the larger issues, what i find most disturbing is not the absence of women, not the lack of any comparable event to confront abuse, not the fact that this event was sponsored by an internet filtering company, but that the primary concern expressed there was about restricting access to information about the community itself. its not about porn or secular culture, its about preventing people from sharing information about their own communities and, in doing so, create the conditions for informed critique of all the other issues raised above. if people dont even know about abuse allegations because is filtered out, for example, then how is working to stop it and reform community institutions even conceivable?

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