Reprinted with permission from Arutz Sheva Israel National Radio http://www.IsraelNationalNews.com originally published, with minor changes, in Hatzofeh, Tammuz 8, 5761.
The pronouncement “It is not good for man to be alone” goes beyond a man’s need for a partner. It extends onwards and includes also his need for society and a rich framework of relationships with others. The main medium by which he creates this network is the tool of speech, with the help of other means such as writing and pictures. These tools can be very powerful, but are also potentially dangerous. They can lead to severe sins such as slander and gossip, down to more “minor” problems such as wasting time. Because of these hazards, Jewish law provides guidelines governing the way in which this humanity-defining tool is to be used. These include the laws of embarrassing others, of truth and falsehood, of gossip and slander, and many more. With the development of the Internet and its deep penetration into Jewish homes, the tool that we have been referring to has gained a new form of expression: electronic chatting [conversations with unknown others via the internet]. The tremendous extent to which virtual conversations are now enabled emphasizes our need to relate to the Internet not only as a series of sites and pages, but to view it through spiritual eyes as a new method by which human beings relate with each other.
How Chats Are Different Than Phones.
It might appear that Internet chatting is no different than talking on a telephone, and that no “new” approach need be taken. However, in truth, chats have several aspects that are potentially much more dangerous than any other form of human communication. Among these we can list:
a. False Identity. Most chatters [people who engage in internet chats] do not provide their true identities (see below), but rather take on entirely new identities. This renders the communication a lie from its very inception, leading to hours of falsehood that do not result in the usual benefits of a discussion between friends, but rather increase the feelings of and frustration and loneliness.
b. Purity of Speech: The fact that the chatter does not correctly identify himself allows the breakdown of many natural barriers of modesty and dignity. The public chat rooms are full of vile speech, and even the religious chat rooms are saturated with immodest insinuations and cheap frivolity.
c. Perverts: Many of them spend hours upon hours in attempts to take advantage of the more innocent chatters, and are often able to “overcome” them to a frightening degree. (This is one reason why it is recommended not to divulge identifying characteristics while chatting.)
d. Waste and Loss of Time: Every human interaction diverts one’s attention from important endeavors, but their importance is usually self-evident. However, the time spent in electronic chatting can take much longer than necessary, by its very nature, and often takes place late at night, for reasons of cost and other considerations. We are therefore talking about a “night culture” with many negative side effects, ranging from not getting up in the morning for prayer, study, or work, to “mortgaging” the day for the sake of the night. The shallowness of the discussion, together with the resultant loss of time spent on Torah study, working on one’s character, and doing kindnesses for others, makes the entire endeavor a losing proposition.
Frontal Attack Ruled Out.
On the one hand, the foregoing would appear to require a sweeping Halachic [Jewish legal] ban on the internet altogether, despite all its advantages, along the lines of, “Don’t do me any favors.” However, such a ruling would raise a number of problems:
a. It is problematic to declare “war” on a tool. Halacha generally distinguishes between a tool and its content, or what it is used for. “There is nothing that does not have its hour,” our Sages teach. True, some say that television is bad in its very essence, but this is because of the passivity it elicits. The Internet, however, is a medium for communication, and we would of course never dream of forbidding speaking or writing to others because of the inherent dangers.
b. In the eyes of our children, a ban against chatting would set Jewish Law against “the world,” and would render Halacha only a “forbidding” agent, offering no positive alternative.
c. “Just as it is required to say that which will be heard [accepted], so too it is required not to say that which will not be heard,” teach our Sages. This does not mean that a Halachic authority may issue false rulings, nor may he, on a regular basis, take no stand at all. On the contrary: he must check to see if his rulings are directed only to a small portion of the public, that which will adhere to him, while abandoning the rest of the Halachically-observant public - or whether in fact he aims to reach the entire public. Given the fact that Internet is found in many homes, and that many of our children use it as a tool for social interaction, a sweeping ban would be an invitation to ignore the Halachic rulings of our rabbis. This is partly true in the Charedi sector, where rulings regarding computers are often ignored. We are all in the same boat in this matter. Of course, we must not go to the other extreme, and we must not be afraid to teach that which the Torah demands of us.
Build Up The Good...
So, what must be done in the face of this great challenge? It appears that we must act in two areas. While making it clear that these words are directed only towards those who are already involved in the Internet, it must be apparent that the study of Torah and the other aforementioned goals are of paramount importance. Before considering bans, we must attempt to encourage Internet forums that deal with topics of value, keeping in mind that these can facilitate thoughtful discussion and critical thinking, where each person can contribute to a comprehensive analysis of the issue. The more such channels that exist to deal with topics of interest to our youth, the more they will encourage disgust at the ugliness and shallowness of other channels. Thus, the very medium of social interaction will help our youth to grow spiritually. In addition, chat-rooms with the active participation of counselors, educators, and rabbis should be developed. They can help ensure that the chats deal with truly important topics. This cannot be done by force, of course; in fact, we must start getting used to a world in which freedom reigns and force has barely any use. The more spiritual leadership is felt on the internet, however, the more it can turn into a positive force.
...And Set Guidelines For The Rest.
Once we have established this positive alternative, we can then establish the following Halachic guidelines to safeguard against spiritual shoddiness on the internet:
1. Just as one is not permitted to eat food without Halachic guidelines or Kashrut supervision, so too it is forbidden to enter a chat-room with no supervision. No less important than the care taken regarding what goes into the mouth should be the strictness about what comes out of it. Although similar guidelines cannot be set for private chat-rooms, it is reasonable to assume that wherever the public discourse is on a respectable and “clean” level, this will have an influence on all the participants. If we can establish public discourse of value and interest, the educational value will also be great. We must provide a staff of married yeshiva students and Midrasha [for women] graduates who are willing to take a turn at “running a chat;” this is educational work of the first order.
2. No personal identifying details may be divulged. On the other hand, one must not totally misrepresent himself, as the laws of truth and lying apply here as well. One must identify himself “as is,” except for blatant identifying characteristics.
3. The laws of gossip, slander, shaming others, unclean language, divulging secrets, etc. apply to chats as they do to regular speech. These laws must be reviewed every time a person enters a chat session.
4. Law similar to those forbidding “Yichud” - private meetings between a man and a woman - should be formulated regarding “private chat rooms.” It is hard to define this precisely, and we must not rush into detailed formulations regarding this new area of behavior. It requires hard Halachic decisions by our leading authorities. In the meanwhile, we must use our powers of persuasion to encourage “spiritual elevation” that will determine our behavior in these areas.
5. One who is about to begin a chat must set himself a time limit, and make sure not to exceed it. He must not let himself get carried away, but rather remind himself of the times of prayer and other important works that he must do.
6. “Know G-d in all your ways.” We must emerge from the weakness that allows us to face a given situation and not try to turn it into a spiritual challenge commensurate with our children’s spiritual level. We must know that we are able to draw a line between “forbidden” and “permitted” - though not via precise laws; these can only be handed down for new situations by the leading authorities of the generation. Instead, this is rather a “spiritual direction” that may be able to effect a clean, high-level culture of chatting and internet-use that could turn the Internet into a “sanctification of Hashem’s Name.” We can present this challenge to our children. Our message will be based on presenting an alternative to the present Internet atmosphere, and not on an “inward-turning” that will reduce even more our contact with the world. By formulating principles that will help us navigate between spiritual and moral elevation, and freedom and societal will, we will help “enhance Torah and glorify it.”
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is the head of the Hesder Yeshiva in Petach Tikvah.