| Text Messages |

Getting Our Lives Back

The initial framing of the Internet issue has skewed the ensuing communal conversation

It’s exactly nine years since the “Asifa” convened at New York’s Citi Field stadium to address Internet use by Orthodox Jews. In the weeks leading up to it, I remarked in these pages about the very unusual nature of such an event, writing,  “men, women, and children will do something simply unheard of in our society — they’ll come together en masse to get serious about life, and they’ll do it in, of all places, a Temple of High Unseriousness.”

Following the Asifa, I wrote that it had “placed the issue of how to respond to technology’s onslaught front and center on the agenda of every Orthodox Jew across the religious spectrum. Modern Orthodox rabbis are issuing guidance to their congregations in response to the many inquiries they’ve been receiving post-Asifa. Websites... are featuring discussions of effective filters and safe computer use. Whatever one’s view of the Asifa… it is the talk of the Orthodox town. And all this would never have come to pass had the strategy been, as some had counseled, to simply hold numerous community gatherings on the topic, instead of one huge, audacious, impossible-to-ignore Asifa.”

But with the passage of years and the ever-greater entrenchment of the Internet in our lives, I wonder whether that Asifa could have taken place today.

But why the need for it, anyway? Haven’t we been winning the battle to some extent? Less than two years ago, I wrote here that although “It can be hard for the average frum Jew to accurately gauge whether the battle is being won or lost… vis-à-vis the never-ending, ever-multiplying challenges that technology poses for us… in fact, there are successes, many of them, involving many people and important institutions in frum life.” I went on to detail two of them, at such different points on the communal spectrum as Modern Orthodox Camp Morasha and Agudath Israel of America.

Right from the outset of the frum community’s engagement with the Internet, two suppositions took deep root in the public consciousness and have yet to be dislodged. First, that the overriding threat it poses is exposure to illicit sites, and second, that we must come to terms with the Internet as a reality that will only become ever more impossible to live without.

This initial framing of the issue has skewed the ensuing communal conversation. All these many years later, the two truisms that have been with us since the inception are still looked upon as true: That the danger of the Internet is about “inappropriate images,” and that efforts to significantly curtail its ubiquity within our midst are hopelessly quixotic. That’s why although many battles have been won, such as widespread use of filters, the overall tide of the war has yet to turn.

And thus do we have a situation almost without parallel, in which on the one hand, the gedolei Torah to whom we look for guidance in matters large and small remain virtually unanimous in describing entanglement in the Web as our generation’s greatest spiritual challenge and in calling for far-reaching measures to, for example, banish it from the Jewish home and make its use by adolescents unthinkable. Yet their words are honored mostly in the breach, as the Internet has become ever more an unmovable reality.

Both when I served as liaison for the Asifa’s organizers disseminating its message to the worldwide media and on multiple occasions in this space, I’ve tried to make the case that the first of those truisms isn’t true, and as a consequence, neither is the other.


The Internet assaults us as humans and as Jews. It both removes us from the world we’re meant to dwell in while also dragging us into a world in which we really don’t belong. The mishnah in Avos speaks of kinah, taavah, and kavod as things that are motzi’in es ha’adam min ha’olam — that remove man from the world, because in the throes of pursuit of honor or lust, a person actually detaches from reality. And sustained Internet use — the kind that now has more than half of Americans spending more than half their waking lives in virtual Internet worlds — does precisely the same.

We’re gifted with hearts capable of embracing every person we meet and experiencing so much joy from everything we observe around us, with minds capable of grasping so much depth and learning and growing from every experience we have. Yet we allow all of the richness of life lived in the real world to be reduced to what fits into the little box we hold in our hands.

Cows at pasture look down, at the grass that is the whole of their reality at that moment. People are meant to look up, at the heavens and oceans stretching on without end, at Hashem’s ineffably beautiful world, at the tzelem Elokim of every face we encounter. As we look around us, in line at the bakery and bank, on the park benches as their kids romp and play, at shul waiting for Minchah to begin, do we see people looking up, or down?

Then there’s a world we’re not sucked out of, but into. It’s a world that’s not ours, a non-Jewish one, of news, shopping, and entertainment (the kosher kind, of course), and much else, into which an Internet user is slowly, ineluctably pulled. It celebrates heroes we don’t recognize for feats we don’t value, it makes us buy things we don’t need and shouldn’t want, and laugh at things that ought to embarrass and perturb us.

And the damage is incremental but long term. As MIT professor Sherry Turkle observed, “the little devices most of us carry around are so powerful that they change not only what we do, but also who we are.” We might take umbrage at being referred to as assimilating Jews — that’s our unfortunate Reform brethren, not us. Sorry, folks: the Reform have long been fully liquefied in the American melting pot, and now it’s we who are slowly acclimating ourselves to that cauldron, in no small part due to those “powerful little devices” we carry around.

Back in the 1960s, gedolei Torah waged a battle to render treif the presence of television in a frum home. Happily, they largely succeeded. But now, a half century on, while there are televisions and movie theaters in nary an Orthodox living room, they can be found in many a frum pocket.


Every person has his red line of acceptability, which is crossed when he realizes that things he thought he could never live without are actually things that as a Jew and as a human being he can’t live with. Once we redirect the misdirected Internet conversation so that it doesn’t revolve exclusively around “inappropriate images” but around the most precious commodity there is — life itself, in quantity and quality — we will know what we need to do. We will refuse to see ourselves any longer as helpless in the face of the digital juggernaut.

The eitz hada’as offered temptations of every kind, physically, aesthetically, and intellectually. Its fruit was succulent to the palate, enticing in appearance and desirous for the mind. But at the crucial moment of truth, the Serpent succeeded in diverting Chava’s attention from the one truth that could make her decide she could — she must — live without its fruit: That the price to be paid was life itself, since G-d had declared that partaking of it would make her life forfeit.

Were we to regard the Internet, too, as a modern-day Serpent beckoning us enticingly to surrender our very lives, we would treat it with the extreme care of a snake handler, not the insouciance (or loving devotion) of a poodle owner. We might keep it in a box to be removed and used when needed, not on our belts to reach for reflexively every other moment. I don’t underestimate the individual and communal will this will take, but neither do I accept the defeatism of those who claim it is futile to try.

The Asifa succeeded brilliantly in putting Internet use on the perpetual communal agenda. Its ongoing ripple effects have inspired countless Jews to restore kedushah and taharah in their lives and spare them from the fate of the innumerable korbanos the Internet has claimed.

Now we need a second Asifa, to give us back our lives, and to debunk the myth that it can’t be done.


Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 862. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com


Oops! We could not locate your form.