The Yated Ne’eman, the chareidi weekly newspaper published in English in America, has a very worthwhile weekly feature called “The Chinuch Roundtable.” The “Roundtable” consists of a panel of seven to nine prominent educators who respond to questions posted by parents on chinuch, or educational matters. Very often, the questions hit upon vital child-rearing principles.
Last week’s question hit a bull’s eye. You may recall that nearly ten years ago, when the Internet was becoming increasingly popular, the chareidi community – yeshivish and chasidish – arranged an “asifah,” a huge gathering, in Citi Field and simultaneously in Arthur Ashe Stadium, to denounce the use of the Internet or smartphones under any circumstances. Some speakers went so far as to say that if any parent is found to use the Internet, even for business purposes, their children should not be allowed into yeshivos.
No doubt the concern was genuine. Many marriages were broken, many kids were lost, and many homes were shattered due the lures of the Internet. Many chareidim considered the Internet an invasion of secular society into their insular frum homes.
In a way, the attention paid to the ravages of the Internet by that community was laudable. However, anyone with a little foresight knew that banning the Internet outright was not doable. It was inevitable for those organizations and yeshivos to violate their own policies. It would also result in their setting themselves up to be viewed as hypocrites by students and lay people alike.
With the outbreak of the coronavirus, a number of yeshivos dug in their heels and refused to allow their students to join Zoom-based virtual learning. Only phone-based studying was permitted. The cost of missed learning opportunities was incalculable. They knew they looked silly doing so, but they had no choice. In the meantime, every frum mosad has a website and desktops in each office. Almost every institution has resorted to raising money via virtual dinners and concerts.
Last week’s Chinuch Roundtable questioner nailed it. The parents stated that they have always followed the p’sak of the g’dolim who ruled against the Internet and smartphones. “How do we explain to our children why there are so many yeshivos encouraging people to join them online [for virtual events] if we have been forever teaching and showing our children that it’s best to stay away from the Internet?”
You almost had to feel sorry for the panelists responding. Remember Ralph Kramden of the 1950s’ “Honeymooners” reacting when he was caught in a real bind? “Homina homina homina!” he would stammer. This is basically how they expressed themselves. Rabbi Yechiel Spero put it most succinctly: “Truthfully, I don’t have a good answer for you. I’m not sure there really is a good answer.”
Most of the respondents said that we have no choice today and must understand that just as there are some who do not eat gebrokts on Pesach, there are those who do, and we must respect all sides in this issue.
The problem is that there was no clear declaration by the g’dolim as to what is permissible to follow on the Internet and what is not. It became one of those Wild West areas of halachah.
Are we indeed Reform Jews, allowing halachic practices to adapt to the current times? The Chazal in Pirkei Avos (1:11) warned us: “Scholars, be cautious with your words, as any misunderstanding could lead to disaster.”
We find that with many issues today, such as the need to take COVID precautions, vaccinations for all types of diseases, opening or closing shuls and yeshivos, etc., not every decree is measured and considered upon pronouncement. But are we reforming halachah to adapt to time-driven realities?
Interestingly, before World War II, Agudath Israel was virulently anti-Zionist, as were followers of “Torah and Derech Eretz” of Rav Hirsch zt”l. Once the Holocaust ravaged European Jewry and the State of Israel became a reality, things changed. The Agudah’s g’dolim faced this new reality, and the Agudah joined in the signing of Israel’s Declaration of Independence (represented by the Gerer Rebbe’s son-in-law Rav Yitzchak Meir Levin). Halachah did not change. Reality did. The g’dolim of the time had the fortitude to deal with the new circumstances.
We are decidedly not Reform Jews. We do not tailor the Torah and halachah to meet the new times. We do not toss time-honored Jewish values or ignore explicit verses in the Torah. Like Hillel and his Prozbul (Sabbatical loan upholding document), we create the mechanisms that allow the Torah to be followed faithfully but with the new reality being acknowledged.
This could have been a blueprint for the answer in dealing with the Roundtable question. The problem is there was no clear guidance at the outset of the Internet discussion, nor was there any clear guidance as new realities presented themselves. Indeed, there was no clear guidance regarding the chareidi initial response to the coronavirus, and neither is there as the disease begins to wane, baruch Hashem. This leaves poor spokespeople like our mechanchim left to squirm for answers in dealing with the questions. That is an avoidable shame.
Kol HaKavod to the Yated for publicizing this hot-topic issue!
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.