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Belz’s Hells

I’m pretty open when it comes to religious observance, but every once in a while, a religious sect or movement elegantly reveals its shocking inner weaknesses. Today Haaretz reports that the Belzer Hassidim, one of the largest ultra-Orthodox movements in Israel, have officially permitted use of the Internet. These movements tend to be extremely strict about allowing their impressionable young scholars and their wives access to the evils of the outside world, such as pornography, and have accordingly banned televisions and, more recently, the use of MP4 players. But the Internet poses a difficult problem: There are, after all, many people who depend on it to make a living, and, well, one has to make a living. So they’ve allowed it, in a limited way, for people who need it for work.

What caught my eye, however, was how one ultra-Orthodox commentator defended the Belzers’ reluctance to permit internet use:

The problem is that exposure to pornography can occur very quickly… I’m not talking about people who are looking for it, but about those who are not. Innocent people. It happens by chance: A fellow of 30, married and the father of children, suddenly sees naked girls and all the rest. This is tragic, because his world collapses in an instant. He is not prepared for this psychologically and emotionally. But even without pornography, there’s a problem because our public is curious, and this is a world of information to which a person can become addicted.

Where to begin? I guess the most obvious question is: What kind of religious worldview is so flimsy that it “collapses in an instant” at the sight of a naked woman? All along Ihad assumed that religious leaders were worried about corrupting their children, about desensitizing them to sexuality, about contributing to the abuse of women — all of which I believe to be legitimate reasons to oppose porn, and all of which I have heard presented in a traditional Jewish context. But instead it turns out that for the Belzers, even their married adult males are so weak in spiritual composure that just a flash of flesh is enough to undo decades of Torah study. And then there’s the quote’s final line: You see, our public is curious, so it is extremely important that we cut off access to the root causes of Information Addiction. As though curiosity were a vice, and ignorance its cure.

In Israel, many of these communities suffer from poverty and the inability to gain basic competencies necessary to support themselves, living instead on a combination of handouts from wealthy bretheren abroad and transfer payments from Israeli taxpayers. In some of these communities, awful crimes, such as domestic violence and sexual abuse, go unreported for fear of letting the authorities into their world. Their leaders lock their flocks into limited lives and perspectives, controlling their information flow and keeping them at bay, without necessarily giving them a better life in return. And they study the Torah, study it and study it, for all is in it. But if the end product is spiritual weakness, intellectual stiltedness, and material impoverishment, what can we say about their understanding of the divine? Is this Judaism?



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