The average home attendance for the New York Mets this year has been 27,683. On Sunday, Citi Field drew 40,000—almost full capacity. Why? Not baseball, but religious radicals who think the internet is a dangerous, mortal evil that has the power to destroy families through free speech. And of those 40,000 in attendance, not a single woman was to be found.
Godliness is often at odds with a web full of porn and piracy, but it's usually the pot-clanging of the Christian right—cultural warfare of Jewish Orthodoxy rarely takes the stage. But what a stage it took! The protest against the internet went on for over seven hours, at a reported organizational cost of $1.5 million. They rented an entire major league stadium. Under broiling sun, tens upon tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews, bused in from across state lines, rallied to denounce an existential threat to both their community and the swell name of God himself: the internet.
Why? It depends who you asked. Most attendees were unsure exactly why they were attending, but for the protesters, the answer is simple: knowledge is dangerous, and therefore, so is the internet.
According to the Guard Your Eyes organization, the so-called "number one resource for dealing with the growing problem of the struggle with/addiction to inappropriate materials on the Internet," more men struggle to "break free of lust related behaviors" than women. (But divorce is not a "proper solution" for the wives of porn addicts because "temptations are so great, it is easy for a man to get hooked.") It's easy to see why the Orthodox community would be puzzled at the idea of porn-loving women, because that would imply that women are sexual beings, a theory that doesn't fly in a community where women who are menstruating are considered so impure that they are forbidden to touch even their husbands. (And men and women who are not married or related are prohibited from touching at all.) So when the Hasidic community pushed to ban women from the Asifa (Yeshivish for "gathering") because the stadium could not be divided for men and women as according to custom, few people complained.
The men we talked to weren't certain what they would learn at the Asifa, but they knew vaguely what they'd be warned against — as well as what they feared. Some frowned at the popularity of online dating, and its potential to lead Jewish women — who were invited to watch a livestream over the you-know-what — to marry outside the faith. Almost all cited online porn and its tendency to directly cause molestation, rape, addiction, abduction, infidelity, and virtually every other moral perversion — a risk about which we were previously unaware. When we asked one young man, who had shown up to the rally because his rabbi had ordered him to, if he'd ever looked at porn online, he smiled and said nothing. "You have, haven't you!" His face firmed up and he assured us he had never, but did use the open internet to help manage a catering business.
We tried to get behind the gates—with tickets purchased online well in advance, but were abruptly told that our space was no longer available, ex post facto. A later attempt to purchase scalped tickets on eBay — in what was perhaps the most ironic online auction in history, given the event's purpose — also failed.
But of course, the holy words drifted outside the ticketed male-only audience via Twitter, as all things do. Rabbis told the crowd an unfiltered internet was "strictly forbidden," that anyone who uses the internet without software censorship in place was violating holy rules, and that "internet is a fire that burns a person's body and soul." Influential figures from Israel phoned in with even more draconian edicts: the internet should be banned entirely at home, with its use permitted only where absolutely necessary for business, as modern life requires. Any family breaking these rules ought to have their children shunned from schools.
This is the stuff of the dark ages.
It was a common refrain: a free internet for the office, but a fettered one at home, where women, children, and tempted men would be safe from the perils of OK Cupid and PornHub. But bare tits and bad words were just the most libidinous terrors—as argued by one Orthodox (online) newspaper, Voz Iz Neias, the internet offers an unprecedented outlet for "Chilul Hashem" a term used to describe an act that casts shame on God, the Torah, or the Jewish community. (Think about the saga of Bernie Madoff, or this post itself.)
How do you stop that? Stop people from speaking their minds. Prevent, in the words of one Brooklyn dentist we chatted with, "unadulterated freedom," which he referred to gravely as the cause of the internet's power to ruin.
"We're not here to fight against the internet," said 20-year-old Joe, who huddled with a few baby-faced friends, taking pictures of the Anonymous protests with their cellphones. "We're fighting against the wrong use of the internet." For Joe, this means pornography and social media sites, which he believes are bad for marriage because they encourage men to cheat. "We're trying to guard ourselves from traps," he explained. Most of Joe's friends don't have wives yet — they are only 19, after all — but plan to find some within the next few years. "Marriage is marriage," Joe said. "Why would you want to tempt yourself to stray?" The men who had wives said they were dutifully watching from schools and event halls back at home. "If the women came here, who would babysit?" asked 20-year-old Pachtman. "It's as simple as that."
For the protesters, the message was clearer: it's way worse to bring shame upon your community than it is to talk about the underlying problems within it.
Near an underpass outside the stadium, a few dozen protesters, mostly former Orthodox Jews, held signs with slogans like "GOD would never have a statute of limitations on sexual abuse" and "The Internet Never Molested Me." They were there to speak out against the lack of education in the Orthodox community — ultra-conservative boys traditionally abandon math and english to devote all of their time to studying the Talmud after they turn 13, and women don't continue their learning much further — and to call attention to what some allege is a rampant amount of child sexual abuse. The latter is an extremely sore subject for religious Jews, as evidenced just last week, when thousands of Hasidim gathered at a fundraiser for a Brooklyn-area man accused of molesting a young woman — his former therapy patient — and clashed with her supporters outside the event.
Some of the anti-Asifa protesters were from advocacy groups like Yaffed, an organization working towards improving educational curricula within ultra-Orthodox schools, while others, like the 29-year-old woman behind the blog Boxed Whine, simply wanted to come out and show support. "Oh, no," she said multiple times when asked if she would be photographed. "My mother would kill me."
Deborah Feldman, a feisty 25-year-old who grew up in the Satmar sect of Hasidic Judiasm and the author of Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, was not afraid to stand out. "[The Hasidim] feel like these issues should be kept quiet," she said. "They think it makes us look bad. And it does make us look bad, which is why we have to change and not keep quiet."
Feldman said she finally gathered the courage to leave the community after she had a son, because she was worried he would be abused, but her book covers all kinds of taboo topics, from insistence on "marital purity" to militant rhetoric; growing up, she was told that God sent Hitler to Jews for assimilating. Her book — the ultimate Chilul Hashem — has inspired death threats from her family members.
"The Internet scares the Orthodox community because, with it, they can't control how much people educate themselves," Feldman said. "Without the internet, people are trapped in the community because they have no tools to communicate or survive outside. Education is the key to freedom." She said women were banned because the men are "terrified of women," which is another reason why she broke out. "They are threatened by women because women tell them to sin," she said. "But people are tempted to cheat because of their own impulses, not because of Facebook or Twitter. They're in denial."
While men in traditional Orthodox garb filed into Citi Field as steadily as a never-ending line of ants approaching an anthill, Feldman encouraged her fellow protesters to tweet about the rally with the hashtag, "#nottheproblem." Shortly before the Asifa began, she exchanged loud words with a man outside of the stadium, a spectacle that attracted both Orthodox jews, protesters, and press, who huddled around to listen.
"To me, all you gathering here to protest an unstoppable force instead of educating your parents seems a little bit ridiculous when you have other problems to focus on," Feldman argued. When someone asked who she was, a Hasidic boy nearby rolled his eyes. "Deborah Feldman," he said. "Google her."
Illustration by Jim Cooke