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Internet Filtration at YU

An article in the previous issue of The Commentator addressed administrative efforts to block student access to pornography. The author wrote, “student reactions to news of impending filtration have been pointed,” and he justified this assertion with numerous quotes from angry students. However, it seems that the author and the students he quoted have failed to make a critical evaluation of the administration’s decision.

The article could have argued that pornography is not a widespread problem, and thus does not deserve the administration’s attention. Presumably, this argument was not made because it is simply not true. In one nationally representative poll, 77 percent of Americans said they viewed pornography at least once in a 30-day period. Pornography is a multi-billion dollar industry and comprises over 10 percent of the Internet.1 The Jewish community in general, and YU in particular, is not immune to its influence. Indeed, the article describes how YU Arevim, a group of students struggling with pornography addiction, brought the issue to the administration’s attention. If further confirmation of the scope of the problem is necessary, one may consult any shul rabbi or mental health professional. They can surely provide first-hand knowledge of marriages destroyed and relationships wrecked because of pornography addiction.

The article also could have argued that viewing pornography is not a serious halakhic violation and that pornography addiction does not incur serious spiritual harm. I suppose this argument was not made because it is ludicrous. It is obvious that pornography is halakhically prohibited and inimical to Torah values.2

Thus, the article implicitly acknowledges that pornography addiction is both a serious problem, and a violation of halakhah. So what ostensibly substantive arguments remain to be made against YU filtering the Internet? The article contains several, but each demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the issue and an estrangement from basic Torah values.

The first argument is implicit in the title, “Rabbi Yona Reiss Unveils Plan for Internet Censorship.” Censorship is certainly distasteful to many students, but it is completely irrelevant to the issue at hand. Even if YU students would have the right to free and full access to information, it is a mistake to refer to Internet filtering as censorship. Issues involving censorship have arisen previously between students and the administration, and The Commentator has served as a forum to discuss the issues. Each time, the dispute has revolved around what students perceived as efforts to limit their freedom of expression, intellectual development, or access to controversial speakers. None of these is a valid justification on the basis of which one may protest YU’s plans to filter Internet access. Pornography is crude and obscene content that lacks any justifiable intellectual value. The article misuses the word ‘censorship,’ and cheapens its value for the students genuinely concerned about its implication in other contexts.

Another student in the article argues, “Rather than confronting and addressing the very troubling core issues underlying the fact that so much pornography is watched in the dorms, this seems to be a way for the institution to sweep a disturbing phenomenon under rug.” This is puzzling. It’s true that addressing the core issues is important, but that does not create an argument against filtering. Addressing the underlying causes is not mutually exclusive to addressing the proximate cause of pornography’s easy availability. When someone carelessly crashes their car and injures himself, is the paramedic’s first response to offer a lecture about the importance of safe driving? No, he first treats the person’s injuries. The lecture can wait until later. The same principle applies to the problem of pornography.

However, there is a more serious problem with the arguments made by the author and the students he quotes: their fundamental and perhaps deliberate ignorance of the basic Torah principles that inform the administration’s decision in this matter. One student argues, “The University’s decision is a gross encroachment on students’ personal lives, an authoritarian disregard for student rights, and yet another example of the absurd influence the roshei yeshiva have on University policy.3 Ironically, the public intrusion on students’ private sexual practices is itself a lewd and tasteless action – unfit for a university’s administration.” This student does not assert that pornography is not harmful, halakhically prohibited, or spiritually destructive. Instead, he appeals to his “right” to engage in such behavior, and condemns any attempt to inhibit him as “authoritarian” and an “encroachment on students’ personal lives.” While this view may, regrettably, be a common one among certain YU students, it is based on a misunderstanding. Indeed, a student who wishes to indulge in pornography remains free to do so by any other means. However, the University provides Internet access as a service, not an entitlement, and any student who benefits from that service does so under the conditions and limitations determined by the administration. One may argue that those limitations are unreasonable, but that has absolutely no bearing on the argument that an Internet filter is an imposition on “students’ personal lives.” It most certainly is not, and any righteous indignation to the contrary is both mistaken and entirely inappropriate.

Yet filtering is more than just within the rights of the administration. It is obligatory. This obligation stems from the basic principle of arvus, the responsibility to facilitate the halakhic observance of fellow Jews. This binding principle is what led YU Arevim to approach the administration, and it is what motivates the administration’s efforts to install a filter. Yet instead of commending them for acting on their responsibility to save others from prohibited and self-destructive behavior, the article misrepresents their aims and condemns them. We read that “Students are stunned, perhaps most of all, that their peers, mired in the maximally personal tension of a pornography addiction, demanded help from the administration.” Perhaps if these students were less ignorant of the basic halakhic responsibility of arvus, they would not be as stunned.

Granted, one could posit that Internet filtering is a slippery slope that will lead to imposition of halakhah in ways distasteful to certain students. After all, what’s to stop the administration from demanding that students go to minyan, keep certain standards of kashrus, or the like? Even if these are valid arguments, it’s worth reiterating that the administration is not seeking to impose anything. They are not demanding records of student Internet usage, nor are they imposing punitive measures on students who view pornography. They are simply living up to their responsibly not to actively enable violation of Torah law. It should be obvious and unambiguous that this is a good thing.

One could argue that this touches on the broader issue that YU is both a university and a yeshiva. While that is true, I think it is irrelevant to the issue at hand. In distinguishing between university and yeshiva, one loses sight of the fact that YU students, and the administration making decisions that affect them, are bound by the principles and dictates of the Torah.4 From the perspective of a secular student at any other college, the arguments expressed in the article could be valid. Such a student could accuse the administration of violating student rights and indulging in “censorship.” But we are not just college students; we are Jews, and our decisions are shaped by the Torah and its values. This remains immutably true however one conceptualizes the nature of this institution. And on this issue, the halakhah is unambiguous. Viewing pornography is prohibited and spiritually harmful, and anyone who can facilitate observance of the prohibition has a responsibility and an obligation to do so.

Thus, appealing to “censorship” or questioning whether the administration is acting within its rights is profoundly wrong. No one in YU has a right to demand that others facilitate their violation of the Torah. Would we complain that YU denies students the “right” to eat treif food because all Cafeteria food is kosher? The Internet filter is no different.



[1] Pamela Paul. Pornified: How Pornography is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. Times Books, New York, 2005. 13.

[2] Basic sources are Numbers 15:39, Gem. Brachot 61a, Tur and Shulchan Aruch Even ha-Ezer 21.

[3] This student seems to have overlooked the fact that Dr. David Pelcovitz and student leaders also participated in Rabbi Reiss’ committee, as well as the fact that Marc Milstein, the University President of Information Technology, was also consulted.

[4] See Rav Soloveitchik, quoted in R. Rakefet’s The Rav: The World of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik Vol. 2, pg. 230, that the Yeshiva should function “without synthesis and compromise.”