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So Surf Already

'Kosher' Online Service Offers Judaica to the Devout--You Were Expecting Maybe Victoria's Secret?


BNEI BRAK, Israel — Looking at the bespectacled Rabbi Benjamin Weiss, a small, gray-bearded man in a black frock coat and wide-brimmed hat, the first thing that comes to mind is not the 21st-century Internet.

Weiss supports the prevailing wisdom in this ultra-Orthodox town that modern television, movies and most newspapers are inappropriate for a devout Jew who observes halacha, or ancient Jewish law. But cyberspace is another story, Weiss says.

Why shouldn't devout Jews get on the Internet, he asks with a gleam in his eye, as long as they use a "kosher" highway?

By that he means the Israeli online service Toranet ( that he helped found three months ago to provide subscribers with access to an Internet cleansed of pictures of scantily clad women, Darwinistic views on creation and anything else forbidden by the Torah.

Toranet offers about 1,500 prescreened Web sites in English and Hebrew with business information, books and a shopping "mall," minus the turnoffs onto forbidden turf. Advertisers include car rental companies, real estate brokerages and Israel's top religious authority.

On Toranet, a shopper can seek Judaica but never step into a Victoria's Secret. A user can scan more than 20,000 pages of Jewish texts but never find bestseller lists.

It's OK to pay by credit card, except on the Sabbath, when the service is closed. Anyone who tries to sign on Friday night through Saturday night finds a picture of candles.

"Halacha has no problem with modern technology," Weiss said. "We do have a problem with things that go against our values, like pornography."

Weiss is an old hand at the Internet. He runs an online discussion group on Jewish law and modern medicine. At Toranet, he works with project director Yehoshua Beck, another devout Jew who established a database on medicine and halacha called Nehora'i six years ago. Their six-person company is a partnership with Ventura Communications Internet Israel Ltd., which prepares Web sites in Israel for IBM.

Toranet operates out of a newly renovated apartment in this crowded Orthodox city near Tel Aviv. In front of the building, Rabbi Akiva Street bustles with women wearing long skirts and head coverings, men twisting their curled ear locks and children straightening their yarmulkes. The streets are devoid of "corrupting" influences such as immodest ads and violent newspaper photographs.

This is the scene Beck and Weiss wish to re-create in their virtual religious community--a cyberspace neighborhood safe for their children. Zvi Ilani, marketing director for the new company, said that although the most devout families do not own televisions--whose programming cannot be controlled by the viewer--40% to 50% have computers.

"The Orthodox need the Internet like all people need it, but they can't get it without someone closing down the pornography," Beck said.

To the devout, pornography includes pictures of women in short sleeves and knee-length skirts, and some computer watchdogs may consider edited services such as Toranet a dangerous model for censorship. But Toranet says its subscribers buy the service precisely because it is censored.

David Weitzner, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, agrees, saying there is a difference between government censorship and editorial decision making in a private subscription service.

"Toranet can offer this and another group can offer a different view of what is on the Net. The Net is not a one-newspaper town," Weitzner said.

Toranet sees its market in ultra-Orthodox Israeli homes and schools, as well as among the modern Orthodox of Israel and, eventually, the world. These are people who want to be free from sex talk, chats about modern male-female relationships and other topics not allowed into Orthodox homes.

The company logo is a Torah scroll spread across the globe. Users may log on to Toranet from another Internet server (in which case it is not exclusive), or they may subscribe to Toranet through the Jerusalem server Netmedia and receive only the Web sites that Toranet allows. That costs $15 a month for as much as 10 hours online.

Toranet is negotiating with IBM to provide its services internationally.

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