Rabbi Gil Student
Klal Perspectives, Technology
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Torah Authority in the Internet Age
A famous saying has it that Jews in America are just like everyone else, only more so. Perhaps when it comes to the Internet, Jews are like everyone else, only less so. The following thoughts are admittedly impressionistic due to a lack of data. Moreover, I am not a sociologist. However, I am very much involved in the use of the Internet for Orthodox communal purposes. Likely because of that role, I have been observing the Orthodox community’s interaction with the Internet, particularly since the focus on its dangers was raised in broad communal terms in the Asifah of 2012. With that reference, I should disclose that I strongly opposed the Asifah, for reasons I will explain below.
The Internet’s impact on general society has certainly seeped into the Orthodox Jewish community, but to a lesser degree for us than for others because of our unique communal and cultural traits. For example, Shabbos observance forces us offline for approximately 25 hours a week. On occasion, throughout the year, we have prolonged electronic “fasts” due to Yamim Tovim, sometimes lasting as long as three consecutive days. Forced to live in the pre-Internet era for these short periods, we exercise the skills that the Internet tends to suppress, such as holding conversations without electronic interruptions. Similarly, though our schools’ policies limiting Internet use are generally observed only in the breach, the concerned attitude toward Internet use conveyed by our yeshivos and rabbis force us to at least construe Internet use as an option, rather than an unquestioned necessity. Nevertheless, just as the Internet has dramatically changed general society, it has had a substantial impact on our community as well.
In this essay, I will discuss some of the benefits that the Orthodox community has enjoyed by capturing the opportunities afforded by the Internet, but also the significant drawbacks. Some of the more obvious and seemingly pressing issues generated by the Internet are, from a historical perspective, not particularly concerning. There is, however, another issue that is historic and theologically urgent, threatening to undermine our entire communal order and tradition. That issue will be discussed in the second half of this essay. I believe that, unfortunately, there is no simple solution for these problems. However, the old approach, exemplified by the aforementioned Asifah, is doomed to failure. I can only suggest another approach that may not be popular, but it is all I have.
Part I: The Internet and the Individual
Facilitating Increased Torah Learning
Probably the most significant contribution of the Internet has been its dramatic expansion of the sheer volume of Torah that is available to be learned. The immense stores of Torah articles, books and audio lectures posted online, and thereby accessible to all, are astounding. A simple personal device can store more information, study tools and resources than the ancient library in Alexandria. This new technology allows yeshiva graduates to listen to, and learn from, their rabbeim for years after leaving the yeshiva, something that was but a rare treat in earlier times. Perhaps the even greater innovation is its enabling of graduates of one yeshiva to learn from rabbeim of another yeshiva. The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 19a) encourages Torah learning from more than one teacher, since such practice broadens one’s understanding of Torah. As never before, the Internet allows mature students to learn from the widest selection of leading talmidei chachamim and magidei shiur.
The access to one’s earlier rabbeim, as well as to others, meets different needs for different people. For some, an ongoing connection to the rabbeim of their younger years expands the teachers’ influence into the student’s adult years. Others, who never really connected to their rabbeim while in yeshiva, find new rabbeim better suited to their disposition or learning interests. Yet others may have had excellent relationships while in yeshiva, yet discover on the Internet new rabbeim who are better suited to their needs as an adult, and to their more mature emotional and intellectual orientation. They now have many more options to find a derech in learning that matches their proclivities. But this opportunity also highlights a danger.
Most men leave yeshiva while in their twenties, but never stop growing and changing. Such continuing development is both natural and wonderful. On the one hand, the Internet allows rabbeim and others with traditional Torah voices to play an integral role in this maturation process. On the other hand, the Internet makes it easier than ever for fully committed and believing Orthodox Jews to find themselves attracted to different streams of thought and practice. Rather than going “off the derech,” they are going “off their derech.” This tendency is particularly pervasive among those intellectually inclined, and in my experience is actually far more common than the more-frequently-discussed phenomenon of individuals going “off the derech” completely.
Perhaps for social and family reasons, and perhaps because it makes them more comfortable, most people who change beliefs, whether off the derech or off their derech, do not actually leave their community. They keep their new attitudes more or less to themselves and alter little in their outward behavior; they certainly do not change the schools to which they send their children. This absence of social expression greatly diminishes the impact of Internet-induced derech issues. It is true that some young people are leaving the community, but that was also the case in the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. One should not minimize the pain and concern related to any individual leaving the community, or to the spiritual damage of any individual abandoning traditional beliefs. But, the Internet does not appear to be causing any sort of exodus from our communities.
More Learning Opportunities, Yet Less Time Learning
Greater than its impact on the Orthodox Jew’s theological views is the Internet’s consumption of a colossal amount of time. The frum Jew has no shortage of demands on his or her time, yet technology is unquestionably diverting time from other far more important and productive uses. This diversion desperately requires corrective action.
The onslaught of e-mails, many demanding immediate attention, is a normative part of everyone’s day. Rabbis report that they spend huge parts of their day responding to e-mails and texts from their congregants. On the one hand, this expanded contact between rabbi and congregant is wonderful. On the other, it detracts from other activities the rabbi had otherwise committed to be doing, such as spending time with his family, planning communal events and learning Torah. Not only rabbis carry this new burden. Leaving an office at day’s end no longer allows one to enter into an alternative restricted zone of family, Torah study and other activities. Emails, texts and cell phones allow the office to be an intrusive and demanding part of life, at any time and in any place. Moreover, social media and many websites are intentionally designed to capture the viewer’s attention for extended periods of time. People read innocuous status updates and watch mildly interesting videos, despite recognizing that they are wasting time. But the intrusion into time otherwise more wisely allocated is but one dimension of the issue. A second dimension is the resulting comprised ability to focus.
A personal device may contain Tanach, Shas and several hundred sefarim, including rishonim and poskim and almost everything else. When learning this Torah on a device, it is hard not to take an occasional peek at e-mail. In fact, simply having the device accessible creates this urge. Similarly, typing on a smartphone could be writing a devar Torah one minute and texting the next. While these functional overlaps can theoretically be conquered with self-control, self-control is a trait that has always suffered a supply/demand imbalance.
The distractive nature of devices is recognized by the technology industry. In fact, apps and programs have been introduced to force users to focus; alas for a variety of reasons they inevitably fail. Ultimately, the most effective strategy to manage this challenge is by employing a time log, which is a daily or weekly estimate of the time spent online. After keeping such a log for a few weeks, and seeing the shocking amount of time spent unproductively online, conscientious people will inevitably take action to reduce their usage.
Many have written, with varying degrees of alarm, about the widespread decrease in the attention span of the Sesame Street, and now Internet, generations. I find myself struggling to read long articles and, le-havdil, occasionally skipping to the end of long teshuvos. There is even a trend among Religious Zionist sefarim to include a summary at the end of each teshuvah. I am not sure how that started, but it is quite a reflection of the needs of the current generation.
Teachers and rabbis must adjust their styles to accommodate the realities of their less attentive listeners. The days are long gone when Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, z’tl, could capture an audience’s attention for a four-hour lecture. To maintain students’ attention, we must intersperse stories and surprising insights into our adult education classes. To a degree, this practice, though necessary, has watered down some of the learning in our community. It has also given higher profiles to rabbis who excel in infotainment, which sometimes comes with the risks attendant to a charismatic personality (ve-ha-meivin yavin). Writers, too, need to entertain. Articles need cliffhangers and teasers to get people to read to the end.
But the implications of the Internet to our community are even more ominous and profound.
The well-publicized 2012 Asifah was mentioned in the introduction, above. The focus of the Asifah was almost exclusively on preventing access to the inappropriate material available online. Similarly, ongoing discussions abound in shuls and by rabbis concerning the allegedly rampant infidelity caused by the Internet. I suggest that this narrow focus is misplaced.
By its nature, the yetzer hara finds opportunities to wreak havoc. The Internet did not introduce marital cheating nor is looking at inappropriate things a new concern or practice. For centuries, even prior to the Internet, the yetzer hara enjoyed much tragic success. Even in more recent times, summer bungalow colonies have, arguably, been a far bigger source of infidelity than the Internet. Certainly, those engaged in extramarital affairs use any technology available, including cellphones and social media. These technologies may be tools of choice, but eliminating them will not hinder cheating spouses. Admittedly, this perspective is premised on anecdotes alone, but so is the view that the Internet is the primary inducer of misbehavior.
That is not to suggest that the Internet is not rampantly abused and that it need not be assiduously controlled. However, the tone and rhetoric regarding its dangers must be appropriately measured lest the damage of the rebuke be more devastating than the improper behavior being addressed.
For example, we are often warned that Internet users can lose their neshamos or entire olam haba with the click of a link. This declaration is incredibly unhelpful. We believe that people can do teshuvah until their last breathing moment. It is horribly inappropriate to employ language that effectively writes off those who have sinned – whether by viewing online pornography or otherwise – by asserting that they are a lost cause. People make mistakes; in moments of weakness they make bad choices. We must vociferously discourage inappropriate behavior but the wholesale and absolute marginalization of those who succumb to temptation is not productive. In fact, some people are addicted to pornography and they need professional help. If their behavior is simply characterized as evil, they will not likely seek the necessary aid. Others can stop their inappropriate behavior, and should be effectively motivated to do so. Rather than loud clamoring, the most effective method to motivate the ceasing of hidden behavior is to promote the threat of discovery (see Berachos 28b).
Internet filters are necessary but filters alone are insufficient, particularly on mobile devices. Image and ad blockers are also very important. But more powerful are stories of men losing their families and livelihoods because of their accessing pornography. If people realize that they are likely to get caught and are truly scared of what will happen to them when they are caught – what their children, friends and bosses will think of them – they will stop if they can. Sadly, we do not lack for many true stories that can bring this message home. The stories must be utilized to scare people away from pornography and infidelity. Imposing the requisite fear of discovery does not require fire and brimstone rhetoric. Every rabbi and educator, in their own style, should repeatedly remind people that no one is truly anonymous online; every search can be traced and every user unmasked; and thus, eventually, misdeeds will be disclosed.
However, the language and tactics were not the primary failing of the Asifah. Rather, something more fundamental was missing, the discussion of which requires us to look from a communal perspective and take a brief historical and theological detour to see the truly historic change the Internet has caused.
Part II: The Internet and the Community
Mockery and A Weakened Communal Leadership
Online mockery and derision are ubiquitous. Their pervasiveness imbues readers with a diminished sensitivity to improper language and to attitudes that are fundamentally anathema to being a frum Jew. More than that, however, is the impact of anonymous frontal attacks on communal leadership. In the face of unbridled and unabashed anonymous bomb throwing, many community leaders simply choose to avoid the heat by saying nothing publicly. Whether or not this intimidation is the very goal of the derision, the community suffers immeasurably from the silencing of at least some of its leadership. Because of the widespread mockery and uncharitable reading of the media, particularly on the Internet, the community is being deprived of invaluable guidance and a sorely needed counterbalance to the rather loud and incessant voices that are unsympathetic to Torah tradition.
This is all in addition to the traditional damage caused by ever-present mockery, cynicism and frivolity. They destroy faith in, and respect for, others, and diminish the inclination to accept rebuke. The Internet has raised the impact of mockery to new heights, thereby decreasing teshuvah in the world.
None of these evil challenges, however, are new. Mockery is denounced in Tanach, indicating that it has been a problem since time immemorial. In our own lifetimes, we recall how Israeli reporters would attend the speeches of Rav Elazar Shach and Rav Ovadiah Yosef, waiting with bated breath to mock their teachings. The Communists in the early twentieth century mercilessly mocked rabbis and Judaism in newspapers, theater and other media. Even our forefather Avraham Avinu faced the leitzanei ha-dor who would mock him.
The impact, as well, is not unprecedented. In the past, mockery has won impressive victories. A century and a half ago, yeshiva benches were emptied to the halls of Communism and Socialism, largely due to a campaign of mockery against traditional Judaism. Compared to the spiritual devastation wrought in such eras, twenty-first century Internet challenges may pale in comparison. Perhaps Heaven has mercy on our outgunned community.
The unique challenge of Internet mockery, however, is the Internet’s unparalleled penetration into our communities, our schools and our homes. In other situations, however uncomfortable the mockery, we can tolerate the unpleasantness by avoiding it. The intrusion of the Internet, however, has diminished the ability to avoid it, even for those in the most insular of communities.
The only effective defense to mockery is sophistication. Rabbis need to become PR mavens, savvy in the judicial use of media to convey a message. The current generation of gedolim grew up in a different era and cannot be expected to master new media. The next generation, however, must become media savvy. An excellent example is Rav Shlomo Aviner in Israel, who has developed relationships with the media and publishes with such frequency and ferocity that his views cannot be easily distorted. He is well-known for answering all text message questions, affording him a radical availability, allowing anyone to directly ask his opinion on almost any subject. We cannot defeat mockery outright, but we can wage a good fight. That effort, however, requires a willingness to use the right weapons. Leading rabbis need to follow basic PR ideas like staying positive, learning what your opponents are saying and trying to convince bystanders and not your opponent.
Mockery is a clear internet challenge to Torah leadership but the very culture of the Internet poses a more subtle and pervasive challenge to the Torah tradition.
Democratization of Torah
Though Torah study is a universal Jewish obligation, mastery of Torah is a prized and limited achievement. Prior to the publication of the Talmud, when the Torah was primarily transmitted orally, only those who studied in the controlled environment of a yeshiva academy could ever gain access to the “texts.” And only those with phenomenal memories could actually master the material. Everyone else recognized their own limitations in scholarship and, to a great degree, had no choice but to defer to the wisdom and guidance of their rabbis. Their only alternative, if we can call it that, was to reject the oral tradition outright and adopt the more accessible text of the Bible as the sole source of religious truth.
This wish to minimize rabbinic influence could likely have been the allure of the Sadducee, and later Karaite, ideology. These were paths that allowed for Torah expertise without the prerequisite of mastering the oral Torah. In this sense, the Sadducees were religious populists, democrats of the religious spirit. They sought to wrench religious authority away from the rabbis and allow everyone to participate equally. Rather than spreading greater knowledge, they reduced the knowledge requirement and merely distributed authority more arbitrarily. We can sense a rebirth of this strategy in the Internet era.
The Torah, however, does not encourage populist authority, but rather places authority on the shoulders of the contemporary, scholarly experts. The “priest and the judge who shall be in that day” serve as the highest religious decision-making body, from whose rulings we must not “deviate right or left” (Devarim 17:11). Through the teachings of the oral tradition, the Sages taught that Torah mastery and guidance requires true, substantive expertise. Absent both intellectual and moral mastery, the Torah’s lessons are vulnerable to distortion, whether deliberate or otherwise. Therefore, rabbis must shepherd their flocks and nurture a connection to Torah in the proper measures, as befitting their spiritual readiness. Sometimes, restricting access to certain types of information is appropriate.
Torah for Scholars
There is a concept of “halachah ve-ein morin ken,” which translates as “this is the law but we do not teach it this way.” This principle reflects the fact that the law occasionally includes dimensions that create opportunities for abuse. This ruling is only appropriate for Torah scholars who are equipped to appreciate these legal dimensions within a fuller context.
This attitude can be criticized as paternalistic and condescending. Who are the rabbis to decide who is ready to learn certain things, and who is not? Who are they to restrict access to dimensions of the Torah; after all, is not Torah the inheritance of the entire nation?
On the other hand, if it is true that certain knowledge will be abused if shared, or be wholly misunderstood and then misapplied, is a degree of restriction not appropriate? For example, is it appropriate to teach an entire community how to delay divorce proceedings through legal technicalities, or how to pursue other activities that are invaluable when applied appropriately, but devastating when not? Are there not topics that should be broached only with those who are sufficiently mature or sophisticated to understand and utilize them appropriately? Of course not all information is ripe to be shared with everyone. Yet, this seemingly elitist attitude is certainly being challenged by contemporary societal attitudes.
One might have thought that the centralized influence of the rabbis would diminish when, out of necessity, the Oral Torah was committed to writing. The recording and resulting text of the Oral Torah, however, was so confusing and voluminous, and its manuscripts so rare, that few could claim to master it. Torah remained within the exclusive purview of the experts, and the rabbis remained the sole source of Jewish information. During that period, rabbis could and frequently did challenge each other, often heatedly. Texts were checked against rabbinic assertions, and compilations of arguments were tested against other views. Yet, due its complexity, the discussion remained closed to those without proper training. The barrier to entry was years of textual study and apprenticeship.
The exclusive access to views and arguments then began to diminish. Certainly the introduction of the printing press played a significant role in the democratization of Judaism, but another culprit demands notice. Not only were texts made readily accessible, but summary works, like Ba’eir Heitev, condensed complex textual debates into manageable digests. These books allowed proficiency to masquerade as expertise. To the uninitiated, someone able to skim the summaries could appear to be a master, a lamentable situation in any field. Being familiar with the Mishnah Berurah’s position on a particular law cannot compare to having extensively studied the underlying texts, commentaries and codes.
Torah in a Democratic Age
Halachic Judaism may have now truly entered its democratic age. Electronic databases, and the Internet in particular, produce an ever greater democratization of knowledge. Those who do not even know Hebrew can Google their way to proficiency, on some level. The clever yeshiva graduate, who is familiar with the ways of the Talmud and codes, but has certainly not yet mastered them, can use Google and databases to amass impressive arguments and even produce seemingly informed articles. One can even become a decade-long Torah blogger without having mastered the Talmud. The Internet is a magnification of the once minor threat of democratization of Torah.
In this age, can the traditional respect of, and deference to, expertise survive? Does “halachah ve-ein morin ken” have any meaning in the electronic age?
One strategy for Torah leaders is to bemoan this democratization by standing their ground and denouncing the non-experts who overstate their competence for the intellectual frauds that they are. Unfortunately, however, calling out frauds generally alienates more than it attracts. The authentic scholar appears self-serving and uncharitable, even when he is entirely correct. Similarly, debate will fail, since the audience lacks the requisite sophistication and training to evaluate the credibility and strength of competing arguments. Consequently, such debates are won through rhetoric and simplistic formulations, usually the province of the fraud, and not authenticity and truth, the province of the scholar.
Authority has been transferred to the people. The Asifah failed to recognize this and therefore proposed solutions to the Internet that immediately failed. Respected communal leaders attempted to impose strict limitations on Internet use. Among the proposals were communal requirements of “kosher” devices or mandatory expulsion from school of students whose families access the Internet at home. Even the subsequent Flatbush Asifah, which was more moderate in its tone, attempted to impose communal guidelines limiting Internet use. This approach will continue to fail because the Internet is about democracy and autonomy, which is in direct contradiction to externally imposed limits. Today, even insular Chasidic groups struggle to maintain Internet limits; more open communities have no chance for success. In a contemporary Western society, a direct fight against autonomy and freedom will lose.
Since the times of Korach, Torah leadership has faced challenges to its authority. Each generation needs its own way of protecting our sacred tradition and community against what Rav Joseph Soloveitchik aptly called a “common-sense rebellion” against Torah expertise. To address the unique dangers of the Internet, we need an approach that is appropriate for today.
Dealing with Democracy
I hesitatingly propose here a three-pronged approach to address this dramatic advance in the democratization of Torah knowledge: Clarification, Courtesy and Circumscription.
People now want to be convinced, not just informed. Leading rabbis ought to expand on their halachic and hashkafic decisions beyond brief statements, in a format and language that is widely accessible. They ought to explain why they reached their conclusions and discuss the possibilities they rejected. Rabbis should expect to face bold challenges and prepare in advance by including in their teshuvos and statements arguments against potential objections. In the past, only the most expansive thinkers wrote at such length. Today, however, all rabbis must clarify their views in depth before subjecting them to the inevitable challenges. This method will not prevent challenges but it will convince many readers and will gain the respect of many others who find themselves forced to think hard about the subject.
Courtesy is probably the most important element of this approach. If one rosh yeshiva denounces another in unpleasant terms, he teaches the public that insulting leading rabbis is acceptable in communal discourse. It does not matter that the general public is unqualified to judge who is truly learned or that this behavior has great precedent. Harsh language is a weapon that will always be turned back on its speaker. In today’s environment, when you insult one rabbi, you insult them all, as well as yourself. The first step to protecting the respect due to the Torah and its teachers is to speak pleasantly, even if strongly, about the people with whom one disagrees most.
Finally, we have to recognize that the drive for autonomy is the strongest force in Western society. No one can win a frontal attack on personal autonomy. Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson (Divrei Shaul, third edition, Devarim 21:11) offers a profound psychological interpretation of the Torah’s response to an unstoppable desire. He explains that rather than forbid that which will be committed anyway, the Torah creates a structure of laws around the action to limit its impact (compare with Rashi, Mo’ed Katan 17b d”h mah and Moreh Nevuchim 3:32). Rav Nathanson derives this approach from the eishes yefas to’ar and finds it elsewhere. This approach can be applied in contemporary society without permitting anything that is forbidden, which is of course beyond our ability.
For example, consider a rabbi who is approached by a congregant who has studied the issue and concluded that halachah permits using an umbrella on Shabbos within an eruv. The rabbi can respond that this is incorrect or that the poskim have considered and rejected this possibility. The congregant may or may not listen. Alternatively, the rabbi can make a deal with the congregant as follows: In public in their community, the congregant has to follow the rabbi’s rulings for the sake of communal harmony. But if the congregant is able to write his thoughts in the traditional Hebrew style of halachic discourse and publish the article in a respected Torah journal, thereby entering the discourse of halachah, then the rabbi supports the congregant’s right to follow his opinion in private or when away from home. Encourage his additional learning, challenge him to conduct a rigorous analysis that will pass the review of an experienced Torah editor, and genuinely respect his sincere search for devar Hashem. In this way, individual initiative and autonomy are supported, the congregant feels valued, but his opportunity for deviance from communal norms is limited.
This is just one possible example. The goal is to offer legitimate opportunities for personal autonomy without undermining the halachic process and the authority of Torah scholars. If this particular application is deemed untenable, perhaps a better example can be constructed of limited religious autonomy, circumscribed by rules to protect the integrity of community and tradition. Similar approaches can also be adapted for hashkafah, within the bounds of the thirteen ikkarei emunah (principles of faith). Complete autonomy yields communal chaos. Limited autonomy, within a cohesive community, allows people the independence they crave while preserving tradition.
In sum, democratization cannot be defeated. Printed books, summaries, Torah databases and the Internet are here to stay. The ideal answer to this dilemma is mussar. When people grow in humility and learn to recognize their own shortcomings, they inevitably learn to respect the expertise of great Torah scholars. The arrogance and desire for shortcuts give way to an appreciation of mastery gained through hard work.
However, if we wait for everyone to become masters of mussar, we will be waiting a long time. In the meantime, we can cautiously change the discourse in our community and allow, even encourage, limited autonomy.
Rabbi Gil Student writes frequently on Jewish topics and is the Editor of TorahMusings.com.