Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Klal Perspectives, Technology
To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.
Paradigm Shifts: Authority and Truth
In times of frustration, parents of teens will often reference the age-old Yiddish observation: “Small children, small problems; big children, big problems.” The Internet has outgrown its childhood and is well into adulthood, and we are now looking at some rather large causes for concern.
Some contributors to this issue of Klal Perspectives have examined specific problems that are hugely important. They have doubled down on particular issues, examining single areas of a large painting. In some ways, however, our community has shifted to an altogether different canvas. In certain regards, the impact of the Internet on our community is so significant that it has changed the entire way we think. Such changes, whether for a community or for general society, are called paradigm shifts.
Five hundred years ago, the Copernican Revolution was one such paradigm shift for the general community. Previously, man had seen himself as the physical center of the universe, surrounded by heavenly bodies neatly revolving around him in perfect circles. For much of the world, discovering that this was not so led to a crisis in human self-esteem. John Donne put it perfectly:
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation;
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot.
More recently, some thinkers are trying to create what they hope will be a new paradigm shift in the way we understand the essence of being human. Transhumanism is a movement urging us to accept that the survival of mankind can be assured only by destroying it in its present form and restructuring it through technology. They are not talking about robots meant to serve man. Rather, as they see it, the best of what it means to be human might be more efficiently perpetuated by shifting mankind’s essence to silicon. According to political science professor Charles Rubin at Duquesne University, this effort involves, among other things, blurring the lines between Man and machine:
The virtual reality expected soon to make movies and games more immersive is just a precursor to direct connections between our brains and computers, and even that is merely a prelude to uploading our minds into computers – providing us with a kind of immortality (so long as proper backups are made).
While this paradigm shift-in-the-making may never happen, the Internet has already brought several paradigm shifts to the Torah world, even if we don’t all recognize them yet. We will consider two of them.
While much of Western Culture is intoxicated with the notion of personal autonomy, Torah Jewry has pretty much retained its commitment to the value of authority. Committed Jews accept both the ultimate authority of a Divine lawgiver, and the surrogate authority of human leaders who oversee the translation of Hashem’s will into practical policy for the Torah community. Though without a central, infallible leader, and even without a Sanhedrin for many centuries, Jewish communities dealt effectively with countless local and regional issues. Though the community has always been “blessed” with often intensely divisive differences of opinion, it understood that communal decisions had to be made. Our forebears intuitively knew to whom to turn and to whom to defer. Torah Jews have recognized, and continue to recognize, the authority of the community rov and beis din on the local level, and that of the einei ha-eidah, the greatest Torah luminaries of a generation, regarding broader issues.
It might seem that, at least within the Charedi world, the notion of communal authority as vested in human leadership seems safe and secure. The Internet, however, has fundamentally changed the dynamic of authority within the community. We can be optimistic about the notion of Authority surviving. But, it is certain to be met by increasingly frequent challenges. Moreover, these changing societal and attitudinal dynamics may compel changes in how authority is wielded and in how it is maintained.
The paradigm shift in the dynamic of authority stems primarily from the community’s democratization, which itself is an outgrowth of being a “connected” community. Every Jew has always had an opinion; the Internet has now given every Jew a voice.
Not so long ago, most people knew that unless they had substantial wealth or powerful friends their complaints or gripes about a communal issue had little chance of being addressed. That was simply the way it was. The public microphone was carefully controlled, whether it was being heard at a Q and A session at a public meeting, or the allegorical mike of a public voice in the dynamics of community discussion.
Today, everyone has the mike. Any idea can quickly get into the hands of many, many people. Good ideas, bad ideas – both quickly have their day in the court of public opinion.
This is a mixed blessing. First and foremost, the connected community is one in which far less can be swept under the carpet. Festering sores in community policy began, in some cases, to make plodding progress only after the Internet generated waves of concern and anger. It is hard, if not impossible, to believe that much of the progress we have made in dealing with abuse and its cover-ups could have happened without that attention. The Internet has helped (under the guidance of poskim to organizations like ORA) shame recalcitrant husbands to unchain their wives. This is all positive.
Additionally, social media and the blogosphere allow for effective and speedy collaboration and sharing of good ideas. A moving story, a sharp vort, an essay that works, a novel suggestion – all can be sent off before retiring to bed, with multiple layers of response waiting by morning. The effective communicator or creative thinker can now quickly develop a following, where for most this was impossible just a few years ago.
Unfortunately, bad ideas gain traction using the same tools. Character assassination, negativity, skepticism and plain vanilla viciousness take off on digital wings. Warped individuals also develop followings; some of the worst are cowards, spreading their poison without fear of repercussions. Bloggers and commenters regularly choose to hide behind pen names, allowing them to shout out what they had previously been reluctant to whisper. While this can often be valuable, breaking the grip of intimidation and suppression that met whistle-blowers in the past comes with a more sinister side as well. The troublemaker, the passive-aggressive personality and the ordinary citizen with an unwarranted gripe can share all kinds of thoughts without their spouses, children, rabbeim, chavrusas or employers ever getting wind of it.
We can pretend that this does not affect the committed Jew. We would be kidding ourselves. As a blogmaster of a heavily moderated blog, I get to hear what people are thinking. In countless comments, we witness people who publicly pay lip service to authority but privately take many liberties, and digitally share their skepticism with many, many people.
We can foresee two primary consequences of this revolution in communication. Neither is inherently bad or good; both will cause deviations from what we are accustomed to.
The first is that we are likely to see change in the way new ideas and policies are introduced. Many of us are used to thinking of Torah leadership as being exclusively top-down, meaning that gedolim (on the national level) and local talmidei chachamim (on the local level) respond to situations with ideas and plans that they then press into action, using the authority and trust vouchsafed to them. During the decades of post-Holocaust reconstruction and transplantation of intense yeshiva learning to America, top-down leadership was crucial. We cannot imagine a Torah community in the United States without a Rav Aharon Kotler.
A generation or two of Torah Jews forgot that there was a different, competing model. Looking back at teshuvos over centuries of limited Jewish self-rule, however, we find a different model, sometimes working side by side with the first. It is reasonable to expect that the Internet is going to drive us towards resuming use of this second model. Often, ideas were floated by laypeople and then brought to Torah leadership for evaluation, modification, oversight and approval. One early example of this practice can be found in Bava Basra 9A, where decisions reached by professional associations about hours, fees and the like (and which would impact on the greater public) were validated, albeit with the requirement that they be brought to a resident talmid chacham for review, if one was available.
We could look at this as the mirror image of the first model, and call it bottom-up. With far more internet-generated churning going on at the connected bottom, we will likely see more ideas coming from the Torah “street” and getting sent “upstairs” for consideration and approval. In the past, new ideas might have simply gone away after a brief initial peak. Today, these ideas do not fade so quickly, and can often build up to a sustained buzz and pressure that will reach the ears of our gedolim. (In an increasingly complex world, our gedolim find more on their plates than mortals can deal with. They must function as roshei yeshivah, fundraisers, board members – and providers of guidance and succor to a burgeoning population. In my own limited discussion with several of them, they have stated that they are more than happy not to have to do all the strategic thinking on their own, and are pleased when good ideas are brought to them.)
In the days of Chazal, a new gezerah had an incubation period. If it proved to be too onerous to the public, it stood to be pulled. We can speculate as to whether Chazal today would wait as long as they used to. Our new world requires far less time to determine public reaction, and to assess whether some well-intentioned edict may be too draconian for the masses.
Without unassailable evidence, we can at least imagine that decisions that might have been initially unpopular could still have been viable. After a short period of time, dissatisfaction would wane, leaving a public perhaps grumbling, but equipped with some necessary corrective for the public good. Today, the grumbling at times will be louder and sustained longer. This may indicate that some of the practical tools of leadership that worked in the past will no longer be effective. Bans on activities that are seen as unhealthy (but not natively assur) might have to be used very sparsely – if at all. The kol koreh (rabbinic pronouncement) of the near future might have to offer fuller explanations of the reasons for a decision, rather than just make a statement and gather some signatures under it. Failure to do so might mean that the inevitable public discussion – justified or not – will prove to be a larger problem than the one the kol koreh was designed to remedy.
The most important changes, however, must come from the rest of us non-gedolim. If our authority figures are going to increasingly depend on our input, we need to be there to provide it. We need to stop complaining about “self-appointed askanim” (activists) until we suggest an alternative. There will always be people who jump at a chance for honor and recognition, and push themselves into positions of power. We need to be aware of them. There are others – well meaning but not always the best suited – who become the lay askanim simply because no one else is willing to step up to the plate. Lay leadership shouldn’t just happen; it needs to be cultivated.
We have become, in this regard, victims of our own success. The explosion, baruch Hashem, of commitment to serious years of learning came about, in no small part, through narrowing the chinuch we provided our children. Like would be Olympian competitors, we focused on learning – and often one kind of learning – to the exclusion of all else. Not so long ago, yeshiva students led more varied lives, especially during bein hazemanin. At camps, summer jobs, volunteer work they discovered not only inner strengths and talents, but lay leaders who inspired them. This practice has gone out of vogue, especially for the best and brightest of the more traditional yeshivos.
It won’t be easy, but we need to find ways to expose young people to leadership models without diminishing their opportunity to reach for the sky in learning. As far back as the Pressburg yeshiva of the Chasam Sofer in the 19th century, bochurim were trained for the professional rabbinate within their makom Torah, with classes in homiletics and public speaking. (They were held on Friday mornings, when the Torah energies of students anyway tended to flag.) Not so long ago, Torah Umesorah planted for a future crop of better-trained mechanchim by offering classes (held during the lunch break) in classroom management and even dikduk (grammar).
There are different classes and experiences that ought to be assembled knowing that there are another 999 who will emerge from the beis medrash who are not the echad yotzei le-hora’ah (one who emerges as a preeminent halachic voice). Within that group are bright, talented people who will need to be the lay leaders, the ones providing many of the bottom-up suggestions, within a few short years of leaving yeshiva. Minimally, they need to learn that there are haphazard ways of running institutions, and professional ways. The latter often require some background in sundry disciplines: management, economics, psychology, and even history and philosophy. Programs like the Tikvah Summer Institute for Yeshiva Men, which exposes bright and curious yeshiva men to the interface between Torah thought and political action, should be expanded and duplicated.
It certainly isn’t all – or even primarily – about yeshiva students. We need to look at the pool of young people already in the workplace and identify those with leadership skills and talent. We should be running programs to develop Torah lay leadership, the way that the Wexner Program does in the general Jewish community. By making an invitation to participate a badge of distinction, Wexner finds some of the most suitable Jewish men and women, and motivates them to share their talent with Jewish institutions.
Hashgacha (Providence) has it that the timing of our need for trained and prepared bottom-up input is exquisite. Apart from everything discussed above, another vacuum is rapidly opening in Jewish life in the United States. The steady disintegration of the non-Orthodox community, as shown in the recent Pew Report, means that we have to be prepared to step into roles we avoided in the past. The response of much of the non-Orthodox world – not just J Street – to the Iran deal has made it clear that the Orthodox community must assume an ever-increasing role in the political defense of Israel’s interests; too many others care more about abortion rights than about the future of the Jewish State. From the large number of yarmulkes on exhibit at AIPAC, we see that many members of our community have gotten involved – but there are large gaps that still need to be filled. Do we expect our gedolim to subscribe to Foreign Affairs – or do we need bnei Torah to digest the reading and help them formulate strategies for dealing with our elected officials?
Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s hard to make predictions – especially about the future.” We can’t really know all the parameters of change that the democratization of the community will force. But it is more than reasonable to suppose that the Internet, chief among other factors, will drive a paradigm shift. The worst reaction to its eventuality would be to pretend that it is business as usual. With siyaata deshmaya (Divine assistance), we will adapt to it, just as HKBH has allowed us to weather all other storms.
Two contradictory observations about frum Jews leaving the fold had left me puzzled for decades. It took a bad bout of conjunctivitis to see my way through to the resolution. Through bloodshot eyes, I gained perspective about what I believe to the single most serious unwanted consequence of the Internet.
I have long taken an interest in the intellectual issues that some people have with Torah observance. Over the years, I’ve sat with many people struggling through ideas or issues that gave them no peace, whether apparent conflicts with science or history, or some of the attitudinal assumptions of contemporary Torah living. It was a steady stream – not a torrent, but not a trickle either. I have met a good number who went beyond that, pointing to some of these issues as the reason they firmly chose to reject halacha, or even belief in G-d.
On the other hand, virtually every communal professional I’ve come across – left, right, and center – assured me that no one left observance because of intellectual issues alone. The challenges to belief inevitably followed issues of a different nature, usually dealing with family dynamics, abuse or personal unhappiness. The intellectual issues sometimes served as a pretext for abandoning a Torah lifestyle, or the way in which a formerly Orthodox person justified to himself why he opted out.
My ophthalmologist – one of the absolute best in Beverly Hills – resolved the conflict. He studied my eye, asked some questions, and observed, “Probably viral. I’m going to give you an antibiotic.”
“Huh?” said I. “I thought antibiotics are of no effect against viruses.”
“True,” he responded. “But we prescribe the antibiotic because often enough the infection can be followed by a secondary, bacterial one. If you don’t ward off the secondary, you’ll be in trouble after the primary wanes.”
It may very well be that people discover deal-breaking intellectual issues with their adherence to Torah only after suffering some primary shock to their internal systems. Once established, however, these secondary problems have a life of their own, and persist even if the primary cause for dissatisfaction is remedied.
We are, I believe, heading for a good deal of heartache in this area. One of the consequences of ubiquitous connectivity is that our community will be encountering a good deal more “secondary infections.” And, while in concept we have effective ways of addressing these challenges, none of the alleged products are currently on the shelf, within easy reach. If Amalek is equivalent to safek (doubt), Amalek today is wired to the max.
The short version: More than anything before, Google has put more questions, more challenges and more skepticism in the hands of the curious. While pornography is certainly destructive to the kedushah of the individual and the community, introducing successive waves of challenges to emunah is potentially even more damaging.
The longer version: It has long been customary to parry unanswerable questions from our children with, “Fun a kasha, shtarbt men nit”– no one ever died of a question. In certain segments of our community, questions are not simply dismissed, they are received with hostility; if questions are posed too frequently (or too thoughtfully), the inquiring child will be essentially sequestered for fear that he or she will corrupt others.
There are both good and not so good reasons for attempting to suppress questions in a classroom setting. It is usually only a minority of students who share the question. A rebbi or morah may feel that it is not justifiable to introduce doubt in the minds of the other students by addressing the curiosity of the few who would, in fact, benefit from a discussion. If the questioning child is blessed with the right teacher, the student may be pulled aside and the questions addressed privately.
In many cases, however, the child is never pulled aside and the questions are left unanswered, largely because the teacher may be equally uncomfortable with the question. The rebbi or morah may or may not have once shared the same questions. Either way, the teacher does not have any idea how to address the question, or even where to turn to find an answer.
This is tragic, and about to become even more so. For many centuries, Torah giants were at the forefront of generating Torah responses to the intellectual issues of the day. To be sure, only a minority threw themselves into this arena of activity, but their oeuvre became available to others who needed a reliable Torah approach. In pre-modern times, think of Rav Saadia Gaon, Rav Yosef Albo, Ralbag, Rav Yehudah Halevi and the Rambam. More recently, while some communities responded to the haskalah – in some cases with great success! – by isolating community members from maskilim, and even their areas of interest, others took a different approach. R. Tzvi Hirsch Chayes, the Netziv, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch engaged the ideas and their authors, using their superior Torah knowledge to counter the lesser knowledge and lesser commitment of the maskilim. Some excelled in particular segments of the battle, like Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman against early Biblical criticism, and Rav Yitzchok Isaac Halevi Rabinowitz against the historical aspects of Jewish Wissenschaft. Whatever the issue, Torah Jews knew that their greatest minds were meeting challenges head on.
These gedolim ensured that those community members whose commitment was strong but struggled with questions could base their faith on the insights and articulations of contemporary giants. While challenges to emunah were floating in the marketplace of ideas, ehrliche Jews told themselves that if great people shared their questions and still put on tefillin in the morning, they could do the same. Fun a kasha, shtarbt men nit was a satisfying position to many. They at least were comforted that those greater than they had stared the same questions in the face, and did not flinch in the slightest.
For quite some period, this comfort has no longer been provided. Perhaps compelled by the need to focus on post-Holocaust reconstruction, and the recognition that Torah scholarship and psak needed to be replenished, the yeshiva community has not committed elite human resources to the study of contemporary intellectual challenges. We withdrew from those who were hurling bricks at our windows, choosing instead to board up the openings in the walls. It is no wonder that questions are not always appreciated. This strategy, however, is likely going to have to change, because no boarding-up can keep out the Internet.
Both adult and child now have access to the worst kinds of kefirah (heresy) at their fingertips. Moreover, even if someone is available and willing to address difficult questions and provide substantive answers, there is a good chance that the answers will be insufficient. Within minutes of arriving home, the questioner is likely to find multiple websites that punch holes in the arguments the rebbi had proffered. A rebbi who uses approaches developed by the kiruv movement decades ago might later learn that their effectiveness has long since waned or disappeared. Using inadequate arguments will backfire, causing the student to question or even mock all else the rebbi teaches. If the rebbi references outdated science or scientific theories propounded by outliers rather than mainstream figures, the questioner will become more alienated than before. The assumption will be that Torah’s best response has been offered – but has come up lacking. Responses must be as sophisticated, thought out and compelling as are the questions. Serious study of the challenger’s positions must be undertaken. Alas, there are far too few Torah scholars dedicated to this undertaking, and an enormous paucity of effective responses.
If the community is to be prepared to sustain itself against the ever-growing access of our members to significant challenges in thought, there must be a much more vigorous effort to provide a truly compelling presentation of our hashkafos – not just the “whys and wherefores” of practice but the pillars of our beliefs and their application to contemporary life. We will probably need, in consultation with gedolei Torah, to be more anticipatory in inoculating our children by addressing what they will, in most cases, likely be exposed to in their progressively more open and intrusive society. We need to recalculate the cost-benefit ratio in addressing issues that might, in some cases, be raising questions in some students where none existed before.
But most importantly, we need to become much more savvy in our answers. Anticipated responses must be formulated to the counter-arguments offered by our detractors, even before we present our approaches. We must encourage and expand the work of organizations like Ani Maamin and Project Chazon, which have been working for years to bring programs of Torah hashkafah to our schools. They continue to mine the richness of our mesorah from Chazal and the Rishonim, which is the first tier of response to intellectual challenges and skepticism.
We will need, however, to exercise ever-greater vigilance in ensuring that those presenting the Torah hashkafa are equipped with best material that our Torah community can offer. In many instances, this will of necessity mean consulting with those of the Orthodox world where observant Jews are encouraged to wade into the sometimes murky waters of academic study. We certainly will not blindly accept any one person’s conclusions or approach. Every idea and approach must be vetted and reviewed by our community’s Torah leaders. But we must also recognize that the yeshiva community has chosen to discourage the sophisticated study of these challenges, and so we need to hear out those who have plowed those fields, and consider which of their approaches can be safely used or modified.
The one thing we cannot afford to do is pretend that greater skepticism is not infiltrating our community. It is, and not just the minds of troubled souls.
Bayard Rustin, the great African American civil-rights advocate, is widely credited for the expression “speak truth to power.” The paradigm shifts in a connected Torah world are going to change how and where we uphold the eternal truths of Yiddishkeit, as well as how we see the authority of leadership utilized.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a member of the Klal Perspectives Editorial Board, is the director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a professor of Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School and the Founding Editor of Cross-Currents.com.
 Charles T. Rubin, Eclipse of Man, New Atlantis, New York, 2014, pg. 4
 See Avodah Zarah 36A. Shemen akum is one example of a gezerah that was simply rejected by the public, and therefore un-legislated.
 Full disclosure: I am one of the two co-directors of the program. And I entertain other biases as well. One of my sons founded and directed Kids of Courage for years, which did provide an opportunity for young yeshiva men and women to try their hand at some rather trying but rewarding chesed to children with chronic illnesses.
 Others attribute the line to Nobel laureate Neils Bohr, who while not halachically Jewish, had a role in persuading Gustav V of Sweden to make public Sweden’s willingness to accept Danish Jews fleeing the Nazis. But Bohr couldn’t play baseball.
 At one point, proficiency in Tanach was required for admission to the great yeshivos. One of the reasons that the study of Tanach is largely absent from our yeshivos today is that maskilim took a strong interest in it. Whatever maskilim did, Torah loyalists were going to bolt in the opposite direction. We still haven’t recovered from the original sprint away from what arguably is a major part of Torah study.
 For example, I am aware of plenty of pushback against our assumptions coming from the world of modern Biblical scholarship. I am not personally aware of a single individual “home grown” within the yeshiva world who can address the issues from a position of strength. But I can easily point to people within the Israeli Dati-Leumi community who are both bnei Torah and conversant with the material.