The Internet: Just What We Needed

13 May

The Ami magazine article on Jewish Orthopraxy (The Imposters Among Us) blamed what the author sees as a rise in Orthopraxy on, as usual, the internet. The OU, in a previous Jewish Action, convened what they termed a ‘symposium’ to defend the idea of Mesorah. I can only assume it came as a response to the infamous krumbagel video. The website Vos Iz Neias was banned for a litany of speech offenses. I don’t want to reopen the discussion of the article, the video or VIN now. But I do want to talk about the vital place of blogging and anonymous videos in modern-day frum Judaism.

On the one hand, establishing Mesorah is very important in order to keep Judaism authentic. With no central establishment, allowing change can rapidly spiral off into incorporating foreign ideas into Judaism. Just look at the various mutations parading under the banner of Yiddishkeit, from Reform to Yehuda Berg, to outright Christianity. The original message is easily lost with no-one to delineate between the ‘Ikar’ and the ‘Taful’.

On the other hand, designating one group as the Delineators, and handing over all the keys to power, invites corruption of another sort. The lives of the congregation outside of the select few in power is not considered, and they are forced to follow the dictates of the few regardless of how incompatible it is to their life. Aside from the practical problems with this situation, it is against our true Mesorah.

Judaism has always been unique in it’s requirement of everyone to learn the Torah. There is no secret book that a few privileged characters have to dictate laws for the true believers. It is our Torah, everyone participates. If anyone, respected Rabbi or otherwise, says something, they are required to let you know the reason (see Ohr Hachaim, Devarim 17:9). This ensures that Toras Emes is not corrupted to benefit the few. It is also probably one of the main reasons why Judaism has survived, basically intact, till today.

Today, we see Yiddishkeit being rapidly transformed into an antiquated, frozen set of rules that doesn’t match up with reality. The Torah is seen as something that must be protected from the real world, because it won’t survive exposure. Harsh measures are taken towards dissenters. But God, as we know, prepares a refuah to the makah. And in this case, it appears to be the internet. Here, in this anonymous universe, Judaism is a part of life. And it can, and is, being explored, questioned, and learned thoroughly- without fear, as it was meant to. In this open marketplace of ideas, bloggers have taken up the sacred role that the Prophet, and the court jester, took in ancient times. To challenge authority, not for the purpose of overthrowing it, but as a counter-balance, to set it on the straight path.

I want to end off by mentioning the story of Amos and Amatziah, Kohen of Beis-El (Amos 7:10-17) because it strikes me as an awesome parallel to our frum world today. In a time of corruption, Amos, a well-off, common man, was chosen by God to prophesy. The story told in these few pesukim is singularly poignant and although it would be too long to quote in a blog post, I urge you to look at it.

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4 Responses to “The Internet: Just What We Needed”

  1. Baal Habos May 13, 2011 at 7:50 am #

    You’re good!

    And that’s (the) one thing I love about Torah; you can say almost anything and have a real mekor for it.

  2. Michael May 13, 2011 at 10:28 am #

    “But God, as we know, prepares a refuah to the makah. And in this case, it appears to be the internet. Here, in this anonymous universe, Judaism is a part of life. And it can, and is, being explored, questioned, and learned thoroughly- without fear, as it was meant to. In this open marketplace of ideas, bloggers have taken up the sacred role that the Prophet, and the court jester, took in ancient times.”

    The ultimate question of whether or not the internet will have been a healthy thing for orthodoxy will (IMO) probably not be resolved any time soon. The bloggers who openly criticize the social problems that are occurring in orthodoxy are a mixed bag, comprised of: (1) well-meaning people, who are also knowledgeable Jewishly, (2) well-meaning people, who are not sufficiently knowledgeable Jewishly to offer solutions that fit within the framework of halachah, (3) people who have “Jewish pride,” but have criticisms of Judaism/orthodoxy, but don’t really care about fitting things within the framework of halachah, (4) evil people, who are primarily interested in publicly maligning orthodoxy (usually out of revenge for who knows what), and (5) mentally ill people, who need help.

    Add to this all the other content, both very good, and very bad, on the internet, and it is not clear which influences will predominate. The hearts and minds of a significant chunk of Jews are up for grabs here, including my own. While as a born and bred American I believe in maximizing freedom of inquiry, to the extent reasonable, I also believe that your average person is just that-average-and will likely stumble, either due to lack of knowledge, intelligence, or emotional maturity. The democratic nature of the internet has a tendency to lower public discourse to the lowest common denominator.

    But just like democracy is the worst form of governance, except for all the others, for charedim the internet MAY be the worst forum for airing grievances, except for all the others. We shall see, since pandora’s box has been opened up at any rate.

    One last concern about the internet: it seems that the segments of religious Jewry that are most prone to being criticized (i.e. the most right wing chareidim), are also the ones who are least inclined to access the internet. It can emerge that general society will pick up on criticisms of the chareidi world far more frequently than the chareidim themselves. This is potentially a very bad thing, especially since antisemitism remains a very real threat. The recent photoshopped pictures of Hillary and the situation room are a good example. I would not be surprised if many of the readers of that Yiddish newspaper are completely unaware of how much press this thing has gotten. In short their ability to self-correct, even if they were interested, is limited, because many of them are not aware of the enormity of stories such as this (as dumb as it is IMO–it still went viral). The world at large’s ability to dissect their every fault, however, is growing exponentially. This is potentially a VERY bad thing for us all, especially if the state of Israel becomes more and more influenced by Chareidim. Will these true and the faithful learn to speak to the rest of the democratic world, as their representation in the Knesset and Israeli politics increases, or will they insist on continuing to shut themselves up, in spite of their greater public influence?

  3. itchemeyer May 13, 2011 at 5:02 pm #

    You have a lot of good points. I want to grab onto your last one, because it really is the defining one, imo.

    I think that if the American (for lack of a better word) charedi world, continues on it’s path of cutting off all questioners and dissenters, it will slowly choke itself to death, by become sealed off into a cult.

    My hope here is that some Rabbonim who care about their congregations will start to see the trend. You can see that the some are waking up. There are yeshivish and even chassidish Rabbis (albeit few) that are speaking on the internet and engaging the more serious criticisms. Granted, many of them, are trying to evade, or like the Ami article are terrified of acknowledging that the problems are legitimate ones within the community. (Instead, the author just distances himself from his ‘topic of conversation’. Really disturbing, actually.) But, I think this is how it starts. It’s bottom up change. Sooner or later, the major American charedi Rabbonim will be forced to tackle the problems of science and Torah, modern psychology, making a living with college, etc.

    Now, Israel is another story. In my under-informed opinion, the political power that they have is dangerous. They don’t need to care what “fringe” Jews on the internet have to say. Enough people are attracted to the party that they can tell any dissenter to go to hell. Plus, many of the younger ones who have seized control are corrupt. The problem for American charedim is that the gedolim here won’t openly go against the Israeli leadership, so if they go down, we will too, God forbid.

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