Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Halacha and the Internet

Halacha and the Internet
Rabbi Ari D. Kahn

While Jews, especially traditional ones, seem to have an aversion to the concept of evolution, halacha itself, the stuff of which Jewish observance is made, may be seen as evolving. We who accept that Torah is the Word of God, and that the Written and Oral Torah were given to us, through Moshe, are aware that, as new situations arise, halacha adapts – has always adapted -  in an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary fashion. 
At times, though, catalysts of more dramatic change present themselves: Cataclysms, especially those that cause massive population shifts, tend to impact halachic thinking and action in more discernable increments. Nonetheless, we may say that halacha is impacted and affected, rather than pointing to blatant, obvious "changes." Part of the impact is due to what and how people learn.[1]

Throughout Jewish history, catastrophe has often given rise to the perceived need to collect data, to preserve what runs the risk of being lost. Thus, after the destruction of the First Beit Hamikdash we find the canonization of Tanach. After the destruction of the Second Beit Hamikdash, the Bar Kochva rebellion and Hadrionic persecution, the Mishna emerged in an edited form. After a major earthquake destroyed the north of Israel, the Talmud Yerushalmi was edited. In the wake of the Spanish Inquisition, the Shulchan Oruch emerged. This reaction, which we may call "preservation as a means of self-preservation," is not always immediate, but the pattern of reactive codification and archiving is unmistakable.

This pattern may be evident in our own generation: In the aftermath of the Holocaust, countless collections of data have been published, books that gather and preserve what might otherwise be lost. The reaction to such large-scale tragedy and loss seems, once again, to be an urge to preserve, a self-preservation instinct translated into self-preservation of our heritage, our collective memory, our cumulative and accumulated knowledge. Creativity, it would seem, is spurred by a different type of atmosphere, one which encourages the individual to express himself and suggest new and bold ideas.

To be sure, these trends are not absolute, iron-clad rules: Every generation, even those living in the shadow of catastrophe, has had some chidush, some new and creative idea, alongside the compilations and collections. In fact, a careful look at the interplay of political and intellectual history indicates that the ebb and flow of originality and compilation is often independent of political or geo-political events: Sometimes it is not the catastrophic or the idyllic conditions which affect learning, but new realities or inventions that are the impetus for intellectual changes of focus. The most easily identified case in point is the advent of the printing press. Some scholars[2] go so far as to cite the invention of the printing press as the major factor in the delineation between the Rishonim and the Achronim: Precious books that had been painstakingly copied by hand suddenly became available and accessible, making what had once been  rare and treasured texts commonplace. This same technological advance actually changed the way we think and the way we learn, shifting the process of learning away from the teacher and toward the information stored and disseminated in books. Ironically, the wealth of information made available to ever-increasing numbers of readers by the printing press was, in some ways, a double-edged sword, as it engendered a weakening of the mesorah[3] and sacrificed quality of understanding for quantity of information.

In our generation, the access to books and information is unparalleled, and the collections in individual homes are often staggering compared to the meager offerings of the libraries of yesteryear.[4] But there is another factor in the information explosion, a factor far more powerful and far-reaching: the computer. Today's personal computer can contain many more books, as well as search programs that allow almost instant access to more information, than most of the greatest of rabbis and poskim ever saw. Today's compilers and collectors of information will have more data at their fingertips than scholars of previous generations could have imagined, and the challenge will often be what not to include rather than the search for relevant sources. Today, learning requires a modified set of skills: those who learn with the aid of computers and search programs must be skilled at triage, whereas the ability to identify and access sources has become passé.

As has been lamented by some, in this generation more and more books appear about more and more obscure laws, blessings and customs. The endless data evolves into a peculiar genre of halachic writing that tends to be stringent in its conclusions, especially when written in English. If leniencies can be found, more often than not they are buried in footnotes, often written only in Hebrew. As a result, only scholars have unfettered access to leniencies, while the layperson will be guided toward strict or even overly-strict opinions. The ever-growing number of books of this ilk is clearly at least partially responsible for the growing radicalism in observance, adding fuel to the sociological engine that powers the increasing tendency to adopt strict[5] opinions as mainstream practice.[6]

There is another facet of the personal computing revolution that has become a significant factor in changing the way halacha is learned, transmitted, and observed, one that also provides mindboggling quantities of information: the internet. Traditionally, searching for halachic guidance has meant earnestly learning the relevant sugya in the Gemara and Rishonim and then consulting the  siman or  s'if in the Shulchan Aruch, relevant responsa literature and later authorities; today, many people have increasingly begun to simply look where they have become accustomed to looking for all other information: on the internet. Instead of seeking the opinion of the Gadol Hador, we are the generation that turns to Google - Dor HaGoogle.

As in many other aspects of the "world wide web," the search for halacha is a mixed bag. While some sites have a plethora of quality classes, lectures and articles on all aspects of Jewish thought and law, there are many other sites that contain information of wildly divergent quality and reliability. In addition, all types of “discussions” may be found on blogs, where the banter is anonymous and participants feel free to hurl invectives, insults and even give “rulings” on matters of Jewish thought and practice. As often as not, the ideas and opinions expressed on blogs are not authoritative, or may be nothing more than one anonymous individual's opinion. Often, these blog discussions are illustrative of the confluence of several modern trends: A halachic discussion on the web may be nothing more than a cycle in which one blogger quotes an overly stringent ruling or opinion found in a modern English halachic compilation, and respondents express the almost inevitable backlash to the trend of creeping stringency. Even when bona fide halachic rulings are quoted, these were originally handed down regarding a particular, specific or even an extreme circumstance. Such opinions often pass as general and binding “halacha” in discussion blogs of this sort. The result is a type of discourse so devoid of seriousness as to be unparalleled in the annals of Jewish learning.

And yet, as bad as this phenomenon is for the halachic community and for the integrity of Jewish learning, it is far less insidious than some of the other uses to which bloggers put the internet. There is something even worse than this misguided but innocent give-and-take between those who quote overly-stringent popular halachic literature and those who respond and react out of frustration: There are others who use blog discussions and websites to advance their own revolutionary agendas, who seek to change the mesorah by changing what is meant by halacha or even the need for halacha. We may go so far as to say that the disconnection of the halachic process from personal contact between the layperson and his or her spiritual and halachic mentor has unleashed the forces that had previously been held at bay by this very personal connection: Individuals and groups that seek to undermine the evolutionary processes that have enabled Jewish communities to respond and adapt to changing realities have become empowered by the internet, to an unprecedented degree. While these forces have existed in and around the halachic process for thousands of years, the counterbalance of direct contact with spiritual leaders has been replaced by equal and open access to a cold, impersonal computer screen that communicates specious ideas to vulnerable, isolated Jews.

Has the internet created a new epoch in Jewish history? Time will tell if the impact is of the same magnitude as the invention of the printing press, but there is at least one lesson to be learned from the Twentieth Century: Information cannot be suppressed. Rabbis, teachers and poskim must be prepared to lead and to teach laypeople who have more information than ever before - even if few may actually properly understand this information within the context of Jewish law and tradition. Religious leadership in the Twenty-First Century (and beyond) must take responsibility for capitalizing on the wealth of information available to all their students and followers, and create a new generation of learning with its own particular strengths. Today's Torah scholars are neither Rishonim nor Achronim; the learning of Slobodka and Volozhin is a memory, as is the psak of Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Henkin. Will the glut of information usher in an age of greater superficiality, or will it allow halachic minds, freed from the more mundane tasks of collecting source material, to reach new heights of creativity? Will the information explosion create a new watershed moment in Jewish intellectual history, akin to the line drawn between the Rishonim and Achronim? Will we be known as the generation of "Rav Google", a generation gorging itself on confusing or even useless information, or will we master the web and use it as a tool for deeper understanding?

As the masses turn to the internet for all manner of information, bona fide poskim or their proxies must create a web presence. Otherwise, random, renegade opinions - which to a great extent are the reaction to the overly simplistic, overly strict English language compilations of Jewish law - will have a deleterious impact on Jewish practice. Today’s generation will increasingly look on line; the question is, what will they find?

[1] See Hayim Soloveitchik, "Rupture And Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy." Tradition, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Summer 1994)
[2] See Shlomo Zalman Havlin: על 'החתימה הספרותית' כיסוד החלוקה לתקופות בהלכה","
 מחקרים בספרות התלמודית; יום עיון לרגל מלאת שמונים שנה לשאול ליברמן, ירושלים תשמ"ג עמ' 192-148 
[3] See Shlomo Zalman Havlin, "Bein Rishonim Lachronim B'inyanei Nusach"
[4] Once when I was studying with Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik he went through a list of sefarim he had in his home growing up- quite a limited list indeed. He added that precisely because they had so few books, they learned everything in each book.
[5] Often, rulings which are deemed “strict” are not strict at all, rather the perception is due to ignorance or lax practices of previous generations – generations deprived of education by the ravages of war and persecution, exile and deprivation.
[6] There are certainly other factors as well: The baal teshuvah phenomenon which has, on the one hand, invigorated the observant community, while on the other hand it is a community generally devoid of masorah and lacking any mimetic tradition. This community necessarily embraces the written word, and is a major consumer of English language halachic literature. This is coupled with a psychological need of many among the newly observant to adopt extreme positions, perhaps as some type of "penance" for past behavior.
Another factor is the increasing acceptance by Diaspora communities of the customs of Israel, or more precisely the rulings of Israeli poskim from Bnei Braq and Yerushalayim. These customs are often the product of a society that consciously adopted stringent rulings which deviated from the rules of psak that had traditionally been accepted in the Diaspora. The motivation of these more stringent poskim of Eretz Yisrael was the notion that in order to “deserve” to settle the Land of Israel one should go beyond the letter of the law.


Bennyp said...

Fantastic! The small size and jet-setting nature of the religious world lends itself to word-of-mouth haskamos of each rabbi's webpage. Perhaps in the near future, semichos will be doled out not just with a diploma to hang, but with an SSL certificate to verify against as well.

Unknown said...

Even though so much information is available on the web, everyone must realize that Web information is not a substitute for having your Rabbi to consult for certain situations. Prolific information must not become a substitute for personal wisdom and connection.

SoMeHoW Frum said...

I enjoyed this post and will blogroll you. Please feel free to come and read my blog, as I often post on the topics mentioned above.

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman said...

Enjoyed the article!

Do you think internet Torah and Halacha is a response to the cataclysm of the Holocaust? Or perhaps, the internet itself is a form of cataclysm? Thus we respond by adapting and harnessing its power as fast as we can...