Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Bloggers and Torah Authority

DovBear reflects on the upcoming Agudah convention and the anticipated address regarding bloggers. Based on the advertising (as reported by Orthomom), it seems that the speech is being framed as a bloggers vs. Torah Authority showdown.

As DB points out in his post, there are many, many more pressing issues that could be dealt with at the convention than bloggers. I don't think I need to repeat what those issues are (and I think he left off a few good issues as well); we all know what the strengths and weaknesses of our Orthodox communites are. What I would like to focus on is the issue of blogging and the question that is asked by the advertisement "Have bloggers declared open season on Torah Authority? "

Of course, to state that the "bloggers" have any opinion is like saying that "New Yorkers" are in favor of a particular opinion... the bloggers are a diverse crowd with diverse opinions. Are there some bloggers that have "declared open season" on Torah authority? Probably. The fact of the matter is that the J-Blogosphere is a very diverse crowd, covering the range of opinions from extreme chareidism to atheism - and just about every stripe in-between. There are bloggers that are very supportive of today's gedolim, some that are mildly supportive and some that are outright antagonistic. Stating that "bloggers" are bad because some of them are anti-Torah is like stating that books are bad because there are books written by athiests. The answer, of course, isn't to ban the medium - it's to educate people to be able to discern what information is worth listening to and internalizing and which information should be ignored and left to wither and die in the marketplace of ideas.

The blogs really first came to prominence, of course, with the ban on Rabbi Slifkin's books. Sure, there were some blogs around before then, but the ban was the first event where the J-Blogosphere played a major role in the public perception of Rabbinic authority. Since blogging is all about the disemination of information and not about restricting it (if I didn't want to diseminate information, I just wouldn't blog), naturally the bloggers tended to side with the people who were against the ban. Of course, there were some bloggers that were pro-ban; again, the J-Blogosphere is not a monolithic entity with group-think. Since the ban represented the supression of information, most of the J-blogosphere was against it. That was the start of the "blogs are against Torah authority" meme.

Most of the bloggers I know, however, do have respect for Torah authority. Heck, the fact is that many of the J-bloggers are Orthodox - they keep Torah U'Mitzvos, they learn daily and they believe in the Creator. When I have a halachic question, I go to a rav, as do most of the J-bloggers. By doing so, we show an a priori commitment to Torah authority. If we didn't, we wouldn't daven, keep kosher, etc.

But when one asks the question "Have bloggers declared open season on Torah Authority? " one has to define a few terms. Just like the term "bloggers" is not as straightforward as it seems, so too must one define the terms "declared open season" and "Torah Authority."

What is "Torah Authority?" Does it mean that I have to follow what's written in the Shulchan Aruch? Does it mean that I have to follow the pronouncements of any rav? Does it mean that I have to believe counter-factual information because a rabbinic authority of the past or present declared it to be true? Does it mean following rabbinic advise in halachic matters? Or do I need to consult them on which investments to put in my 401(k) plan? What is "Torah" and what consitutes "Authority?" Is Torah all-inclusive of every aspect of my life? Does it go as far as what hechsharim I have to follow (or reject)? What about which lulav and esrog I buy for Succos? Whether a woman uses oil or candles for Shabbos lights? Whether or not I should smoke or drink? Which model car I should buy (does V'Nishmartem M'od L'nafshosichem dictate that I *must* buy the largest, safest car?). What magazines can I subscribe to? Which radio stations can I listen to? At what point is something no longer within the realm of "Torah" that that particular activity isn't under the "Authority?" Or are *all* activities within one's life, from the moment one gets up in the morning until one goes to sleep at night, considered "Torah?"

What is "authority?" Does that mean that I have to blindly follow the dictates of rabbinic leadership in anything that is deemed to be "Torah?" Am I allowed to even question, whether publicly or privately (i.e. to myself) the reason for the decision and the factors that went into it? Do I have to submit totally and unequivocably, or is it merely a recommendation (in areas that aren't strictly halachic). If I ask a rav for advice on how to handle a family matter, but in the end I go against his advice for whatever reason, is that going against "Torah Authority?"

And lastly, what is "declared open season?" The term, of course, originates from hunting, where certain animals could only be hunted within a specific time of year (their season). When the time of year came for a specific animal, the season was declared open and hunting could begin.

Of course, no one at the Agudah thinks that the bloggers are literally hunting people in "Torah Authority" positions with guns as a hunter hunts a large animal. But the question does imply a destruction - hunting is a destructive activity - even if done for utilitarian or ecological purposes. Are we bloggers being destructive to "Torah Authority" (however it is defined)? I don't think so. To say that we are declaring open season on Torah Authority is like saying that we want to put Rabbis and gedolim out of business. However, for most of us, that's simply not the case. What we want is leadership - true leadership that is responsible to the Torah as well as to the people. What we want is not just rabbinic decisions, but the ability to understand them as well. When a ban is published on the works of Rabbi Slifkin because he states the world is older than 5,767 years, it's not enough to simply say "it contradicts the Torah, therefore it's bad and banned." You have to be able to address people's questions and concerns. Don't just tell me it's wrong - tell me why it's wrong and how you plan to explain away scientific evidence to the contrary. It's akin to a rabbinic pronouncement of "there's no elephant here" while standing under the big top at the Ringling Brothers circus.

The bottom line, of course, is that the J-blogosphere, like the telephone, is here to stay. People will continue to express their opinions, as they always have, whether it be in a telephone call to a friend, a letter to the editor of a newspaper, or a speech in a public forum. The J-blogosphere is simply a new forum that is available for people to express their ideas. If they don't want to enter this forum directly, then the best bet to maintain Torah Authority would be to educate people; giving them critical thinking skills to be able to determine what information is worth keeping and what information should be discarded. Simply hiding from the J-blogosphere only makes matters worse for them - they are, in effect, abdicating the platform to those who truly do wish them harm.

The Wolf

29 comments:

happywithhislot said...

>Does it mean that I have to believe counter-factual information because a rabbinic authority of the past or present declared it to be true?

the charedi answer is YES. (listen to rabbonim if they tell you right is left and left is right)

Sholom said...

Of course, it depends which specific blog you're talking about. This blog, for instance, has declared open season on all forms of authority, Torah authority inclusive.
The nature of authority, any form of authority, is such that it is corrupt; and the more authoritarians try to enforce their authority, the more corrupt they become. The Agudah consists of a bunch of black-hatted, white-bearded, holy-old-fucks who claim to speak for Judaism; and the fact that they refer to themselves as Gedolei Hatorah shows them to be a bunch of Misnagdim with way too much Yeshus.
The preceeding has been a shameless self-promotion.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

I think one reason why the blogosphere is so disconcerting to those that it disconcerts is the mixture. Even that which they'd generally consider good contains admixtures that would and does shock them. On Hirhurim threads you'll find people saying things that would literally make some people nauseous. (Putting aside even the issue of a young man independently publishing his "musings" as he sees fit, an issue for them.)

Honestly, I remember the feeling I had the first time I read something by R. David Weiss-Halivni. I think it was his "Peshat and Derash." This was years ago. I almost felt lightheaded and was sure I shouldn't be reading it. And he is someone who loves Torah, for sure, and there is nothing I recollect in that book that anyone can really object to on religious grounds. How far I have come.

To someone who is not used to things they have developed a sensitivity against even slight deviations, to say nothing about major ones, are shocking beyond belief. Take another blog which more or less contains nothing that the Agudah would find objectionable, Mishmar. Bari once posted about the Chazon Ish's incredible knowledge of medicine and how R. Wosner was sure that it came from Torah ( http://mishmar.blogspot.com/2006/09/how-did-chazon-ish-know-so-much-about.html ). Just read the comments there and see if the Agudah would think those comments are kasher.

Not that this is the Agudah attitude per se, but remember that there are people who wouldn't learn Torah from a sefer printed by specific publishing houses! Hypersensitive or not, even that which seems prima facie unobjectionable in the blogosphere is positively laced with what they think is hemlock. The best of it is still the worst of it.

smoo said...

Great post.
I think the real fear they have is the loss of power. When they can't control the information, they have less influence.

Gil Student said...

You mean Peshat and Derash, where Prof. Halivni announced his rejection of the Torah we have as being mi-Sinai?

I think the Agudah is more upset over blogs like UOJ than this one.

The Hedyot said...

Well put.

> I think the real fear they have is the loss of power. When they can't control the information, they have less influence.

Besides that (or maybe its a specific example of that), I think that their concern has a lot to do with keeping their constituents sheltered and isolated from all those "others" who are considered treif. When your bochurim can hear a convincing defense of "heretical" ideas or get to know those who have been vilified and discover that the image given of them is just a total distortion, it's hard to maintain your aura of truth and infallibility.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>You mean Peshat and Derash, where Prof. Halivni announced his rejection of the Torah we have as being mi-Sinai?

I had forgotten that he touched on that. I thought (as I remembered) that he didn't deal with chateu Yisrael in that book. I guess you reminded me why I felt as I did.

The Answer said...

It's funny but some of the comments here prove the Agudah's point. Many of you think the Agudah is just a power-play and the leaders main focus is maintaining control. How cynical! and baseless motzei shame-ra without proof.

You don't need to go so far to explain what is going on with the Gedolim vs. Internet/blogging. This medium is the ultimate carrier for all types of filth and mis-information, besides the many, many good things. Because of these issues, the Internet may do to the Orthodox people what the Napoleanic emancipation of the ghettos did to the isolated Jews of Europe or America did to the emigres from Europe. Look around, what percentage of the Jews are observant? The Internet and related technologies have the potential for much damage and a measured approach is warranted.

There has not been enough time for all parties, gedolim included, to get a handle on the societal implications of this technology. Given time, there will be better controls and ways to avoid the problems. Maybe in 10 years the Gedolim will change their minds.

To extend Wolf's parable: There is an elephant in the room (the Internet) and it may signficantly crush the religion. Approach with caution! :)

Still Wonderin' said...

The answer....the problem is, orthodoxy doesn't learn from its mistakes. Judaism of the Napoleanic era suffered such losses of observant Jews because the derech of the time was self-directed and not geared to address the "grievances" of those who strayed. At a time when the attraction to stray is so strong, a relevant position must be presented to counter the argument.

Rav Samson Rephael Hirsch demonstrated this concept, very successfully. In fact, the Aguda is principled, or at least was, on the worldview of RSRH.

The mistake orthodoxy is making, once again, is to assume that doing nothing is doing something.

They sit around chirping about Torah, without acknowledging that playing the same tune without regard to whether or not everyone can sing in that key, which was bound to alientate a whole bunch of people.

Then, when someone taps Orthodoxy on its shoulder and says, "Hi, I'm Joe Blog and I thing your tires are a bit low," the Orthodox mainstream goes nutso and refuses to acknowledge that anything is wrong. It must be the bloggers fault.

To cover their tracks, they're dedicating an entire forum to bash Jeremiah!

Have we been there done that?

It's so ludicrous you could laugh. But, in truth, the fact that the Orthodox mainstream leadership is so pathetically blind to the truth and acting so predictably indignant is sign enough that klal yisroel is in for a big, dangerous, painful, and absolutely certain correction.

Some leaders! Rachmanah Litzlan.

Still Wonderin' said...

"Given time, there will be better controls and ways to avoid the problems. Maybe in 10 years the Gedolim will change their minds."

I hope that when they get around to listening in ten years, someone will be around to care.

yisroel said...

the answer said,

If the agudah and the "gedolim" were smart (which they aren't) they would address the issues,
(which they won't or can't) not the bloggers.

They still think that we are little boys in yeshiva and scolding us why didn't we wear a hat and jacket when we went to get a soda at the corner store.

I guarantee you that after the convention, there will be an explosion of new bloggers and readers to blogs throughout the world.

So,Agudah do yourself and orthodox judaism a favor. Don't mention the topic of blogs at the convention.

The Hedyot said...

> the Internet may do to the Orthodox people what the Napoleanic emancipation of the ghettos did to the isolated Jews of Europe or America did to the emigres from Europe.

The blogs are exactly like those examples. All that happened in those eras was that an opportunity was created that allowed for religious people to choose an alternative. Napolean didn't make anyone be not frum. He didn't even tell them to be not frum. He just said, "you are now free to choose". And once they had the opportunity to stretch their wings, they discovered how little their Judaism meant to them. The problem did not lie in Napolean or the Enlightenment, it lay in the society and the leaders, for fostering a Judaism that could only keep its adherents by locking them in. The blogs do the same thing, opening people up to alternatives, and when held up to that light, contemporary Agudah-style Orthodoxy doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

In fairness it was a little more than that. Napolean didn't say you can choose so much as force communal and educational reforms on the Jews under his control. And citizenship came with conditions, and they weren't given the choice to accept or deny it. It's like saying "send your kid to public school and then let him choose." Who are we kidding? You send your kid to a public school he usually won't choose to be an Orthodox adult.

Now some would say that's just because the ideas can't compete in the marketplace and that means the ideas aren't as good. Sometimes the competition is just bigger, not necessarily better. If you force the old-style kehilla to disappear, if you force the kids to get a French (or German) education of course they're not going to freely choose to grow up to be traditional Jewish adults, just as if you force the kids to get a yeshiva education, keep together the kehilla (think of New Square) most of them will grow up in the mold.

Gil Student said...

I fully agree with Reb Wolf that blogs are just a medium and what really matters is the message, not the medium.

However, blogs allow the op-ed equivalent of Haaretz into Charedi homes. That is serious negative propaganda that Charedim are reading.

PsychoToddler said...

I'm sure they don't care about the countless numbers of people who have reconnected with Judaism through the blogosphere. I can't tell you how many people I've come across through my blog that have totally blown me away by telling me they are keeping shabbos now or kashering their kitchens, and I know for a fact that before the blogosphere they kept far away from orthodox jews and their incomprehensible ways.

But I guess that doesn't concern the agudah. Anyway isn't it all academic? I thought the whole of the "internet" was assur anyway.

Sorry for the bitterness. I'm not crazy about my rabbi coming back from the Agudah convention and telling me I'd better close my blog because it's now assur.

The Answer said...

The problem I believe the gedolim are dealing with is the sudden arrival of new technology that has opened up the world in vast new ways. How does the Orthodox world grapple with that in an effective way? Yes Hirsh crafted an effective counter to the challenge of secularism and yes we use it today effectively. But look how many Jews left Orthodoxy at the time because there others did not find an effective approach and the un-filtered exposure to the outside really caused many to leave the fold.
Judaism has answers to these issues, it just takes time to find them. And time is not Internet time. Meanwhile what should we do? I think raising the warning flag really high is a good start. Getting people's attention, which they have, is a good start. Opening the public discussion is a good start, which they are doing at the convention. I view this as a positive developmenet, even if (when) the speakers denounce the blogs, at least it is being addressed. In time I see things changing once things are put into perspective.

BrooklynWolf said...

Personally, I'm very curious as to what they will be saying. Will they say that no one should read any blogs, or will they stress the importance of teaching people how to discern good information from bad. *That*, IMHO, will be the key - will they be willing to see the medium for what it is, a tool that can be (and is) used for good and bad; or will they just issue a knee-jerk blanket condemnation.

The Wolf

Still Wonderin' said...

the answer, lamenting those who were lost despite RSRHs innovative worldview is a self-defeating, all or nothing attitude. And if this was the derech of judaism, we'd have died out a long time ago due to the heavy losses Jews sustained. so don't point to those who were lost as proof of your concept to trun inward. It's a failed model as it only works for the most mindless, cloistered Jews.

Second, you view the warning flag as positive, I view it as denial. This is the first step to demonizing and seperating jews from other jews. This type of divisiveness is RMSs raison detre. He is a divisive personality who is proud of the dissonance he spreads.

The blog issue being raised here is nothing but a smokescreen for the inneffective model the current mainstream CREATED here in America and their stubborn refusal to examine what is going wrong in an intellectualy honest and communally beneficial way.

The Agudah, due to its nonexistant agenda, has allowed itself to be manipulated into becoming a pansy enabler that does nothing but perpetuate the spiritual deadlock created by a few idealistic mules.

Marx and Engels were idealists, too. Look what happened. The RMSs of the world may sound genuine. But this one-dimensional, my-way-or-the-highway mindset is doing far more damage that good. And anyone not in the thrall of this collapsing club can see it as clear as day.

The Answer said...

Still wonderin:
Your negative attitude towards Agudah comes through loud and clear.

The Agudah has done great things to build up Orthodoxy in America, undoubtably strengthening the religious commitement of millions over the past 50 years. Yet you are willing to completely dismiss them as fools! I would agree there are faults and the faults may be slowly growing, but it is not time to through out the approach that has been so succesful. Such knee-jerk reactions will lead who-knows-where. What we need are rational people to discuss the issues, examine the facts and find a way to deal with the challenge.

Wolf: There is no way they say anyhing balanced at this convention regarding blogs or Internet. They are still signaling the warnings and circling the wagons in "protect the people" mode. Perhaps this is overreacting, but there are many ignorant parents who have no clue. They need to be woken up to what their kids can, or are, getting into. Not everyone is tech-savvy like ourselves to know the dangers and take appropriate measures to protech our families.

The Hedyot said...

> ...will they stress the importance of teaching people how to discern good information from bad. *That*, IMHO, will be the key...

IMHO, that misses the crux of the issue. The internet is not just another medium, like TV, or newspapers. It enables people to challenge the leaders, the establishment, the status quo. It allows for discontent and criticism to be aired for all to hear. It enables people to demand accountability. All these are things that are anathema to the chareidi way of Orthodoxy. This is not just another tool that can be used for good or bad. Their problem is not about people not using discretion. Their problem is the very notion of what the internet offers. And what the internet offers people is something that threatens them in a way that they've never been threatened before.

Still Wonderin' said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Still Wonderin' said...

"Your negative attitude towards Agudah comes through loud and clear."

No. Don't trivialize my position as one of random disregard. My negative attitude is about the Aguda's low self-confidence and willingness to let any loudmouth yahoo hijack their name. That's what I find distateful.

I know exactly what I'm talking about.....that the Agudah is now one of a long list of spinless enablers who have allowed a warped, divisive mindset to infect every bastion of American Orthodoxy.

Mike S said...

One fundamental source of disagreement between the chareidi and MO views of the world was touched on above. That is whether most of those who have left the derech since Napoleon did so because they were tempted by secular society, or because they did not want to be constrained by a society and by religious authority which imposed rigid social restrictions beyond the requirements of halocha, giving little scope for individuals to take advantage of the good in the larger society while remaining in the fold.

Of course, anyone with a shred of intellectual honesty will admit that both happened to some extent. But which was more important? How you will respond to modern American society will largely depend on the answer.

The Answer said...

For Mike S.
I believe it was the SUDDEN confrontation of freedom with an Orthodox society ill-prepared to defend that lead to so many leaving the fold. Today we have a cogent approach that works quite well. Whether this approach will work in the future against future challenges remains to be seen.

SephardiLady said...

I'm hoping for a full and comprehensive report from the Agudah convention. I won't be going, so I can't report. And the young Rav that we are close to who was the most likely to go, does not attend the Agudah convention. So, I won't be doing the reporting.

There is plenty of bad in the internet, but it also serves as a medium for reasonable people to discuss ideas of common interest. Quite frankly, it is difficult to express some of these ideas in public due for numerous reasons(even when your ideas line up with "da'as Torah" however you define it).

The medium is here to stay. I am looking forward to a report from some blogger.

Still Wonderin' said...

"Today we have a cogent approach that works quite well. "

The answer --- please share. What is that cogent approach and what is your proof that it works?

The Answer said...

still wonderin:

What works:
-- Yeshivos are bursting with boys and girls commited to Orthodoxy. Only a small percentage fall out.

-- Those that graduate turn out to be upstanding American citizens who support their families (after Kollel in many cases).

-- There are many different blends of Orthodoxy to choose from so one can move from camp to camp depending on their personal preference and still remain frum.

-- Men learn many hours of Torah instead of being involved with American cultural events (read movies, sports).

-- The Jewish organizations, Agudah and OU included, have helped to make the US fed and state governments more tolerant and helpful to Orthodox Jews.

Need I go on?

The system is working. Yes their are faults, but you are WAY OVEREACTING. Adjustments are needed, and always will be to face the society around us.

Still Wonderin' said...

The Answer said...
still wonderin:

What works:
-- Yeshivos are bursting with boys and girls commited to Orthodoxy. Only a small percentage fall out.


Baruch Hashem. It's just a shame that among these, so many of those students are inculcated with "Judaism as style" or "Judaism as spiritually abusive dogma" or "Judaism as a fabulous cover for my partying lifestyle" or "Judaism as a wonderful way of life that I'm trapped in because I have no educaiton or realistic concept of the world that lies daled amos outside Brooklyn. The last "style is the answer to why so few drop out.

-- Those that graduate turn out to be upstanding American citizens who support their families (after Kollel in many cases).

WHAT? WHAT? WHAT? I'm speechless you'd even assert such foolishness. Are You Nuts? Misinformed? Delusional? In Denial? In A Coma? Take your pick, but the degree of civic participation and communal upstandingness has declined IN DIRECT PROPORTION to the so-called rise of Daas Torah frumkeit. I will never forget the ungodly realization I had as a teenager that the more yeshivish the kid was, the more of an absolute theiving, thuggish, scumbag I could be sure he'd be. And now all these delighful little criminals are grown up raising a new generation of thugs, thieves, and welfare cheats. Is that what you mean?"

-- There are many different blends of Orthodoxy to choose from so one can move from camp to camp depending on their personal preference and still remain frum.

Sure....but if you become more modern, you'd better have an education and money, lest you someday decide to marry off your children and no one will give you the time of day. Or if you become more frum, and you some day decide to marry off your children, and no one will give you the time of day (marry into the family of a baalk t'shuva....pas nisht!

-- Men learn many hours of Torah instead of being involved with American cultural events (read movies, sports).

That has nothing to do with the yeshivas or the oppressive daas torah regimes. It has to do with personal interest, ability, and upbringing. and it occurs across the board. from Lakewood to JTS.

-- The Jewish organizations, Agudah and OU included, have helped to make the US fed and state governments more tolerant and helpful to Orthodox Jews.

Baruch Hashem all the millions of dollars they collect has gone to some public good. But why'd the Agudah stop?

Need I go on?

When did you start?

The system is working. Yes their are faults, but you are WAY OVEREACTING. Adjustments are needed, and always will be to face the society around us.

The system could work. It would just be nice if the people who place themselves in charge would be a little more mindful to reality as it is and not as their jaded, nepotistic, self-interested, arrogant, misinformed, sheltered and out-of-touch reality appears to them. Then maybe some of the absolutely essential adjustments could be made instead of causing "crisis" after "crisis" (read: fundraising opportunity).

BarbaraFromCalifornia said...

You raise a fascinating and intelligent point.

I thought that the entire reason for separating men and woman had to do primarily with prayer, and for that reason, it has been commanded.

It is puzzeling, to say the least why a man could not walk on the same sidewalk as a woman. What would be the purpose? Would the next segregation be for sub-way seats, separate shopping carts in the store, ad infinitim?

I appreciate your point, and think you write very well.

Thank you to Ellen for recommending and leading me to your blog.