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Online and Unabashed: Orthodox Rabbis and Scholars Take to the Internet

A universe of blogs has sprung up where issues of Jewish law and rabbinic authority are discussed in unprecedented ways

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(Collage Tablet Magazine; original photos YIVO and Shutterstock )
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In November 2006, the Agudath Israel of America, the leading advocacy group for Haredi Jews in the United States, held a special session at its annual convention to focus on the dangers of Orthodox blogs. “Have bloggers declared open season on Torah Authority?” an advertising insert in the Haredi newspaper Hamodia asked in the weeks preceding the convention.

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel, executive vice president of the Agudah, was quoted in the Haredi newspaper Yated Ne’eman as calling the proliferation of Orthodox blogs “troubling” and saying that their efforts had the “intended effect of undermining any semblance of Torah authority in our community.” According to a report in Yated Ne’eman, one of the speakers, Rabbi Efraim Wachsman, declared bloggers to be “actors in the tradition of Korach, the Tziddukim, and the Maskilim,” traditional archetypes for rebellion against Torah authority. Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon, a leading rabbi at Lakewood’s Beth Medrash Govoha yeshiva, reportedly called blogs “a plague” and an “insidious … poison.”

Rabbi Gil Student, author of the blog Hirhurim, attended the session and was disturbed by what he heard. “They were using all this over-the-top language,” he told me, “declaring blogs to be a churban hadas [the destruction of the faith], and preventing the coming of the Messiah—or something of that nature.” Student disagrees: He believes that blogs serve an important purpose in analyzing Torah topics and the spectrum of Orthodox worldviews. “If you want to get people’s attention, you have to be where they are. If we’re not there, we lose the battle.” Student says that he sees the effects of blogs in the real world. Rabbinic figures with whom he is in touch will often mention things he wrote on his blog, even when they disagree. “There’s cross-pollination,” he said. “Ideas are moving.”

Those ideas have continued to move, and Orthodox blogs have become a widely accepted forum for scholarly discussions. In the years since that Agudah convention, scores of blogs have taken off. Some of the most popular are whistleblower blogs, such as Failed Messiah, Frum Follies, and Unorthodox Jew, which have sought to expose problems like sexual abuse cover-ups and other forms of social and communal misconduct. Frum Satire is a popular humor blog that skewers the idiosyncrasies of Orthodox life, while Pop Chassid offers insights on everything from Matisyahu’s transformation to tips for a happy marriage. Most notable, though, has been the emergence of online voices by Orthodox rabbis and scholars from across the Orthodox spectrum who have taken to blogs, as well as Facebook and other social media, to establish a frontline battleground for cutting-edge halakhic and ideological sparring. What makes these voices unique is their ability to straddle the line between promoting establishment rabbinic views and allowing previously unchallenged positions to be newly engaged with. As a result, a growing form of scholarly discourse is taking place not in the beit midrash or traditional rabbinic responsa but in a virtual space more accessible to the laity and the masses than ever before.

***

In April 2003, I started an anonymous blog called Hasidic Rebel about the challenges of living in an insular ultra-Orthodox community. In public comments and private emails, readers berated me for speaking so freely and frankly and entreated me to do teshuvah. Some called me a traitor; some sent death wishes. More telling, however, were the hundreds of messages I received in support, which showed the desperate need for alternative voices alongside establishment narratives. One email stood out from the rest, because its sender was a prominent Haredi rabbi, who told me that the community needed voices like mine.

The author was Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, who had been involved in Orthodox outreach and education for decades. Not long after sending that note, Adlerstein co-founded a blog of his own called Cross-Currents, along with Rabbi Yakov Menken. Cross-Currents was a platform not for dissent but rather for Haredi rabbinic perspectives, with some of its writers closely aligned with the Haredi establishment and the New York-based Agudath Israel of America. (Rabbi Avi Shafran, the Agudah’s longtime director of public affairs, is a regular contributor, as is Haredi journalist Jonathan Rosenblum.) “There was no one in the frum world responding publicly to criticism,” Adlerstein told me recently. And so he and others approached Rabbi Yakov Perlow, the Novominsker rebbe and head of the Agudah’s Council of Torah Sages, with the blog idea. “He was gung-ho for it,” Adlerstein recalled, noting that Perlow even supported allowing critical comments, as long as they’d be answered: “We assumed there would be hostile voices but we’d have enough voices to counter them,” said Adlerstein. “We wouldn’t necessarily win the argument, but we’d have a balance.”

Still, what Adlerstein and Menken were doing was unique at the time, creating a platform for spirited debate on timely issues outside of the controlled and sedate discourse of Orthodox publications and annual conventions. It fit into what Adlerstein sees as a broader pattern of openness engendered by the Internet age. “I see a democratization of Yiddishkeit, whether we like it or not,” Adlerstein told me. “Who gets to grab the mic at an Agudah convention? Only a few people. And there are a lot of frustrated people, thinking, ‘If only we had a chance to tell them what’s really on our minds.’ So, if they won’t give you the mic at the Agudah convention, people will create their own.”

While my own blogging efforts have since morphed into other projects, Cross-Currents continues to offer a forum for discourse around Orthodoxy. When, late last year, a principal at SAR, a Modern Orthodox high school in New York, announced that it would allow girls to wear tefillin during school prayers, rabbis on Cross-Currents and elsewhere debated online the underlying halakhic issues—as well as the broader question of who has the right to pasken, or issue halakhic rulings, especially on matters that carry broad communal significance. (Tefillin for girls, for instance, is seen as a flashpoint in the broader discussion on women’s roles within Orthodoxy.) Other heated discussions took place online about military conscription for Haredi yeshiva students in Israel, partnership minyanim that allow women to lead various parts of prayer services, and a controversial project called Project TABS that examines modern biblical scholarship alongside traditional rabbinic views—a project declared heretical by some Orthodox rabbis.

After nearly a decade, Cross-Currents is still posting new essays almost daily. To the left of it is Torah Musings, an outgrowth of Student’s Hirhurim blog, which publishes voices on the Modern Orthodox end. To the far left is Morethodoxy, a group blog for rabbis loosely affiliated with Rabbi Avi Weiss’ Open Orthodoxy movement. (To the right, alas, is no one—at least as far as rabbinic blogs are concerned—as those groups tend to shun Internet use completely.) Alongside these are independent voices such as Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s Rationalist Judaism, Rabbi Harry Maryles’ Emes Ve-Emunah blog, and the blog of Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, each with its own devoted—and often overlapping—readership, and lively cross-blog debates. Together, these rabbis and scholars from various strains of Orthodoxy have created an unusually vibrant platform for dialogue and an exchange of ideas while sidestepping the tightly controlled entry points of mainstream Orthodox publications.

***

Orthodox rabbinic blogs first achieved prominence in response to what would become known as the Slifkin affair. During the early 2000s, Slifkin, a Haredi author dubbed the “Zoo Rabbi” for his expertise on the intersection of Torah and zoology, published several books that sought to reconcile modern scientific knowledge with traditional rabbinic and Talmudic views. His books took what he calls a “Maimonidean approach to resolving conflicts between Torah and science”—that the account of creation is not to be interpreted literally, and that the sages of the Talmud erred in some of their statements regarding the natural world. Slifkin published his books with approbations from leading Orthodox rabbis, including Adlerstein. In late 2004, however, a group of rabbis declared Slifkin’s books heretical. They refused to meet with the author to discuss the matter, and posters bearing the signature of leading American and Israeli rabbis were disseminated in Israel and the United States, declaring the books forbidden and calling for them to be burned.

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Online and Unabashed: Orthodox Rabbis and Scholars Take to the Internet

A universe of blogs has sprung up where issues of Jewish law and rabbinic authority are discussed in unprecedented ways