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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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“Slifkin was a watershed moment in contemporary yiddishkeit,” Adlerstein told me. “Many began to question what world they were living in.” Adlerstein still maintains his friendship with Slifkin and support for his books—although he disagrees with some of his current writings. Still, he told me, “to this day I think Slifkin’s treatment of evolution is the single best thing out there from the frum community.”

Orthodox rabbinic bloggers, such as Student and Maryles, took up the most spirited defense of Slifkin’s books, arguing that they were well within the bounds of acceptable Orthodox discourse. When Slifkin’s Haredi publisher and distributor, Feldheim and Targum Press, recalled the books from bookstores, Student took over the distribution through his own Orthodox book distribution company, Yashar Press.

The blogger responses to the affair caused panic in some rabbinic circles. In an essay titled “The Slifkin Affair,” Rabbi Aaron Feldman, the head of the Haredi Ner Israel yeshiva in Baltimore, attempted to justify the ban and decried what he called “tasteless, derogatory attacks on Torah authorities” by bloggers who express “unchecked and unedited opinion with impunity.” Bloggers, Feldman claimed, had caused a crisis of confidence among traditional Jews who, until then, had left the ideas of subservience to rabbinic authority unchallenged.

When the Agudah created its session about bloggers at its 2006 convention, the organization gave no indication whether its targets were the rabbinic blogs engaged in scholarly discourse or whistleblower blogs that publicized social and communal misdeeds. Ostensibly, the writers of Cross-Currents would be exempt from the Agudah’s opprobrium, as they generally were aligned with its worldview. But other blogger rabbis grew concerned. Maryles, in particular, wrote: “If my suspicions are correct, they are going to blast blogs like mine and by implication people like me for lacking Kavod HaTorah [respect for Torah].”

As dismayed as he was by the rhetoric at the Agudah convention, Student admits that a blog can pose real challenges. “Some people misuse it,” he said. “Certain tones are unhelpful and breed disrespect … jumping to conclusions, assuming the worst about people. It might make you feel like a smart guy, but I believe knee-jerk criticism is very damaging to the community.”

Student was raised within the Conservative movement; while attending an Orthodox high school he embraced Orthodoxy and went on to study at Yeshiva University. He is now a self-described traditionalist and sees much of value in the communal structures of the Orthodox world. And while he often uses his blog to critique both the Haredi and Modern Orthodox communities for their failures and excesses, he is inclined to see leaders more charitably. “I was never a gotcha kind of guy,” he said. “I don’t believe in rebellion and insurrection. I believe in influence.”

Slifkin himself continued publishing regular updates to his website, Zoo Torah, penning response after response to the rabbinic proclamations against his work and publishing much of his correspondence with the rabbis involved in the controversy, along with detailed critiques of their positions. In one letter to a rabbi who opposed his books, Slifkin offered 41 citations from rabbinic sources ranging from medieval to contemporary in support one of his essential claims: that the sages of the Talmud erred in matters of science. This letter and many others were then posted on his site, allowing readers a firsthand look at the back and forth between him and his opponents. “One reason why it exploded in such a unique way was that I had a website,” Slifkin told me in a recent email. “I was able to get my point of view out to thousands of people in a way that would not have been possible in the pre-Internet era.”

Following the ban on his books, Slifkin made some changes and showed his opponents a degree of sympathy. He went from using Nosson as his first name to Natan—signalling a switch from a Haredi to a more modern (or what he would term “post-Haredi”) identity, acknowledging that his works were not intended for more insular Haredi audiences. He also penned an essay, “In Defense of My Opponents,” in which he offered an understanding of his opponents’ position. (He also claims that he sold many more books after the ban than he did prior.) Aside from these concessions, however, Slifkin appeared unstoppable and launched a new blog, Rationalist Judaism, in March 2009.

Slifkin’s new blog would soon become enormously popular within the rabbinic blogosphere, with hundreds of comments on his posts and other bloggers frequently addressing his writings in their own blogs. His goal, Slifkin told me, was to explore and share “an approach to Judaism that was dominant in the medieval period, notably embodied in Maimonides, but which has since been on the decline, to the extent that many people today, even learned rabbis, are unaware that it ever existed.” According to Slifkin, “the major Orthodox weekly magazines do not allow expression for diverse points of view. The Internet in general, and the blogosphere in particular, has dramatically changed this. Blogs are able to reach thousands of people and have a genuine impact on society.”

By many accounts, he has almost single-handedly brought an entire new worldview to the fore. “Slifkin revolutionized modern Orthodox Judaism,” Fink told me. “[His philosophy] is now a legitimate issue.”

***

In addition to the Agudah’s 2006 convention session, campaigns against general Internet use have existed in some Orthodox circles throughout the decade, notably climaxing with the Anti-Internet Asifa in May 2012 at New York’s CitiField. The rabbis I spoke to, however, played down the view that Orthodoxy discouraged all Internet use. “I think that’s a mischaracterization of the Asifa’s intention,” Adlerstein told me. The appeal, he said, was for people to find ways to use the Internet more responsibly, such as by installing filters. (Adlerstein himself uses K-9 Web Protection.) “In my view,” he said, “it’s about keeping temptation at bay without losing a connection to the world out there.”

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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