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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.

“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.”

Whatever effect the Agudah’s session and the Asifa had on blogs was minimal at best. Bloggers continued to blog, and rabbis continued to discuss both Torah topics and social issues online. If anything, blogger rabbis received a new burst of energy during the years following the Agudah’s session, covering topics from Orthodox theology, to practical halakhic matters, to the limits of contemporary Torah authority. Student’s blog, Hirhurim, which had for nearly a decade existed largely with him as its sole writer, morphed in July 2010 into Torah Musings, a magazine-type platform with a slate of its own rabbinic contributors, similar to that of Cross-Currents.

Not to be outdone, rabbis affiliated with the Open Orthodox movement, Weiss’ controversial left-leaning strain of Modern Orthodoxy, created Morethodoxy, a platform with its own slate of blogger rabbis. Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, the chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Weiss’ rabbinical seminary, and a Morethodoxy contributor, told me: “There were a good number of blogs serving the conservative elements of Orthodoxy, and there was a sense that we needed a platform to thoughtfully share the progressive perspectives, to articulate ideas that would be censored elsewhere.”

The bad boy of blogger rabbis is undoubtedly Fink, whose blog at FinkOrSwim.com is in some ways the most ambitious, one that champions a view of Orthodoxy that goes beyond the rules and deals with the most pressing, often unspoken, struggles facing some in the Orthodox community. “We live in the modern world,” Fink said, “and we have to deal with whatever comes our way.”

Fink also maintains an active and lively Facebook page, where he publishes multiple posts each day and has an audience of nearly 3,500 friends and followers, with comments sometimes reaching over a thousand per post. He has posted over 47,000 tweets to his Twitter account since starting it in 2009. No topic appears too sensitive for discussion, and his posts do not shy from touching on the most essential aspects of Orthodox faith—such as the authorship of the Torah or the fallibility of the Talmudic sages. In fact, Fink has come under criticism, with some charging that such frankness only weakens the faith of his readers. Some rabbis, Fink reported in one blog post, have called his writings heresy and advised followers not to read him. He admits to feeling hurt, but he has few regrets: “I truly believe … that what I do on a broader scale outweighs the unfortunate negative consequences.”

If Fink has allowed himself to go where few other rabbis do, he has yet to earn much ire from his fellow rabbinic bloggers. That distinction goes to the bloggers at Morethodoxy and their Open Orthodox movement, whose support for headline-grabbing halakhic innovations—such as rabbinic ordination for women or proposing marriage annulments for some agunah cases—is considered by some to go far beyond what normative Orthodoxy allows. Of late, this subject has animated the rabbinic blogosphere like almost no other. Adlerstein compares Open Orthodoxy’s innovations to that of the Conservative movement of nearly a century ago, except that the threat, he says, is now even more acute: “We are in an age where there is so much skepticism, naturally fueled by the information available on the Internet, that things can erode even faster.”

Student agrees. In Open Orthodoxy’s rush to institute communal change, without proper guidance from leading Torah authorities, he sees exactly the kind of talk he once heard from Conservative rabbis. “I crossed that line in one direction, so I see very clearly where that line is. And they [Open Orthodoxy and the Morethodoxy bloggers] have crossed it in the other direction.”

To some of the Cross-Currents bloggers, however, the issue isn’t only Open Orthodoxy. Following the SAR principal’s announcement that the school would permit girls to put on tefillin during school prayers, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, a prominent New Jersey rabbi and Cross-Currents contributor, wrote, “Once again, what passes for psak [halakhic ruling] in the Modern Orthodox world is little more than cherry-picking the sources to find the single, even strained, interpretation of a rabbinic opinion in order to permit what it wants to permit or prohibit what it wants to prohibit.”

If some find such rhetoric inflammatory, it is precisely that which creates the kind of vibrancy to these discussions, and even rabbis who don’t have strong feelings either way, find themselves drawn into the debate, if only to disavow any shared sense of urgency. Fink, for instance, considers much of the debate on tefillin to be beside the point. In an essay titled “Women Wearing Tefilin Is Really Not Such a Big Deal,” he wrote: “We already disagree on plenty of things and we can get along just fine … I don’t accept that this particular issue is so vital that it must break us up now.”

To Adlerstein, of course, the issue is a very big deal indeed and in a sense is what guides his entire worldview and much of his work on the blog. For all his support for open debate, he considers dedication to halakha supreme and unbendable unless approved by the greatest of all Torah scholars. In his view, for a high-school principal to take such a step without guidance from leading halakhic authorities constitutes a severe departure from normative Orthodoxy.

“To an inveterate student of halakha,” Adlerstein said, “that’s the kiss of death.”

***

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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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