The impact of the Internet and other contemporary developments on halachah
Almost twenty-five years ago, I attended a public address by my professor of Medieval Jewish history, Dr. Haym Soloveitchik, on the topic of Orthodoxy in America. As I recall, Dr. Soloveitchik mesmerized the audience as he demonstrated that he was not only a brilliant historian who could turn obscure legal sources into a clear and meaningful historical narrative, but he was now one of the most penetrating and insightful sociologists of the generation. This lecture appeared in Accounting for Fundamentalisms: The Dynamic Character of Movements (Chicago, 1994), and an expanded version was published in Tradition (28:4), titled “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy.”
Dr. Soloveitchik affirmed that which many had long thought about Orthodoxy in the second half of the twentieth century—“the nature of contemporary spirituality has undergone a transformation”—and he set out to understand what he called “the swing to the Right,” including the tendency towards halachic stringency. He observed that the Orthodox community had turned towards texts for halachic guidance and abandoned the practice of relying upon traditions passed from parent to child.
Dr. Soloveitchik posited that from the beginning of the twentieth century and continuing after World War II, the Holocaust and the destruction of European Jewry, contemporary religion lost its roots or, more precisely, what he called “a mimetic tradition,” a phrase which from that day on entered the Modern Orthodox lexicon. In the past, not only values but also religious practice was conveyed by living example, and not through texts. The absence of a continuous tradition, or masorah, led to religious insecurity; people now turned to detailed texts, as opposed to their parents and elders, to learn how to observe Jewish law and live an observant lifestyle.
Of course, this phenomenon is not new. Rabbinic tradition has turned towards accessible halachic compendiums numerous times, specifically after a break in religious continuity. For example, halachic treatises, such as the Maharil (Rabbi Yaakov Moelin), were written during the century after the Black Plague (fifteenth century) in order to restore tradition, and halachic codes, such as the Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Chayei Adam and the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, were written in the first half of the nineteenth century in order to create it.
Dr. Soloveitchik’s essay was widely acclaimed and also criticized.2 Some felt that he drew his conclusions from too narrow a segment of Orthodoxy; others felt that he was overly critical of the Chareidi religious experience. His romanticization of post-war American Jewry was also somewhat jarring in light of his own description of their (lax) religious observance, and one almost gets the impression that he does not share the excitement felt by others towards the explosion of Torah learning, scholarship and religious observance throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
Over the past twenty-five years, the Orthodox world has seen numerous challenges and changes, expansion and retreat. I often felt that while Dr. Soloveitchik may have brilliantly described what he observed during the second half of the twentieth century, the Orthodox world experienced major changes in the years following the publication of his essay. First, just a few months after the publication of “Rupture and Reconstruction,” Sir Tim Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium, and the world began to change in ways which we have yet to understand fully. Second, the mid-to-late 1990s saw the emergence of a spiritual renewal, dominated at first by Neo-Chassidus, and later by other intellectual and religious trends. Therefore, Dr. Soloveitchik’s thesis must be reevaluated based on subsequent developments.
The Impact of the Internet on Halachic Research and Practice
Dr. Soloveitchik describes the proliferation of halachic compendiums serving the public, which seeks to learn how to meticulously fulfill the halachah through studying the written word. In a deeper sense, these books replace the traditional family or communal masorah. In the absence of a clear family or communal custom, the Shemirat Shabbat KeHilchatah or the ArtScroll Halachah Series, determines personal, family and communal halachic standards. Twenty-five years later, the publication of these books continues.
However, the transition from custom to text took a giant step forward with the proliferation of halachic resources on the Internet, which has changed the dynamic of halachic pesak and observance. Alongside the massive amounts of Jewish content, including materials relating to the Bible, Jewish philosophy and history, and the State of Israel, there is a vast amount of halachic resources available on the Internet. Over the past twenty to twenty-five years, almost all halachic questions, relevant, contemporary or obscure, have been written about and published on the Internet. Articles, halachic guidelines and online question and answers (she’eilot u’teshuvot) are available at the touch of a finger.3
Many have expressed their concern about this phenomenon. Internet responsa are often short and terse, lacking nuance, depth and sources. This accusation has often been directed at Internet responsa authored by well-known Israeli rabbis, such as Rabbi Shlomo Aviner.
On the Internet, however, there are no rules; anyone and everyone can be a posek. Almost all opinions bear the same weight, and almost all responders enjoy the same gravitas.
In addition, and possibly more troubling, while there are numerous genres of halachic material on the Internet, common to almost all is the lack of quality control and the potential for unknown authors to appear side by side with experienced halachic authorities. The credentials of those who write books are readily available, and major publishing companies usually only print the works of qualified scholars. On the Internet, however, there are no rules; anyone and everyone can be a posek. Almost all opinions bear the same weight, and almost all responders enjoy the same gravitas. Even more troubling is the phenomenon of asking halachic questions to the collective hive mind, with virtually no regard for experience or expertise. However, while this is largely true, a patient and skilled Google-researcher may uncover a wealth of information, much of which may have been inaccessible or unavailable before the Internet.
Some note an interesting paradox: As the Internet encourages greater religious autonomy, and mere Google-searches produce halachic answers, many rabbis report that they are asked even more questions than in the past. Similar to the phenomenon of patients challenging doctors with Internet-based medical and diagnostic information, rabbis are now challenged by and expected to relate to other opinions found online. The availability of halachic information not only empowers the questioner but also leads to more questions and more precise and diligent mitzvah observance. Numerous teachers and congregational rabbis in America and Israel are known to answer hundreds, if not thousands, of questions, both privately and in WhatsApp groups that host these discussions. This phenomenon is worthy of a separate study.
In recent years, the Internet has become the venue for certain halachic discussions. For example, the increased popularity of women’s megillah readings and hakafot on Simchat Torah may be attributed to the availability of halachic sources and online support and encouragement found on social media. Similarly, more radical practices such as partnership minyanim and the ordination of women have been almost exclusively discussed online. Due to the speed and venue of these discussions, proper rigor and peer review are absent or ineffective, and the Internet has enabled the boundaries of “masorah” to be stretched, if not breached and redefined, in a manner which Dr. Soloveitchik could not have predicted.
Therefore, we might conclude that in the age of the Internet, when halachic material is readily available in all languages and levels of understanding, the scope, methodology and impact of masorah have been altered. Not only do people no longer follow a mimetic tradition passed on from parent to child, they do not adhere to familial or communal standards. Those who provide halachic rulings and guidance on the Internet become the new chains in the masorah. One might even say that the Internet threatens to completely replace tradition, as one’s practice may be determined by halachic authorities (or just ordinary Facebook users) from around the world, from different communities and religious ethnicities.4 As religious communities grow farther from the days of a mimetic tradition, this appears to be the natural next step.
Neo-Chassidus5 and “Commitment vs. Connection”
Dr. Soloveitchik concluded his essay by describing how Jews today have lost “the touch of His presence, [and] they seek now solace in the pressure of his yoke.” While Jews of Eastern Europe felt “God’s palpable presence and direct, natural involvement in daily life,” contemporary Orthodox Americans generally prefer adherence to the halachic minutia, especially through the observance of stringencies, “maximum-position compliance.”
Only a few years after the essay was published, a new trend or movement, later known as “Neo-Chassidus,” began to take root in Israel and later spread to America. This phenomenon is characterized by a greater engagement with the inner, spiritual aspects of the Torah, or as some would say, with God. Of course, this turn to the inner, spiritual and even mystical side of Judaism also has its historical precedents, whether in the Chassidei Ashkenaz of twelfth- and thirteenth-century Germany or the Chassidus of eighteenth-century Poland and Eastern Europe. Some, however, detected a lack of halachic commitment alongside this search for spiritual meaning.6
In response to this quickly spreading socio-religious movement, Rabbi Yehuda Amital, zt”l, then rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion, delivered (and later published) an address titled “Commitment vs. ‘Connection’: The Current Crisis of our Youth” (Yeshivat Har Etzion, 2003). Rabbi Amital described the “search for avodat Hashem that is meaningful and relevant, here and now.” He noted the “dryness and lack of spirituality that characterize[s] the great majority of Religious Zionist synagogues” and how “the sense of obligation has weakened over the years, if not disappeared altogether.” Finally, he spoke of liberal individualism, experience without commitment, and selective connection, which he was witnessing. Rabbi Amital was fully aware of the reasons why Neo-Chassidus was taking root and identified the risks and aspects he found dangerous and incompatible with a traditional religious outlook.
In the past, not only values but also religious practice was conveyed by living example, and not through texts. The absence of a continuous tradition, or masorah, led to religious insecurity; people now turned to detailed texts, as opposed to their parents and elders, to learn how to observe Jewish law and live an observant lifestyle.
What appears to be a similar phenomenon also developed in America as well. Since the mid-1990s, high schools, summer camps and Israeli yeshivot and seminaries have changed radically. One high school principal once remarked to me, “I run a summer camp with APs.” He referred to the emphasis upon informal education and spirituality through Shabbatons, singing, dancing, and other opportunities to “connect” and “experience” Judaism—a seemingly welcome addition to the traditional “dry” religious studies curriculum. However, some observed that while years ago students brought closer to religion sought to learn more Torah, and to meticulously adhere to the details of the halachah, in recent years there isn’t necessarily a correlation between closeness to God and halachic observance.7 Although I believe that the “commitment vs. connection” phenomenon in Israel fundamentally differs from that in America,8 in both cases, a “rupture” of masorah leads to a thirst for religious connection, not necessarily accompanied by commitment.9
One might view the development described above as contradicting Dr. Soloveitchik’s thesis. He portrays a generation turning to the written word to compensate for the absence of a firm, mimetic tradition, and I describe an erosion of authority, and youth looking for inspiration without necessarily searching for commitment. However, I believe that in essence both phenomena stem from the same source that Dr. Soloveitchik identified—a “rupture” in the tradition. While one generation attempts to reconstruct its lost masorah by turning inwards towards halachic texts, clinging to “the yoke,” another generation doesn’t feel the lack of a masorah, doesn’t consider itself connected or bound to the past, and therefore seeks not to reconstruct but to create and to connect, even if at times it lacks the sense of obligation and continuity.
This religious trend, which erupted shortly after the publication of Dr. Soloveitchik’s essay, is not reflected in or predicted by “Rupture and Reconstruction,” but may be attributed to a similar cause and is also worthy of study.
Dr. Soloveitchik’s description of the centrality of the masorah to religious life, whether a “ruptured masorah” or even an “absent masorah,” continues to contribute to our understanding of contemporary Orthodoxy in the age of the Internet, when “masorah” is more complex than ever. While those looking to restore a ruptured masorah may turn to texts and meticulous mitzvah observance, those who feel very little connection to a tradition may seek spiritual and religious meaning without necessarily feeling bound by or committed to the halachah. Masorah may also be more complex in the twenty-first century than ever before as parents, teachers and communal norms are replaced by knowledge gleaned from the Internet. It is our responsibility to understand and be aware of these trends, as we strive to strike the proper balance between tradition and innovation, and commitment and connection. Dr. Soloveitchik’s framework may continue to challenge and guide us for generations to come.
1. I would like to thank Mrs. Mali Brofsky, Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Mr. Joseph Kaplan and Rabbi Reuven Tradburks for their helpful comments and insights.
2. See, for example, Hillel Goldberg, “Responding to Rupture and Reconstruction,” Tradition 31: 2 (winter 1997). See also Isaac Chavel, “On Haym Soloveitchik’s ‘Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodox Society’: A Response,” The Torah U-Madda Journal 7 (1997): 122-136, and “Clarifications and Reply,” Haym Soloveitchik, ibid., 137-149.
3. See Rav Aryeh Katz, “Darkhei Shu”t Chadashot (Telefon, Internet uMeseronim)—Yitronot, Chesronot uMaskanot,” HaMaayan, Tevet 5775.
4. Some do note a different, opposite trend: People are able to reconnect, or deepen their connection to their German, Sephardic, Chassidic or other traditions through online resources and virtual communities. In addition, others note that the plethora of available information has empowered those promoting more liberal halachic positions, as it becomes more apparent which practices are source-based and those which may be primarily based upon tradition.
5. For a relatively recent perspective, see Barbara Bensoussan, “Rekindling the Flame: Neo-Chassidus Brings the Inner Light of Torah to Modern Orthodoxy,” Jewish Action (winter 2014).
6. Rabbi Ariel Evan Mayse, in an article to be published in the next volume of the Orthodox Forum Series, “Contemporary Uses and Forms of Hasidut,” ed. Shlomo Zuckier (Urim, 2019), “The Development of Neo-Hasidism: Echoes and Repercussions,” describes the roots of this movement. He writes:
Neo-Hasidism emerges from a twofold disappointment with the contemporary world. It reflects a lack of confidence in the secular world and the ideals of progress and modernization. Literature, philosophy, science, and technology hold wisdom and can greatly improve our lives, but these fields do not provide sufficient answers to the deepest questions of religion and existence for the seekers drawn to neo-Hasidism. This ironic “disenchantment” with the secular is all the more profound in the post-Holocaust world. But neo-Hasidism is also a response to the lack of spirituality or lack of intellectual and theological openness in the modern Jewish religious world.
He later describes its attempt to penetrate traditional Orthodox communities.
Neo-Hasidism found little traction in Orthodox circles where halakhah is the defining feature of Jewish life and its practice is considered the summum bonum of religious experience . . . The turn toward theology and spirituality at the expense of engagement with (and practice of) halakhah in some neo-Hasidic circles has surely pushed members of the Orthodox community—including those who follow Isaiah Leibowitz and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik—to become more deeply entrenched in their single-minded focus on the study and practice of Jewish law . . . This renewal, in its infancy in America, is readily visible in Israel, where yeshivot of all kinds have now incorporated the study of Hasidic texts into their curricula. Some of these schools have even embraced aspects of Hasidism—and indeed, a particularly nationalistic form of neo-Hasidism—as a core part of their spiritual identity and ethos. The climate for spiritual renewal in Israeli culture was set by mystically-inclined writers like Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, but neo-Hasidic writers and teachers such as Rav Shagar have also played an important role.
In his conclusion, he suggests that “Neo-Hasidism embraces the centrality of ritual and halakhah but brings values such as personal experience and cultural transformations into consideration when formulating a legal decision. Most importantly, however, neo-Hasidism reminds us that Jewish practice and observance, the duties outlined by the halakhah, should be understood as leading the worshiper to God. Halakhah is thus best understood not as law per se, but as halikhah—a sacred path of obligation that brings us into the presence of the Divine. Hasidic and neo-Hasidic approaches to halakhah are grounded in the ideals of spiritual creativity, compassion, and personal integrity, values that deepen rather than undermine commitment.”
7. We may even point to Yeshiva University’s appointment of a “mashpia,” Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, in 2013 as another example of this phenomenon. His responsibilities included bringing Chassidus to the Yeshiva, holding a monthly farbrengen and offering religious inspiration.
8. In this context it is worth noting a unique trend in Israeli Religious Zionist communities of enriching and enhancing religious and spiritual life, including Shabbat, holidays and life-cycle events (brit milah, weddings and even funerals) with soulful music and singing. In the twenty-first-century Israeli religious experience, Dr. Soloveitchik’s “mimetic vs. text” discussion seems to be absolutely irrelevant; the phenomenon described above is a new expression of authentic, wholesome and sincere religiosity.
9. In addition, in recent years, post-modernism has swept through the Western world, undermining traditional hierarchies of authority and further undermining the “yoke,” which was once central to the religious experience. This trend quite possibly poses one of the greatest challenges to Torah educators in our day.
Rabbi David Brofsky is an author and educator. He has taught Talmud and halachah in yeshivot and seminaries in Israel, including Yeshivat Har Etzion, Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim, Midreshet Lindenbaum and Midreshet Torah V’Avodah. He writes a weekly halachah shiur for Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash (VBM) and is the author of Hilkhot Tefilla (New Jersey, 2010) and Hilkhot Moadim (Jerusalem, 2013). Rabbi Brofsky lives in Alon Shevut, Gush Etzion with his wife Mali and their four children.