The NY Times reports that there is a religious group that is losing even some of its most committed members because of what they are finding on the Internet. Sound familiar? The group is not orthodox Judaism, rather it is the Mormons.
Some people are quick to point out that orthodox Judaism is suffering a similar fate. According to the narrative, people get online, they see that their religion can be challenged and that there are many other perspectives in the world, and sometimes they leave. We discussed this in the context of the chasidic world here: Can Judaism Survive the Internet?)
Mormons are finding that their religion is so nascent, their beliefs are based on so many contradictions and inconsistencies, and their prophet was a less than admirably role model, that their faith is irrevocably shaken. Some leave. Others stay and want to modernize it.
In the context of chasidic Judaism I think the comparison is somewhat fair. The lifestyle is a fairly recent innovation, the beliefs can seem contradictory at times, and for some, finding out that a shtreimel is not holy can shake their faith. The Internet might be “to blame” for those people discovering that they have options.
But I think most people who leave and use the Internet as a tool to assist them in their journey are bothered by social issues in the community. They dislike the lifestyle, or they think the leadership is corrupt, or the allure of freedom from religion is too great. For them, the Internet is more like a lobby where they can meet like minded people. The Internet doesn’t cause the doubt, but it helps them deal with it and sometime it helps them leave.
The last few days have demonstrated another Internet driven issue in orthodox Judaism. A local issue can become a global issue. A rabbi who writes controversial things becomes international news. Further, the materials that form the substance of his controversial statements are available for anyone to read. The challenges can be found on plenty of websites. The charges of heresy can be found on several websites as well.
However there is a disconnect. The Internet is the great liberator of minds. Being told what to think doesn’t really work anymore. Anyone can do their own research. In fact, R’ Gordimer’s original article was using data that was a week old and required a simple click to verify if it was current. Obviously people called him on it. It’s so easy to do research today. We can verify and fact check and myth bust with ease. If a yeshiva student in the Mir circa 1967 wanted to read Biblical Criticism, where would he even go? But now, it’s all available. Google is a click away. People can read it for themselves. That was the thinking behind TABS. Provide a safe place to read Biblical Criticism in the context of orthodox Judaism. R’ Farber was trying do that. Did he go too far? Is there such a thing as too far? These are the questions being addressed across the Internet right now.
The point is that drawing lines in the sand while expecting skeptics to just “listen” is so 1980s. It doesn’t work anymore. People can just look at the information and make their own determination. Perhaps many of these people are not qualified to make such judgments. But that doesn’t stop them.
While it is laudable that Cross-Currents is trying to address this issue, in my opinion they are not addressing it at all. Instead we are being told what to think without being told why. The only why we have heard is that if we think like R’ Farber there will be dire consequences. Is that sufficient? I don’t think so.
The Internet is not going away. The questions that R’ Farber addressed will be on the Internet forever. And there are more. The best defense I have seen so far is on TABS. The reason it is the best is because is simply because it is the only defense so far. We can lament the lack of scholars in the frum community willing to address these questions in the terms they are asked. But all we have to show for it are lamentations. Still no answers or explanations.
About the Author: Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D. is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice CA. He blogs at finkorswim.com. Connect with Rabbi Fink on Facebook and Twitter.
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