There’s no question about it; over the years the Internet has become integrally intertwined with almost every aspect of our lives. It delivers weather reports, recipes and even medical advice. Thus, it’s not surprising that it has also become a major source for Torah information. Hundreds – if not thousands – of sites offer on-line Torah classes, recorded Torah shiurim and pages and pages of Torah-related texts for people at all levels of observance.
Studying is one important aspect of Torah, but living Torah is more complex. We have to learn how to apply the Torah we’ve studied to our everyday life. Because surrounding circumstances often obscure the correct way to employ Torah principles, a Torah-true person often has questions for a rabbi.
Sometimes these questions are relatively simple: I mixed my fleishig soup with a milchig spoon. But, often they’re more complex: Can I attend the wedding of my niece who is marrying a non-Jew?
Pre-Internet, people posed these questions to a local rabbi. But today, a growing number of Torah websites offer an “Ask the Rabbi” service, where people submit questions to be answered by the website’s rabbis. From the convenience of their home, the questioners receive prompt, personal answers to complex questions from qualified rabbis.
Who “Asks the Rabbi” and What Do they Ask?
“We get all types of questions,” says Rabbi Moshe Newman, chief editor of Gateways Organization’s “Ask the Rabbi” site. “We get questions related to halacha and hashkafa as well as advice regarding personal situations. There are also life cycle questions – what to do in the case of death/birth/marriage/bar mitzvah, questions about Hebrew names, and a lot of questions about afterlife.”
Questioners come from all walks of Jewish life – and a noticeable percentage of questions even come from non-Jews. Religious Jews seek halachic and hashkafic direction and non-religious Jews want to learn more about their heritage. About 20,000 questions a year are posed to the four “Ask the Rabbi” sites we investigated, and there may be thousands more submitted to other such websites.
Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer, Chief Halachic Editor of the Institute for Dayanim’s English “Ask the Rabbi” function, notes that though his website was established in order to spread awareness of halachos related to monetary Jewish law, it gets all types of questions.
“Predictably enough,” he says, “once we opened an ‘Ask the Rabbi’ function, 80-90% of the questions weren’t specifically about these subjects. So we decided to cater to what the people want and need.”
Despite the differences between the thousands of people who approach the websites and the vast range of subjects their questions incorporate, people generally turn to “digital rabbis” for the same reason: convenience.
Why take the time to call a rabbi on the phone or make an appointment to speak to him when you can type a question from your iPhone, press send and get an answer within a short amount of time? This is particularly true for people who live in places like Arkansas, Alaska and the jungles of Africa, far from access to a local rabbi.
Sometimes, though, people turn to “Ask the Rabbi” websites because of the anonymity they provide. These people are too uncomfortable to pose their questions to someone who knows them. Their questions can relate to relationships or misdeeds, but sometimes they’re hashkafic: A person might have questions or doubts about Judaism that he wants answered, but doesn’t want the rabbi of his shul to view him as a heretic.
Answering the Questioner
“We try to respond to the person, not just the question,” says Rabbi Motti Seligson of Chabad.org. “If someone asks about kaddish, we could give him a link to a guide and that’s it. Or, we realize that he’s asking about kaddish at a particularly important time in his life when he is searching and wants to connect, so it’s important to engage him regarding other aspects of Yiddishkeit.”