Thursday, December 25, 2008

Ethical Dilemmas in Blogging

A few weeks ago I spent Shabbos in YU. One of the talks I gave was about the ethical dilemmas of blogging. I had prepared my entire speech in writing but my computer died a few days prior and I had not printed it out. So, instead, I wrote up some notes. I think I said most of what is in here. Anyway, my computer is working again and below is what I had planned on saying. Please forgive the lack of polish and the use of the occasional Hebrew but I wrote this based on how I speak.

Intro to Blogs

Click here to read moreThank you all for taking time out of your short Shabbos day to hear me speak. I once spoke in front of a group and a very old man came late and missed the introduction. At the end, when I opened the floor for questions, he raised his hand and said, “I only have one question. What is this blog thing you keep talking about?”

So, usually when I give a talk about blogs, I start out by explaining what a blog is. Given the audience here, that is probably not an issue. But bear with me anyway, just in case there is someone who needs to know.

A blog is a website that contains information written in posts by one or many authors. What makes it unique is that each post is time-stamped and placed in reverse chronological order, with the most recent posts on top. That way, you can go to a blog and immediately find the new material on top. Additionally, there is generally a comments section where readers can post their own thoughts on the subject.

Blogs can be about any topic. Whatever an author wants to write can be put on a blog. In theory, you can even put a whole newspaper on a blog, article by article. Some writers put book excerpts on blogs. For example, R. Yaakov Feldman has put many excerpts from his popular translations of Mussar classics onto his blog.

There are three main types of blogs: News blogs, Cat blogs and Content blogs. News blogs give news updates. There are a few Jewish news blogs that publish articles and press releases on Jewish topics as well as some original reporting – the two most popular are The Yeshiva World and Vos Iz Neias.

Cat blogs are the industry term for personal diaries, i.e. what your cat did this morning. People routinely reflect about their days, what they did with their friends or families, and often reveal way too much information than they should. Rabbosai, remember, once you put information on the internet you will never be able to completely remove. Be very careful.

The third type is Content blogs. These are blogs that offer information and analysis. There are blogs about economics, which have gained a lot of popularity throughout the past year’s financial crisis, blogs about math, philosophy, sports, you name it. And, of course, there are blogs about Judaism. Some Jewish Content blogs focus on the parashah, others on Daf Yomi, others on manuscripts, etc. etc. I see my blog as being more general than that and I discuss parashah, halakhah, philosophy, dikduk, and more.

Who blogs? Anyone who wants to. There are over 175 million blogs, although the vast majority have been abandoned – people started them and then gave up on them. For a blog to be read regularly, it has to be updated regularly. Most popular blogs are updated daily or almost-daily.

Who reads blogs? I don’t know. I’ve taken surveys on my blog and the demographics skewed young but there are still plenty of readers over the age of 60. Readers seem to span the spectrum of economic classes and occupations – rabbis, teachers, lawyers, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers. I am aware of at least one time that a rosh yeshiva left a comment in his name on my blog – the only YU rosh yeshiva with an iPhone. Over the past few years, blogs have gained a certain amount of respectability – or at least are recognized as sometimes deserving consideration. Blogs have broken news stories and proven to be fertile ground for informal discussion of important topics.

Many blogs are written anonymously, or more accurately under a pseudonym. There can be many reasons for this – not least of which is shiddukh concerns. I think anonymity is a necessary evil. It gives people the illusion that they can speak more freely. Sometimes this means that they can express their thoughts and concerns without fear, which is a good thing. But often it means they feel free to mock and insult people.

The same goes for commenters. Most people who comment on blogs do so under a pseudonym, often changing fake names frequently although some people use a consistent pseudonym. Since comments are usually more off the cuff and less thought out than actual blog posts, they are also more insulting. Anonymous comments are usually the biggest offenders in blog aveiros.

Value of Blogs

OK, that’s a brief overview of what blogs are. What are they good for?

For one thing, they are good for a quick thought. Blog posts are generally shorter than a full-sized essay, so if you are looking for a quick read – and in today’s ADD world a lot of people are – you can often find one on a blog. A vort on the parashah, a quick devar halackah or just a random musing on life... You can find one on a blog.

You can also find experimental material on blogs. Maybe an author is preparing thoughts for a formal essay and wants to try it out and get some feedback. You can put it on a blog.

Current events are also discussed on blogs. There was recently a frum filmmaker who made a movie with women singing. It was entered into a film festival but was rejected because the producer insisted that the movie only be shown to women and the film festival refused. Is there halakhic requirement for a filmmaker to insist on that condition? I don’t think so, and you will find discussion of that on a blog within days of the article if not sooner, while journals and even newspapers publish responses much later. If you are an author and you want to respond to a current event, blogs offer a much more timely option. And, because of the news, readers are interested.

Because of the ability of readers to comment, there is often discussion of the subject. People quote other poskim or offer their own different perspectives. They add detail that maybe only insiders know or they are experts or have asked experts and can offer an opinion based on that expertise. It has happened a number of times that students in yeshiva, this and others, have asked their rabbeim about the subject of one of my posts and come back to let us know what they said.

This is part of a unique aspect of blogs in that it breaks down communal and geographic boundaries. There is one reader of my blog from Israel who is very close to the author of some sefarim that I like to quote – Piskei Teshuvos. A few times, this reader has asked the rav about subjects I’ve discussed and either e-mailed me or posted a comment about what the rav replied. In this way, blogs allows us entry into other communities so that we can share with each other.

The same is true about what we described as Cat blogs. I don’t think it is as popular now as it was a few years ago, but there are people in far-off communities, both geographically and socially, who write about their daily lives and offer us fascinating windows into their worlds. For example, there are Chassidim who blog about the davening on Shabbos and the rebbe’s tish they went to. There are people living in Shomron writing about their daily lives in the danger or not-so-danger zone. Not only does it put a face on what would otherwise just be a stereotype, but it let’s us connect with them and develop friendships. It breaks down the barrier of the “other” and in some ways helps unite the Jewish community. It is also an invaluable tool in understanding the trends in the Jewish community. Even though there is the obvious drawback that blogs only give you a partial picture of what is going on in any community. Despite that, if you want to understand where things are moving then you can get invaluable information from blogs. Recently, I posted a video that some people found offensive. It featured a Chassid singing about how he wants to be a rebbe so he can have a fancy lifestyle. I see how it can be seen as mildly offensive but I found it important because it shows where the minds of at least a segment of the Chassidic community currently is. The song/video resonated with many people. To me, that is sociologically significant.

Some people will tell you that blogs are bad. A few years ago, I heard a Shabbos Shuvah derashah in which the rav – of a yeshivish shul (not my regular one) – spent a good portion of the time saying how horrible and destructive blogs are. And not long ago Agudah had a session at its annual convention in which blogs were the main target. To the point where the mashgiach in Lakewood said that there should be no room in yeshivos for the children of bloggers. I kid you not.

Lefi aniyus da’ati (in my opinion), these rabbanim are technically right but can say it better. Let me explain to you what I mean. The Gemara in Avodah Zarah says that le-asid lavo Hashem will ask who was involved in the Torah and various nations will come forward and say that they built roads and bridges so boys could travel to yeshiva to learn, they manufactured candles and lamps so people could learn at night, and so on. They built an infrastructure so that people could learn Torah. And Hashem will respond that it’s not true. They built all that infrastructure and technology for their own use and incidentally, derekh agav, it was used for learning Torah. So they can’t take credit for it. Just like, for example, Al Gore did increase the budget for the defense network known as Arpanet that eventually became the Internet, but he did it for defense reasons and certainly didn’t anticipate what it would become.

You can ask: How could these people lie to Hashem and say that what they did was for the sake of learning Torah when it really wasn’t? The Brisker Rav has a lomdishe answer but I think the ba’alei mussar would point out the incredible ability of people to rationalize their actions and convince themselves of things that aren’t true. I don’t know that the nations will intentionally lie to Hashem. Maybe they’ll realize that they should have been learning Torah and then convince themselves that to some extent they had meant for every community to benefit from the infrastructure, including the Jews who could use it to learn Torah. Therefore, they’ll convince themselves, they can legitimately claim that they built all of it for the sake of Torah. While they might be able to fool themselves, they won’t be able to fool Hashem.

When Rav Schachter says over that Gemara, he likes to add technologies that were invented after the Gemara: telephones so Jews can listen to a Daf Yomi shiur, satellites so they can transmit shiurim like Rav Ovadiah Yosef does, and the internet so people can download shiurim from YU Torah and other websites. These are all things that people invented for their own purposes but we can use for Torah.

It is my belief that technology is pareve. It isn’t good or bad. The same nuclear energy that destroyed Nagasaki and Hiroshima can be used to power hospitals and schools. The Torah tells us that Tuval-Cain had a similar name to Cain because he improved on Cain’s sin of murder. How? By improving the technology for forging metal and creating better weapons. Rabbosai, I don’t have to tell you that metal can be used for many good things. The buses and trains that take people to work and yeshiva are made from metal. It’s all a matter of how you use that technology.

Here’s a question for you: Are telephones good or bad? Should the Agudah have held a session in last week’s convention condemning the use of telephones and insisting that any child whose family has a telephone should be kicked out of yeshiva? Maybe yes. It is such an instrument of slander, pritzus, nivul peh. Criminals plan their crimes on telephones. Avodah zarah, shefikhus damim, giluy arayos... you name it; it’s coordinated and facilitated via telephone.

But that’s the same telephone through which thousands of people would call Rav Moshe Feinstein and ask him she’eilos. You can, to some degree at least, use a telephone to be menachem avel and mevaker choleh. How can it be bad? Who today would say that it is bad? Instead they would say that using it for bad purposes is bad.

If you use a knife to assist in an idolatrous ceremony it becomes unfit for cutting meat. Does that mean that knives are bad? No, we hold that hazmanah lav milsa, setting aside a utensil for bad use does not make the utensil unfit. It is only the actual use of the knife to assist in avodah zarah that makes it bad. It’s more complicated and I’m simplifying here. But I think you get my drift. The same, I believe, holds true for all forms of technology. They aren’t good or bad. It’s all a matter of how you use them.

While the internet was not invented for the sake of Talmud Torah, so no credit for Al Gore, it is in our power to use it that way. We can use it for posting shiurim, divrei torah and other forms of positive, Torah-oriented purposes. Whether it’s organizing a protest to help an agunah or posting shul zemanim, there are many ways to use the internet in a positive way.

One of the dangers of the internet is its anti-social nature. You’re probably thinking “What?” I remember my first exposure to e-mail. I was an undergrad in YU and was typing a paper in the computer lab in Belfer Hall. Some guys I knew were sitting at computers looking less than serious, some even laughing. When I was walking out, I stopped by one guy I knew and asked him what he was doing. He said he was exchanging e-mails with some girls at Stern. I said that, you know, we have telephones here and a shuttle van that will take you to Midtown, and he gave me a look like I was some old geezer who just doesn’t get it. A look you’ll all become familiar with when you have children. I didn’t actually send an e-mail until I was at my second job. Anyway, how can it be anti-social if it allows people to communicate? Whether through e-mail, blogs, Facebook, whatever.

It can. What often happens online is that you find like-minded people and spend more and more of your time with them. This means that you are spending less and less time with the people around you – your roommates, your classmates, your family, your neighbors and shulmates, etc. Also, since you choose to be around people who think like you, you end up living in an echo chamber where certain ideas are repeated and emphasized until you think they are obvious and no one disagrees with them. I see this happen to people all the time. Political conservatives just talk amongst themselves and get each other outraged at Liberals, without ever taking the time to have a discussion with a rational Liberal. When you do this, immerse yourself in a homogeneous culture, you cut yourself off in many ways from personal growth and inevitably from people who surround you in real life.

However, the other side of the internet is the exact opposite – it allows you to interact with people from very different backgrounds who can add immensely to your perspective on the world. Even just within the Orthodox world, the internet has allowed me to better understand the different ideologies from around the world and recognize the challenges and benefits of various communities.

Now, if you want to educate your children to be exactly like you and not to know that there are different paths in life then that could be a bad thing. But I don’t think that is the message of YU. YU, it seems to me, embraces diversity. But within a limit, and this is where we hit an important point.

Ethical Dilemmas

I. The internet, and in particular blogs, opens up access to a vast world, the majority of which is not Jewish and not frum. Diversity of perspectives is good, but not at the expense of Torah and mitzvos. I don’t demand that my children be like me but I certainly want them to be frum. How do we use the internet as a tool to expand our horizons without risking the danger of leaving the frum community entirely?

I believe that this is probably the single most crucial dilemma of blogging and the internet. We can’t ignore it because the internet is not going to go away any time soon. You can try banning it but good luck with that. A friend of mine drove through Lakewood about a year after the internet was banned there. He drove slowly around various frum neighborhoods with his laptop next to him and he tried to connect to any wireless networks that were available. Rabbosai, he was amazed at how many families not only have internet access but wireless. I don’t even have wireless. Banning doesn’t work.

What we need to do instead is to educate. If someone has a strong foundation in Torah and emunah, and uses the internet carefully, then there should not be much danger there. A confident Jew has no need to fear. A Jew who believes what his religion teaches will read attacks on it, on the rare occasions that he stumbles onto them, and will say “That’s a good question” and move on. He will see the beauty of someone else’s lifestyle and thank Hashem for making the right path for everyone.

For healthy people, the internet is not dangerous if you use it as a tool for good. However, Reb Chaim was known to describe both mussar and philosophy as a strong medicine that heals those who are sick but makes those who are healthy sick. The internet is the other way around. It makes those who are healthy even healthier and those who are sick even sicker. It’s like the old NRA saying, the internet doesn’t kill people, people kill people. But like guns, the internet makes for a powerful tool.

So what’s the answer? I don’t have one. We aren’t able to get rid of the internet any more than we are able to get rid of the telephone. We need to better educate our youth as healthy Jews, that’s for sure, but we will never be able to be completely successful in that. And we also need to teach proper internet skills, such as how to avoid a lot of the trash that’s out there and how even factual articles can be written in a biased way.

Last Shabbos I read a recently published booklet by ATID, an organization about Jewish education. The booklet contains articles from a symposium about the future of Jewish education. It’s a fascinating collection; you might have read about it on my blog. There is one article that I’d like to highlight right now. R. Mark Gottlieb, the principal of MTA, wrote a great piece about the need to teach kids a worldview. Without detracting from the importance of teaching facts, the most fundamental element of Jewish education is teaching students to see the world through the lenses of a believing Jew. This means that you have a core of emunah and you evaluate everything from the perspective of Judaism. That is how to live a Jewish life. And, particularly important for this audience at YU, that is the fundamental concept of Modern Orthodoxy. When you look at everything from a Jewish worldview, then you are properly placed to take in all the great works of culture and all the sciences and the liberal arts. Everything you read, hear or see you assimilate into your Jewish framework. That is what Torah Im Derekh Eretz is about and, to a large extent, that is what Torah U-Madda is about.

When you read a great work of literature, aside from enjoying it esthetically, you extract the messages and evaluate them from a Torah hashkafah. And not just great works of literature. You can do the same for Harry Potter and Batman comic books. You find the elements that describe human nature and you evaluate them. Maybe you agree with the description and maybe you disagree. Either way, you are richer for having had the discussion. But that only works if you start with a Judaism-based point of view. You need that Jewish core in order to properly assimilate and evaluate the outside material.

Rabbi Gottlieb is an educator and he wrote about this topic as a professional. I believe an extended version of his article was recently published in the Orthodox Forum book on Yiras Shamayim. I’m not an educator. I don’t know how to teach. But one of the things I try to do with my blog is to teach by example, to discuss a wide variety of topics from a Jewish perspective. Sometimes I fall back on my yeshiva training and simply discuss issues from a halakhic perspective. That’s not really what we’re talking about but I think it qualifies a little bit. But other times I try, hopefully sometimes successfully, to bring that Jewish core to bear on a number of relevant topics.

My message here is that the internet is dangerous. If you take care to avoid the trash and start out with a Torah-based worldview, then the exposure to the outside world will enrich your lives. How to ensure that everyone has that worldview is beyond my expertise. I leave that to educators like Rabbi Gottlieb.

II. This brings us to another ethical dilemma, one with which I am having an ongoing struggle. That is the issue of kefirah, heresy, on the internet. Something about the nature of the internet, maybe the sense of freedom that accompanies anonymity or maybe something else, but for some reason there are many frum-friendly blogs that attempt to undermine traditional Judaism by teaching, really more advocating, kefirah. What I mean by frum-friendly is people who used to be frum, maybe still even act frum, and know how to use frumspeak to make their content welcoming to frum Jews. Through a combination of argumentation, cynicism and mockery they make the argument against Orthodox Judaism. The question for me is how I am supposed to relate to them. Should I engage them in debate? I don’t think so. The Gemara in Sanhedrin specifically says not to debate Jewish heretics because it will only make them worse off, which my experience and observation confirms.

Should I attempt to refute them? I don’t necessarily have all the answers but I think I have a lot of them. A lot of this is a matter of presentation and should I spend my time in building the proper presentation so that I can dispute them? After all, my time is severely limited. And, for that matter, so is my scholarship. I don’t have any advanced degrees in Jewish Studies or Bible or, actually, in anything. I don’t have any advanced degrees.

And there is also a problem of introducing many of my readers to kefirah who otherwise would be unaware of it. Some of my readers have taken graduate courses in Bible while others are yeshiva bochurim who have never studied Bible beyond being ma’avir sedra, reviewing the weekly Torah portion. Do I want the responsibility on my shoulders for introducing these yeshiva bochurim to biblical criticism? A rabbi recently asked me about this and pointed out that he, a YU musmakh, was not aware of biblical criticism until later in life when he started listening to Dr. Leiman’s tapes. Him, a Yeshiva College graduate and a YU musmakh. If he hadn’t listened to those tapes, I would probably have been the one who introduced him to it. Is that what I should be doing?

But it gets even more complicated. There are some ideas which are not heretical but in the eyes of someone educated in the yeshivishe world they seem to be. For example, the vast majority of rishonim do not believe that Hashem directly guides everything that happens in this world. Hashgachah Peratis, individual providence, is not universal and rarely constant. We’re talking about the Rambam, Ramban, Sefer Ha-Chinukh,… the big names of medieval Jewish philosophy. And there are more recent authorities who follow these views. But in the yeshivish and chassidish worlds these types of views are considered heretical. Can I discuss these ideas on my blog? What happens to a yeshiva bochur who realizes that what he’s always been taught is kefirah is actually the view of most Rishonim? Do I want that responsibility for causing him a potential faith crisis?

But here’s the other side of the coin. What happens if, due to these serious potential negative outcomes, we never discuss these issues in public? I think, to some extent, this has happened for decades. To a large extent we’ve avoided public discussion of difficult theological questions, probably for many reasons but this might have been one of them. What has happened is that many people don’t realize that we know about these things. Not people who take Bible and philosophy courses at YU, or who pay attention during those courses, but many other people. And when they learn Iyov with the Ramban’s commentary, or they learn Sefer Ha-Chinukh carefully, they become shocked. They’ve single-handedly disproved their rabbeim. Or when they gain exposure to kefirah, whether through the internet or talking to people outside of their community, they become shocked. They feel their entire worldview falling apart. Rabbosai, I’ve seen it happen and it is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. A person’s life falls apart that way and however he manages to put the pieces back together, it isn’t pretty. It’s a religious disaster. A little inoculation goes a long way. It makes all the difference to know that there are issues out there that might not interest you but that other frum people have under control.

The Gemara in Bava Basra (89b) has a very interesting reflection that R. Yochanan Ben Zakkai makes. He is dealing with issues of the different ways that sellers cheat buyers, and exactly what is assur. R. Yochanan Ben Zakkai says that he has a dilemma. “Oy li im omar, oy li im lo omar”. If he teaches the halakhos in detail, people might learn from him how to cheat. If he doesn’t teach the details, people will think that the rabbis don’t know about these things. It’s a no-win situation. Now I recognize that there are important distinctions between my dilemma and R. Yochanan Ben Zakkai’s. I’m dealing with introducing kefirah to an innocent bystander and he is dealing with encouraging cheaters. But here is the powerful part. The Gemara asks what his conclusion was: Did he teach the laws in detail or not? The answer is that he did. Why? Because of the pasuk, “Yesharim darkhei Hashem, tzadikim yelkhu vam u-resha’im yikashlu vam.” It’s learning Torah. What can be wrong with that? The good will succeed and the bad will go off. But, in the end, learning Torah is OK.

In some yeshivos they don’t allow unmarried boys to learn certain parts of Gemara that deal with, shall we say, delicate matters. For example, Masekhes Nidah. That is for married men. However, the minhag in Volozhin was that the boys would learn everything. Regardless of whether there is a supposed ayin ha-ra about learning about aveilus or an impropriety with learning about women, the boys would learn it. It’s learning Torah. Tzadikim yelkhu vam. The She’arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah writes in his introduction about his personal dilemma of whether to include in his sefer opinions that he thinks are too lenient. He quotes the Gemara about R. Yochanan Ben Zakkai and concludes that he is teaching Torah. It is up to the readers to utilize his sources properly and he is confident that they will. Interestingly, the Munkaczer Rebbe, the Darkhei Teshuvah, wrote in his introduction that he included the opinions of one sefer that he felt was overly lenient. The reason he gives is so that people won’t say that he wasn’t aware of that sefer. He wants to make sure that people know he was aware and disagreed anyway.

I think all of this is relevant to my dilemma. In the end, we’re talking about discussing Torah issues – the biblical text, theology, etc. It’s Talmud Torah. Tzadikim yelkhu vam and, unfortunately, resha’im yikashlu vam. If we don’t discuss these issues then we run the risk of people thinking we aren’t aware of them. There is a psychologist named Dr. Daniel Eidensohn who is a talmid chakham in Jerusalem and he put together a book of selected passages from classical Jewish sources on a wide variety of hashkafah issues. The book is called Daas Torah and he maintains a blog with the same name. In a recent post (link), he wrote about his conversation with Rav Eliashiv about his publishing a book with a spectrum of opinions on hashkafah topics. Is it acceptable? Won't it confuse yeshiva bochurim? Rav Eliashiv responded that if they are confused then they should ask their rosh yeshiva or rebbe. You don't avoid teaching Torah just because it will raise questions. That is exactly what we are talking about.

However, there are two things that I am fairly insistent on: 1) that these are only tangential issues and the vast majority of the blog is about wholesome issues, even if sometimes controversial, generally in a different way, and 2) that a traditional response always be there. The Midrash says that every time in the Chumash there is a passage that leaves room open for heresy – such as “na’aseh adam be-tzalmeinu ki-dmuseinu”, WE should make man in OUR image and OUR form – there is a traditional response next to it: “Va-yivra Elokim es ha-Adam be-tzalmo”, Hashem and only Hashem created man in His, in the singular, image. I think it is crucial that any link or discussion of kefirah have a traditional response that is powerful and convincing. Of course, convincing is in the eye of the beholder. But we have to use our best judgment.

III. And finally, let’s talk about lashon ha-ra. That seems to be the biggest complaint about blogs, and rightly so. Lashon ha-ra is bad and blogs make it worse. There are blogs that do any of a number of improper things, such as reveal private information, mock and insult communal leaders, misrepresent statements so as to create an imagined controversy. I can go on but I think that is bad enough. Some people whom I love and respect have been targets of blogs, and so have I. How do we deal with this?

Let me first start out by making a comparison that I make frequently. Above we asked whether the internet is different from telephones. Should telephones be assur because you can use them for bad? If not, then why should the internet. Let’s go a little further. As we said earlier, blogs are tools. Newspapers, magazines and books are also tools and they can be used to transmit the same improper messages that we just attributed to blogs. I won’t go into too much detail but I’ll tell you a quick story that you might find humorous. When I was in YU, there was a former student of Rav Soloveitchik, fairly knowledgeable in Torah, who had totally lost his marbles and had a vendetta against Rav Schachter and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. He was so bad that he was banned from the YU campus and all security desks had pictures of him to prevent him from entering. Anyway, Rav Schachter once spoke at an informal question and answer session with JSS students, mainly kids from public school backgrounds. One of those students then wrote an article about the session for The Commentator. Somehow, there was a miscommunication and the student, who was new to yeshiva, misunderstood Rav Schachter as saying that he approved of ordaining women as rabbis. Of course, everyone here knows how ridiculous that is. Anyway, this crazy student of Rav Soloveitchik saw the article in The Commentator and then contacted all the Jewish media outlets until one of them took the story, and this crazy rabbi’s word, and ran a front page story about how Rav Schachter favors the ordination of women rabbis. It’s ridiculous but it’s damaging to Rav Schachter, to YU, and to the community at large.

Should we oppose all newspapers because of this? Should we oppose this particular newspaper because of this incident or do we accept its apology and retraction? I don't hear people condemning newspapers as a medium but rather specific newspapers and their particular flaws. It seems to me that the same standard should be applied to blogs. Cut people some slack, offer constructive advice, encourage responsible bloggers. But don’t give up on the whole medium simply because of growing pains and mistakes, any more than you give up on other media due to problems. Problems can be fixed. But the medium isn’t going to go away just because you disapprove of it.

So, taking into account the laws of lashon ha-ra, is a blogger allowed to criticize a public figure or an article? I’m not qualified to pasken on such an issue, both due to the limits of my expertise and my obvious bias. However, I’ll refer to an article by R. Asher Meir. He writes the column The Jewish Ethicist that is syndicated in many places, including the Aish HaTorah website. Rabbi Meir addresses precisely this issue and concludes that while you aren’t allowed to discuss private individuals, public figures put themselves into the public eye and we are allowed – even expected – to discuss public aspects of their lives. Now, in the last sentence I used the word “public” three times. That was intentional. We are allowed to criticize aspects of a public figure’s behavior if they are relevant. The assumption is that he intentionally puts those issues out there for discussion. He is, so to speak, matir atzmo le-misah. But that means that irrelevant private matters should be kept private. And, generally speaking, beating up on his family is not allowed. Also, and I don’t think Rabbi Meir says this explicitly but it is understood, we should be fair. We can write strongly but we should never mock or insult and we should always, always be polite.

After discussion with Rabbi Meir, I came up with a number of bullet points to summarize his conclusions. Let me read you two of them:

- You may discuss negative stories about general public leaders provided that you are certain that the stories are true (or adds appropriately worded caveats), you have no ulterior motives and you are not causing any harm to the individuals.

- You must judge a talmid chakham generously and go out of your way to give him the benefit of the doubt. Therefore, you must be extremely cautious in discussing negative stories (or stories that appear negative) about talmidei chakhamim.

Let’s talk about these carefully. We all know that there are negative stories about some Jewish leaders in the media. Sometimes scandalous stories but other times just negative. If you are just discussing the issue, without any ulterior motives or causing harm, then that’s OK. These are public figures and have opened themselves up for discussion. It is truly rare that you actually know that these stories are true. In fact, too often these types of stories have turned out to be false in a small but crucial way. So, practically speaking, what you have to end up doing is using careful language that includes phrases like “If this is true…” or “It is claimed…” Like the news, blogs should become acquainted with the word “alleged”.

And you also have to judge people favorably. You have to be melamed le-khaf zekhus. Let’s not get into what is an absolute obligation and what is simply a midas chassidus, a praiseworthy practice. It shouldn’t matter to us. Either way, look for the way out. You can discuss the issue and say that it may or may not be true, and it could be that… whatever, which would mean that it isn’t a negative story.

The point is that there ways of discussing these types of issues without violating the laws of lashon ha-ra. You just have to be careful in your language and generous in your judgment.

By the way, the same goes for someone who publishes an article or a blog. He is putting his ideas out into the public arena and is opening them up for criticism. You are allowed to criticize them – again, fairly and politely.

There is much more that we can discuss but time doesn’t allow. I just want to remind everyone that the halakhos of lashon ha-ra apply equally to commenters as to bloggers, and that means you. The ethics of commenting, unfortunately, have to be left for another time. Thank you all for listening to me patiently and, more or less, without dozing off.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Favorites More