Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Are Blogs Good For The Jews?

From this week's issue of The Jewish Press (link):

Are Blogs Good For the Jews?

Some people will tell you that blogs are bad. A few years ago, I heard a Shabbos Shuvah sermon in which the rabbi 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.

In my opinion, these rabbis are technically right but there is more to say.

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In my opinion, these rabbis are technically right but there is more to say. The Gemara at the beginning of Avodah Zarah says that in the future, Hashem will ask the nations of the world which of them was involved in Torah. Various nations will come forward and say they built roads and bridges so boys could travel to yeshiva to learn, they manufactured candles and lamps so people could study Torah at night, and so on.

Hashem will respond that it's not true. They built all that infrastructure and technology for their own use and incidentally, due to no intention of the builders, it was used for learning Torah. Therefore, they cannot take credit for it.

When Yeshiva University's Rav Hershel Schachter teaches this Gemara, he likes to add technologies that were invented after the Gemara: telephones so Jews can listen to a Daf Yomi class, satellites so they can transmit lectures like Rav Ovadiah Yosef does, and the Internet so people can download shiurim from and other websites. These are all things 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. 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.

Let's ask a similar question: Are telephones good or bad? Should rabbis be condemning the use of telephones and insisting that any child whose family has a telephone be kicked out of yeshiva? Maybe yes. It is such an instrument of enormous slander, licentiousness and profanity. Criminals plan their crimes on telephones. Idolatry, bloodshed, adultery - 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 questions. You can, to some degree at least, use a telephone to console a mourner and offer support to someone sick. Who today would say that it is bad? Instead they would say using it for bad purposes is bad.

While the Internet was not invented for the sake of Torah, it is in our power to use it that way. We can use it for posting classes, Torah insights and other forms of positive purposes. Whether it's organizing a protest to help an agunah or posting shul times, there are many ways to use the Internet in a positive way.

Social Networks

One of the dangers of the Internet is its anti-social nature. You're probably surprised by that. I remember my first exposure to e-mail. An undergraduate at Yeshiva University, I was typing a paper in the computer lab. Some guys I knew were sitting at computers looking less than serious, sometimes laughing. When I was walking out, I stopped by someone I knew and asked him what he was doing. He said he was exchanging e-mails with some girls at Stern College. I pointed out that we had telephones and modes of transportation that could take him to midtown, and he gave me a look like I was some old geezer who just didn't get it (a look which the parents reading this are probably familiar with).

How can I suggest the Internet is anti-social if it allows people to communicate? Whether through e-mail, blogs, Facebook, whatever - the Internet has revolutionized socializing.

Despite that, it can be anti-social. What often happens online is that you find like-minded people and spend more and more of your time with them. That means you are spending less and less time with the people around you - classmates, family, neighbors, 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 among themselves and get each other outraged at liberals, without ever taking the time to have a discussion with a rational liberal (and vice versa). When you 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.

The other side of the Internet is that 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 community, 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 know there are different paths in life, this could be a bad thing. However, if you believe in the value of intellectual curiosity and expanding your horizons, the Internet holds great potential. For someone like you, diversity is a good thing.

So, to return to our original point, it is true that the Internet in general and blogs in particular are bad. But they are also good. Just as telephones, metal, and nuclear energy can be used for the most horrifying things ever conceived of by man, blogs can also be harnessed for good.

The Big Problem

All that notwithstanding, it is absolutely true that the Internet contains so much bad that it is heavily weighted toward the negative. But even if banning something were normally a strategy that worked - which I don't believe to be the case - with the Internet a ban is simply unworkable. It is not a viable long-term solution.

The Internet is quickly becoming an integral part of modern life - a vehicle for shopping, paying bills, filing taxes, applying for jobs, etc. A growing number of necessary tasks can only be done online. We need to find a strategy of avoiding the potential negative of the Internet and accessing only the good.

Let us return to the issue of diversity. Seeing the world and broadening your horizons is a good thing, but within limits - and this is where we hit an important point. The Internet (blogs in particular) 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 exactly 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 this is probably the single most crucial dilemma presented by blogging and the Internet. Filters have been created to remove shmutz, and people can be taught not to click on a link unless they know where it will take them. But it is exceedingly difficult to avoid those who have non-Orthodox views. We can't ignore this problem because, again, the Internet is here to stay.


What we need to do instead is educate. If someone has a strong foundation in Torah and faith and uses the Internet carefully, he should not be in much danger. A confident Jew has no need to fear. A Jew who believes what his religion teaches will read attacks on Torah, on the rare occasions he stumbles onto them, 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 used responsibly and as a tool for good. Rav Chaim Soloveitchik was known to describe both mussar and philosophy as strong medicine that heals those who are sick but makes those who are healthy ill. The Internet works the other way around - it makes those who are healthy even healthier and those who are sick even sicker. To paraphrase the old National Rifle Association slogan, the Internet doesn't kill people, people kill people. And like guns, the Internet makes for a powerful weapon.

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 do away with the telephone. Certainly we need to better educate our youth as healthy Jews, but we will never be completely successful in doing so. We also need to teach proper Internet skills, especially how to avoid a lot of the trash that's out there. And we must stress that even factual articles can be written in a biased way.

A few months ago I read an article by Rabbi Mark Gottlieb, principal of MTA, 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 lens of a believing Jew. That means having a core of faith and evaluating everything from the perspective of Judaism. That is how to live a Jewish life.

This attitude can be applied to a college education. When you look at everything from a Jewish worldview, 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.

When you read a great work of literature, aside from enjoying it aesthetically, you extract the messages and evaluate them from a Torah worldview. 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.

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, exposure to the outside world will enrich your life. How to ensure that everyone has that worldview is beyond my expertise. I leave that to educators like Rabbi Gottlieb.


There is much more to discuss but not much more space. I do, however, want to address the issue of lashon ha'ra (defamation). 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 number of improper things, such as reveal private information, mock and insult communal leaders, and misrepresent statements in order to create or exacerbate controversy. I can go on but I think that is bad enough. Some people I greatly respect have been targets of blogs, as have I.

How do we deal with this?

Earlier we asked whether the Internet is different from the telephone. 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 we just attributed to blogs. Should we oppose all newspapers because of this? I don't hear people condemning newspapers as a medium but rather specific newspapers and their particular flaws. It seems to me the same standard should be applied to blogs.

Also remember that bloggers are people too. Like newspaper editors and organizational spokesmen, they sometimes make mistakes. Condemning them is not generally a good policy, not only because it will fail to help but because there are avenues open for making a positive difference. Instead of denouncing all bloggers willy-nilly, cut them some slack, offer constructive advice, and encourage those who are responsible.

There is no reason to give up on the whole medium simply because of its growing pains and mistakes, any more than you give up on other media due to their problems. Problems can be fixed. But the medium isn't going to go away just because you disapprove of it.

It is extremely important that we all remember the laws of lashon ha'ra apply to all forms of communication. The same standards we see in newspapers should be expected from blogs, but the same leniencies for talking about communally important issues also apply when appropriate. Not everything is lashon ha'ra. There are important discussions that we, as a community, need to have and there is critical information we need to disseminate. While newspapers and newsletters used to shoulder this entire burden, some of that has now shifted to the less formal but more immediate medium of blogs.

Nevertheless, we must be ever vigilant to avoid reading or writing defamation. It is the responsibility of every blogger to discuss these issues with his rabbis, and of every reader to ask the same halachic questions he does regarding any sort of reading material.

Just as we do not discourage people from finding appropriate books in the library despite the vast amount of inappropriate material there, we similarly encourage them to find the right ways to use this tool that is redefining life in our day.

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