Thursday, October 21, 2010

Daas Torah Versus the Internet

Daas Torah is losing. Well not exactly. At least not what I would call Daas Torah - meaning God’s will.

But the Daas Torah many on the right believe it to exclusively be - is losing. And they are losing to the internet. An article in the Asbury Park Press is a clear demonstration of this new power in all of our lives. Perhaps most influential part of the internet on Orthodox Jews is that of the blogger.

This phenomenon is also an indication that moderate Charedim are winning. At least those who own computers and subscribe to the internet. This apparently seems to be the majority in Lakewood based on this article.

In its lengthy article talks about the ‘Vaad’. Lakewood apparently has a rabbinic council - one of whose most important functions seems to be telling people how to vote. In previous elections that meant that any candidate they endorsed was assured a victory via a huge turnout - voting in almost monolithic fashion.

So effective were they that in 2002 a political candidate endorsed by the Republican Party facing no completion on the ballot lost his election to a write-in candidate supported by the Vaad.

That’s the power of Daas Torah. ‘Don’t decide for yourselves who to vote for.’ ‘We (Daas Torah) will tell you who to vote for!’ The mentality of the majority of religiously right wing voters about Daas Torah has almost always been: ‘You know best what God wants.’ ‘Therefore we will follow you unquestioningly.’

I don’t really know whether this Vaad is the official voice of the Torah leadership in Lakewood. But based on how much influence they had in that election it is not unreasonable to assume it is their voice - at least in an unofficial way.

But in 2010 they seem to have lost their influence. It has been replaced by the influence of bloggers. That is what happened in a more recent election when Hershel Herskowitz (pictured above) was promoted by an Orthodox blogger who ran against the Vaad’s candidate Committeeman Robert W. Singer. The bloggers influence was so strong that the Vaad could no longer guarantee that their endorsement would assure Singer a win in the general election. He then dropped out. From the article :

"If I lose locally, I lose my Senate seat, and I can't risk that,'' Singer told Vaad members, according to a person who was there. "So you have to commit to me that you can bring out the vote, or I'm not running.''

This is an incredible development. Not that this wasn’t predicted. Anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear knows that the internet has changed – everything! If they haven’t yet surpassed all other media in influencing the public – they are certainly on track to do so very soon. Traditional news media have suffered a major hit in their readership (…or viewers …or listeners) because of it. Even the New York Times is hurting. Time magazine has been reduced to a pamphlet!

And now the internet’s influence seems to have surpassed ‘Daas Torah’. At least in the voting booth.

I’m sure there are those who will dispute that this Vaad is actually speaking for Daas Torah. I would of course be one of those – but for different reasons than those who value right wing Daas Torah. I do not consider Rabbanim in Lakewood to be the sole representatives and disseminators of Torah's wisdom.

The decisions of Rabbanim in Lakewood upon matters of public policy are uniquely theirs and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rabbanim I look up to. Like Rav Aharon Lichtenstein for example. But the right wing Yeshiva types do see Daas Torah as the sole province of their own right wing Rabbanim. They might say that this Vaad does not represent them nor do they have their endorsement. I honestly don’t know whether they do or not. But if they controlled the vote to the extent they did in 2002, I don’t think there is any question about it. Even if it doesn’t have any ‘official’ endorsement.

One of the things that right wing Daas Torah has been railing against is the internet. The main thrust of their objections is the snare it is for some people who may be exposed to pornographic websites. But their outcry is not limited to pornography. They are equally opposed to bloggers who scoff at these rabbis. These bloggers constantly deride and ridicule them. That is wrong and against Halacha.

That said - I’m pretty sure these Rabbanim oppose even well intended and respectful criticism. They have come to their decisions based on their combined Torah knowledge which is considerable. One might even say that respectful disagreement is even more dangerous because it is respectful. Good people will pay serious attention to that. Especially when common sense applied. It’s kind of hard for reasonable people to ignore common sense approaches to communal problems. Especially if it presented by sincere religious bloggers who respect right wing Daas Torah even while occasionally disagreeing with it.

I think that’s one reason for a ‘Lo Plug’ - the categorial opposition to the internet. Instead of advising caution... using kosher filters and the like, right wing Daas Torah advocates complete avoidance of it - if not for Parnassa reasons. If it is needed for Parnassa, it should be used with kosher filters and should never be used for any other purposes. I think the ‘other purposes’ they are most concerned with is bloggers – even Frum ones.

The problem is that most of their constituents have been honoring this in the breach. That’s why the Vaad’s previous hold on the religious vote has dissipated and an internet endorsed candidate won a recent election.

These are the moderate Charedim I so often speak of. They have Charedi values but do not walk in lockstep anymore with the political endorsements of Daas Torah. The Vaad's motives may be too influenced by what is best for ‘the Yeshiva’ – Beis Hamedrash Gavoha.

For its part the Vaad might argue that what is best for the Yeshiva is precisely what Daas Torah demands. But their constituents – many of whom are former students of the Yeshiva – now see otherwise. They have another source who has gotten many of them to think for themselves by presenting alternative views of what Daas Torah might be. A view that sees the financial needs of religious families as more important than developing and enlarging an already large Yeshiva campus for example.

So in the war between the internet and ‘Daas Torah’ it seems the internet is winning. And that’s a good thing. Getting religious people to think for themselves and value common sense is always a good thing. And the truth is that Daas Torah has not suffered. At least not Daas Torah as I understand it. What has really suffered is the mindless approach to a narrow interpretation of it.