Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Message to Agudah

Hirhurim has a post today about Agudah and the Internet that is illustrative of the contradiction between their opposition to the internet and their mission to spread their worldview to the masses.

Agudah was founded almost a hundred years ago as a response to the free thinking spirit of the times. The Age of Enlightenment eventually reached Jewish quarters and Jews started taking advantage of those freedoms leading many of them to go astray, abandon Mitzvah observance, and even embrace heretical ideas. Many rabbinic leaders of that generation - including Roshei Yeshiva and Admorim – Chasidic Rebbes - banded together to form the Agudah as a united front against it. Based on that and the wish to create an umbrella organization for all of Orthodox Jewry Agudah was formed. Although Orthodox unity was almost impossible to achieve I don’t believe they ever ceased having that as a goal.

In order to achieve that goal they had to reach the masses. The best way to do that from the time of its founding all the way to the near end of the 20th century was thru the print media. Various publications were created to enable that. The Jewish Observer was their English language magazine for many decades including most of the first decade of the 21st century. But about a year or so ago that publication folded – becoming an economic liability for them. Readership was lost to newer and frankly more appealing publications like Mishpacha Magazine. Although I had at times been upset by a few articles I nevertheless appreciated that publication for it gave its readers Agudah’s ideological perspective on important issues of the day written by serious Charedi thinkers.

But in truth it was more than just a better magazine that caused the Jewish Observer’s demise. It was the internet. The same internet that is causing virtually all print media to try and figure out ways to stay alive. Readership is substantially down in virtually all the major print media, including once venerable publications like The New York Times and Time Magazine. Why would anyone pay to read the Times if they can get it free on-line?

The point is that the internet is now a primary source for information for huge numbers of people. It is more immediate, up to date, and varied. You can find just about any perspective you want on any subject. As it concerns Agudah religious subjects including Halacha and Hashkafa are disseminated by all manner of participants from the very religious to the heretical. Virtually all segments of society including the Torah world have websites, virtual newspapers and blogs that disseminate information and opinion. Agudah – among others has resisted spreading their message on-line because of the great danger it poses.

Aside from the easy access to pornography of every imaginable sort and the ability to hide it from others - a danger to both children and adults – there is also the danger posed by just about anyone with a keyboard to influence even the most religious of Jews away from Torah.

In the case of one blogger who professes his former Charedi beliefs, his exposure to Kefirah has turned him into a skeptic who questions the very existence of God and now doubts that the events of the Torah ever took place. He even tries to convince others of his views via his very successful blog. One can only guess how many people he has influenced!

And then there is the sheer time that is consumed that could arguably be better spent.

I have always conceded to the argument about the dangers of the internet. My problem has always been in how Agudah chose to deal with it. And the fact is that their method of choice is hurting them.

As I understand their position they are opposed to using it as a general principle for all the reasons I stated. But they allow it for businesses and have not outright banned it – realizing that most of their constituency uses it anyway. But they also realize that most of their constituency uses it responsibly. With that in mind they allowed their now defunct publication, the Jewish Oberver to be published by others in PDF. Their approach is to tell people not to use it if they don’t have to but if they do to use it to do so in the safest way possible with filters, oversight in the home, etc.

Agudah’s rabbinic leaders rarely miss an opportunity to disparage it but still utilize it in a sort of backdoor way. The problem for them is that they do not have any direct access to their public other than conventions, and media announcements, or press coverage of their activities. Their message is - by current standards - stifled. It is overwhelmed by the message of others not necessarily sympathetic to their views and sometimes overtly hostile to them.

The biggest damage to their cause is not however from the more vitriolic enemies or even from heretical blogs. Most of their constituents reject those out of hand. Their biggest danger is from serious critics on the internet who respectfully challenge their views and activities. The audience for those kinds of critics is as vast and broad based including many of their own supporters.

Agudah cannot respond in kind. The best they can do is talk about it at one of their conventions or through a public announcement in the print media. Those announcement are always picked up by sympathetic Charedi websites that will publish it. Thus they can kind of have their cake – and eat it. But I think they are selling themselves short by refusing to participate directly.

I count myself among both their critics and supporters. I have not hesitated to question, agree, or disagree with their positions. I have always tried to do that respectfully. But there are many others - many of them Orthodox - that are not so kind and gentle. They have hammered away unmercifully on issues of great concern to the Jewish people. They do so in a manner not befitting Orthodox Judaism sometimes even using profanity. Even if their complaints are valid their responses end up being a Bizyon HaTorah - a denigration of Torah.

There are some sincere and well meaning Orthodox Jews who may be happy about this situation and even hope for Agudah’s demise. I am not one of them. I think they provide a tremendous service to Klal Yisroel and represent an important perspective on Torah. They should not be silenced. They deserve - and ought to be heard.

Agudah’s lack of presence on the internet has reduced rather than increased their influence. Yes - many Charedi writers who generally sympathize with Agudah will represent and defend them on-line. But this is not the same as having their own website - and any number of other methods available on-line to spread their message.

Aside from that even some of the very Charedi writers that defend Agudah have criticism of their own. I therefore feel very strongly that they ought to reevaluate their position with respect to the internet along the lines of other Orthodox institutions like the OU.

As bad as the internet is, it is also that good. It is a medium that can be used for extreme good as well as extreme bad. It can save lives and take them. It can save souls and lose them. It can take decent people and destroy their families and ruin their lives. It can inspire people to reach the greatest heights of Torah observance and it can turn people into heretics. In short, the internet is virtual reality, Just about anything that can be found in real life can be found on the internet. It is all about responsible use, knowing yourself, and taking precautions for yourself and your children to avoid its many pitfalls. There will always be people who will be harmed by exposure to some elements of virtual reality – just like there will always be people that will be harmed by some elements of reality.

True the internet makes it easier and that ought to be factored into one’s use. But just like there is good in the real world there is good on the internet. Part of that good as it pertains to Agudah is in using it as a medium for its message. By refusing to use the internet in all but indirect ways Agudah misses out on providing the kind of influence they could have. In effect they have ceded that territory to others.

Agudah might answer that in having a website they would be selling out their principles. They might even use a phrase like ‘Yotzah Scharo B’Hefseido. That is - the advantages of hosting their own website is more than absorbed by the disadvantages of tacit approval of internet use that an Agudah website would imply.

I believe the opposite is true. Any gain they have by not using it is absorbed by the loss of not utilizing the most effective tool of communication in our day. I would therefore urge them to reconsider. The fact that they use it in a back door way undermines their position of strong objections anyway. They have a lot to offer in the way of educating the religious as well as the irreligious public and countering their opponents and enemies. They have some pretty brilliant writers available to do that. Why not maximize exposure and join the 21st century?