Friday, April 11, 2014

Are Orthodox Bloggers Modern Day Korachs?

Collage taken from Tablet. Note whose blog is on the laptop screen
My hat is off to Shulem Deen. His overview in Tablet Magazine of the world of Orthodox Jewish bloggers is quite thorough. I have dealt with the issue of Orthodox Jewish blogs in the past. Several times.  As Shulem points out the Orthodox blogging world is as broad based as Orthodoxy itself. Well almost as broad. The extreme right still eschews any connection to it. There is for example no such thing as a blog or website that represents the Satmar point of view. I’m sure that’s true for just about all Chasidim with the very notable exception of Chabad. 

But even the Agudah point of view is represented in the blog world. They in effect eat their cake – and have it too. While officially staying off the internet in any form (they do not even have a website) - their spokesmen have their own websites and post regularly on Cross Currents. In Fact their official spokesman, Rabbi Avi Shafran posts there regularly. Apparently with the tacit approval of the Agudah.

What I did not know is that Cross Currents has the blessing of my 12th grade Rebbe,  Rabbi Yaakov Perlow  (also known as the Novominsker Rebbe). Rabbi Perlow also has the distinction of being the head of the Agudah Moetzes. According to the Tablet article, Rabbi Perlow not only gave his blessing to Cross Currents, he actually permitted critical comments to be posted on it – as long as they were responded to.

Now I am not for a moment claiming that Cross Currents is open to all commentary no matter how critical. They are a fully moderated site and many comments that are submitted are not posted. Nevertheless – from a Charedi point of view, this is quite daring.

I can’t say I am really all that surprised by Rabbi Perlow’s attitude here. Having attended Yeshivas Chaim Berlin under Rav Yitzchak Hutner; and having had my Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik as a Rebbe there; and having attended college - receiving a degree, he is no stranger to the outside world. Additionally, his relatively long tenure at my Alma Mater, HTC exposed him to a variety of students from different backgrounds. Very few of them Charedi. So he knows what is on the mind of young people that were raised in a secular culture even as their families remained Orthodox. And in some cases those students did not even come from Orthodox backgrounds.

Now it’s true, that the issues were different then. And the differences between the right and the left – although very real, were not as wide. Or at least not as contentious. Not here in Chicago, anyway. But there were clear differences even then. Rabbi Perlow understood and respected them. (I should add that he was a great Rebbe, too!)

But contrast Rabbi Perlow’s personal approval of a blog that allows critical comments with the kind of anti blog rhetoric one hears at a typical Agudah convention. Shulem points out some of the more egregious comments.  From Tablet
According to a report inYated Ne’eman, one of the speakers, Rabbi Efraim Wachsman, declared bloggers to be “actors in the tradition of Korach, the Tziddukim, and the Maskilim,” traditional archetypes for rebellion against Torah authority. Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon, a leading rabbi at Lakewood’s Beth Medrash Govoha yeshiva, reportedly called blogs “a plague” and an “insidious … poison.” 
I recall my reaction to that. Let’s just say that it wasn’t pleasant. But Gil Student did a marvelous job refuting that as well: 
Rabbi Gil Student, author of the blog Hirhurim, attended the session and was disturbed by what he heard. “They were using all this over-the-top language,” he told me, “declaring blogs to be a churban hadas [the destruction of the faith], and preventing the coming of the Messiah—or something of that nature.” Student disagrees: He believes that blogs serve an important purpose in analyzing Torah topics and the spectrum of Orthodox worldviews. “If you want to get people’s attention, you have to be where they are. If we’re not there, we lose the battle.” Student says that he sees the effects of blogs in the real world. Rabbinic figures with whom he is in touch will often mention things he wrote on his blog, even when they disagree. “There’s cross-pollination,” he said. “Ideas are moving.” 
I am not a modern day Korach (the rebel Levite of the Torah who defied Moshe’s authority and was summarily swallowed up into the earth - losing his portion in the world to come). Despite Rabbi Wachsman’s insinuation that this is what Orthodox Jewish bloggers are. Nor am I any of the other pejoratives used by Rabbi Wachsman and other rabbinic figures. 

I have also been told by people who are close to the Agudah Moetzes, that they did not mean me, when they excoriated Orthodox bloggers. I am grateful for that. But I am still upset by the kind of rhetoric used by Rabbi Wachmasn who indiscriminately blasted all Orthodox bloggers - labeling them all ‘Korachs’.  And he is not alone. There are many other Orthodox personalities of similar and lesser stature that have the same derogatory attitudes towards Orthodox bloggers.

I am however grateful that Rabbi Perlow is not one of them. Although I realize that he does oppose the ones that insult rabbinc leaders. Can't really blame him for that. I always greet him when he comes to Chicago and he is glad to see me… remembering me from my student days at HTC.

The bottom line here is that communicating via the internet is no longer just a fun way to pass time. It has become so huge, that all other forms of communication have been negatively affected by it. Increasingly the internet is becoming the primary source for information of all kinds. And the fastest. 

It has via blogs like mine brought up important issues of the day – and exposes the thoughts of readers via the commenting system in unprecedented ways. There has never been  a way to take the pulse of the people – especially Orthodox Jews – the way the internet does. It is instant. And it is raw. Blogs let you know what the people are really thinking. Before blogs, all dissent was kept to oneself for fear of being ostracized. 

Now dissent is heard all day long on blogs like mine. What better way to take the pulse of the people. Until blogs, communications were done one way. Agudah had speakers that spoke the party line, the audience applauded, and everybody went home. Their conventions still do this. But now the internet is allowing their audience to respond and to say what they really think. This is one of the purposes of my blog. Which is why I allow comments that are critical of me. Sometimes very strongly.

Rabbi Adlerstein is right. He was interviewed in that article and said that the so called Slifkin affair was a watershed moment in modern day Jewish history. A critical turning point in how Orthodoxy functions. It is no longer the case that Orthodox Jewish leadership can assume to just speak and people will listen without question. People now have the opportunity to question. And to be heard. If I had to pick the one benefit of Orthodox blogs that is the most important, it is that nothing gets by without scrutiny anymore. Whether it’s covering up sex abuse, or questioning the literal interpretation of the Torah about the origins of the universe.

We can thank Rabbi Natan Slifkin for that. Although he paid a heavy price for it by having his books banned, that opened up the Torah world to the light of day. A light that can examine every doctrinal detail and pass judgment on whether these doctrines are still valid to the modern educated mind. A world that can offer alternatives to those doctrines that are just as valid Halachicly and Hashkaificly.

I think Rabbi Perlow understands this and it is why he supports a blog like Cross Currents. And why he does not consider my blog to be the work of a Korach.