The People Are Looking For Answers

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The NY Times reports that there is a religious group that is losing even some of its most committed members because of what they are finding on the Internet. Sound familiar? The group is not orthodox Judaism, rather it is the Mormons.

Some people are quick to point out that orthodox Judaism is suffering a similar fate. According to the narrative, people get online, they see that their religion can be challenged and that there are many other perspectives in the world, and sometimes they leave. We discussed this in the context of the chasidic world here: Can Judaism Survive the Internet?)

Mormons are finding that their religion is so nascent, their beliefs are based on so many contradictions and inconsistencies, and their prophet was a less than admirably role model, that their faith is irrevocably shaken. Some leave. Others stay and want to modernize it.

In the context of chasidic Judaism I think the comparison is somewhat fair. The lifestyle is a fairly recent innovation, the beliefs can seem contradictory at times, and for some, finding out that a shtreimel is not holy can shake their faith. The Internet might be “to blame” for those people discovering that they have options.google_1674887b

But I think most people who leave and use the Internet as a tool to assist them in their journey are bothered by social issues in the community. They dislike the lifestyle, or they think the leadership is corrupt, or the allure of freedom from religion is too great. For them, the Internet is more like a lobby where they can meet likeminded people. The Internet doesn’t cause the doubt, but it helps them deal with it and sometime it helps them leave.

The last few days have demonstrated another Internet driven issue in orthodox Judaism.  A local issue can become a global issue. A rabbi who writes controversial things becomes international news. Further, the materials that form the substance of his controversial statements are available for anyone to read. The challenges can be found on plenty of websites. The charges of heresy can be found on several websites as well.

However there is a disconnect. The Internet is the great liberator of minds. Being told what to think doesn’t really work anymore. Anyone can do their own research. In fact, R’ Gordimer’s original article was using data that was a week old and required a simple click to verify if it was current. Obviously people called him on it. It’s so easy to do research today. We can verify and fact check and myth bust with ease. If a yeshiva student in the Mir circa 1967 wanted to read Biblical Criticism, where would he even go? But now, it’s all available. Google is a click away. People can read it for themselves. That was the thinking behind TABS. Provide a safe place to read Biblical Criticism in the context of orthodox Judaism. R’ Farber was trying do that. Did he go too far? Is there such a thing as too far? These are the questions being addressed across the Internet right now.

The point is that drawing lines in the sand while expecting skeptics to just “listen” is so 1980s. It doesn’t work anymore. People can just look at the information and make their own determination. Perhaps many of these people are not qualified to make such judgments. But that doesn’t stop them.

While it is laudable that Cross-Currents is trying to address this issue, in my opinion they are not addressing it at all. Instead we are being told what to think without being told why. The only why we have heard is that if we think like R’ Farber there will be dire consequences. Is that sufficient? I don’t think so.

The Internet is not going away. The questions that R’ Farber addressed will be on the Internet forever. And there are more. The best defense I have seen so far is on TABS. The reason it is the best is because is simply because it is the only defense so far. We can lament the lack of scholars in the frum community willing to address these questions in the terms they are asked. But all we have to show for it are lamentations. Still no answers or explanations.

From the NY Times article:

Mr. Mattsson said that when he started sharing what he had learned with other Mormons in Sweden, the stake president (who oversees a cluster of congregations) told him not to talk about it to any members, even his wife and children. He did not obey: “I said to them, why are you afraid for the truth?”

We say we have the truth. We should be trying to figure out how to reconcile it with other truths, not saying “we have the truth” so loudly that we are incapable of hearing anything else.

Link: NY Times

  • MarkSoFla

    In the end, if there are things in ones religion that are proved to be untrue .. well, they’re untrue. Ideally they are discarded as soon as possible, whether via reinterpretation, or by clear declaration (like polygamy in Judaism).

    For example, lice do not spontaneously reproduce. And the sun doesn’t move beyond the rakia each evening. And so on….

    That’s how you keep a religion healthy and vibrant.

    • ben_yehoshua

      So how is polygamy untrue?

      • MarkSoFla

        Huh? Can you restate the question?

    • tesyaa

      Mark, do you think there are any principles of traditional Judaism that aren’t manmade? Which ones?

      • MarkSoFla

        Yes. The chukim aren’t man-made, for example.

        The thing is, I’m not sure how you are defining “traditional Judaism”. Traditional according to who? Traditional from the 1900’s? The 1800’s? The 1100’s? From chazals time? Bet hamikdash time? Neviim time? Seems to me that with the passing of generations, “traditional” changes quite a bit. The basic principles, however, do not change. Just like the neviim didn’t wear fabrics of mixed wool and linen, neither do I.

        • tesyaa

          Avoiding shatnez is a “basic principle” of Judaism? Okaaaaaaay.

          • MarkSoFla

            Basic? Who said anything about basic?

        • tesyaa

          Oh, and the chukim are definitely the man-made products of cults reacting to other cults who liked wearing wool and linen or grafting fruit trees or whatever.

          • G*3

            There is a theme of not mixing kinds running through a lot of mitzvos. Don’t mix wool (animal) with linen (plant), don’t mix different types of plant and animal, don’t mix different kinds of food, don’t mix holy with non-holy, and so on.

            Some of it is cults. Some of it may be from clinically OCD religious leaders sharing their neurosis. And lots of it is other stuff.

    • Bentzy

      Ye, what’s “untrue” about polygamy? It was a “norm” back then and now it’s not, so: discontinued. There’s nothing “true” or “untrue” about it.

      As to the other examples, those are rabbinical and it has been long settled that they relied on contemporary science when they spoke about such issues.

      As to Biblical Criticism, I’m reading Ben Zion Katz’s book “A Journey Through Torah” and it’s pretty compelling.

      • MarkSoFla

        Polygamy isn’t something that can be true or untrue. It just “is” – it either exists or does not exist. It existed for a long time, then it went out of fashion (among Europeans, including Jewish Europeans), and sometime later a famous European Rabbi garnered enough support against it to impose a declaration that it is not permissible anymore.

        I think everyone knows the rough history of it, so I’m not quite sure what you are asking.

        Want a more recent example? Milk. Regular milk, because of national milk purity laws in America was accepted as kosher for many decades. Sometime later, certain American Rabbis garnered enough support against regular milk that they were able to create rules against it. Their following has gotten more and more support in recent years and has bolstered the chalav yisrael business substantially.

        • Bentzy

          You brought polygamy as an example of something that was thought to be “true” and when found to be “untrue” it was “discarded as soon as possible, whether via reinterpretation, or by clear declaration”. I was simply saying that polygamy was never a “truth”, and therefore doesn’t prove the point you’re supposedly trying to show.

          As to Chalav Israel. I don’t get your point. Which truth was found to be not so and “discarded as soon as possible, whether via reinterpretation, or by clear declaration”?

          • MarkSoFla

            I’m sorry I wasn’t clear. I brought up the lice thing as an example of something that was determined to be untrue. And I brought up the polygamy thing as something that was changed by clear declaration by Rabbis. The point is that things can change based on Rabbinical will – chazal clearly say it, they claim that power for themselves as Rabbis, and they give clear evidence that they can pasken differently than HKB”H (via a bas kol) paskens.

            • Bentzy

              “and they give clear evidence that they can pasken differently than HKB”H (via a bas kol) paskens” What source are you referring to?

              • I’m fairly certain he is talking tanur shel achnai.

                • MarkSoFla

                  Yes!

              • MarkSoFla

                If I recall correctly, it’s in Baba Metziah 59.

      • IH

        Bentzy – The only problem with a book explaining why the Documentary Hypothesis is false, is that Modern Bible Scholarship has long abandoned the Documentary Hypothesis as such.

        First read: http://kavvanah.wordpress.com/2010/12/07/joshua-berman-interview/ and then http://kavvanah.wordpress.com/2012/01/08/interview-with-david-m-carr-current-state-of-bible-scholarship/

        • Bentzy

          Thanks. Will read.

  • Joe

    I am a little confused as to the point of this post. Yes, you have said quite many times internet is not going away and people can go on and find the truth and hiding it is useless. Yes, we heard this from you and know. Ok. now what? What is OJ going to do?

    • The point is that we are not willing to settle for the answers we have been receiving.

      • Joe

        huh? so what are you looking for? You have either the tried answers given by the rabbis, or you have those that are given by the academics. Which do you choose? And do you understand the consequences to them?

        • Cross-Currents keeps promising good answers. I’m waiting.

          • Joe

            I will assume that is sarcasm…since you know very well what CC is capable of. Does this mean you choose academics? I mean, there aren’t that many options.

          • YS

            In his latest column, Rav Alderstein has the good sense to not promise good answers. He wisely (and all too uniquely, among Rabbanim) talks about good approaches, essentially recognizing that satisfactory answers do not really exist. He even goes so far as to acknowledge that today’s gedolim are not intellectual enough to have given these issues serious thought.

      • Joe

        Fink…..you already have answers. You already know what they are. You just want orthodoxy to expand to accept any idea as long as it leads to inclusivity.

    • IH

      Joe – For a serious discussion about what OJ is going to do, listen to 10 minutes of Prof. Halbertal’s talk on the subject from 2011 (in Hebrew) available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHrgn4k7E20 — start at 21:57 where he confronts the issue head on.

  • Adam Kenigsberg

    How does a yeshiva student know that there is a G-d?

    The Rambam says so, and the Ra’avad doesn’t argue.

    We use medical knowledge for medicine, mechanical knowledge for machines, etc.

    Why must we accept any other epistemology as equal to, or better than, our mesorah – for knowledge of our mesorah, and the practical application thereof, halacha?

  • Tomim Ti