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Rabbi Avi Shafran: Blogistan

editorial.jpgThere was a time, not terribly long ago, when disturbed individuals bent on broadcasting angry fantasies had only soapboxes in public parks from which to rant. And respectable people knew, if only from the ranters’ appearance, to keep well out of spittle’s range.

Today, though, the very means of mass communication that enables so much worthy information to reach such large numbers of people at the speed of light – the Internet – has also been harnessed to spread madness, hatred, lies and (not a word to be used lightly but here entirely appropriate) evil.   And so, close on the heels of the swindlers and pornographers who have colonized so much of cyberspace, have come the gaggle of electronic soapboxes known as weblogs, or blogs.

The writer of a recent article in the Agudath Israel monthly The Jewish Observer expressed chagrin at discovering the nature of many Jewish blogs.  Often anonymous as well as obnoxious, some of those personal opinion-diaries, he found, display utter disregard for essential Torah ideals like the requirement to shun lashon hora and hotzo’as shem ra; to show honor for Torah and respect for Torah scholars.  I would have added basic fairness to the list.  And truth.

There are, of course, responsible bloggers, in the Jewish realm as in others, writers who seek to share community news or ideas and observations with readers, and to post readers’ comments.  Some explore concepts in Jewish thought and law, others focus on Jewish history and society.

But just as an unfiltered e-mail account quickly reveals that the bulk of electronic communications are from people we would really not wish to ever meet in person, so are responsible blogs, in the Jewish realm as in the general, decidedly in the minority.  And even many responsible blogs allow postings of comments from people with very different value systems.  As one poster on a Jewish blog, “Joe,” noted: “The whole reason people gravitate to blogs with active comment sections is because of the gosip [sic] and back and forth jabs and insults… If thats [sic] not your thing, fine, but anyone who reads or posts on a blog cant [sic] seriously claim that lashon hara bothers them.”

No one knows exactly why the Internet appears to bring out the worst in people, but there is little doubt that it often does.  And the cloak of anonymity seems to unleash truly dark, ugly alter egos.  As a popular Jewish blog’s founder told the Forward in June, “There’s a lot of testosterone on the Internet, a lot of swagger… anything can happen.”

Like maliciousness and mayhem.  Recently, for example, a 13-year-old Missouri girl who was targeted on a non-Jewish social-networking site for verbal abuse by classmates became so distraught that she hanged herself in her bedroom with a belt.

Another recent e-outrage, although with a happier ending, was perpetrated by a Milwaukee teacher who presented himself anonymously on a blog as a critic of the local teachers union.  In an attempt to garner sympathy for union members, he wrote that the two youths who killed 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999 “knew how to deal with the overpaid teacher union thugs:  One shot at a time.”  Only because of the implicit threat of violence, and the resultant involvement of law enforcement, was the teacher’s ruse uncovered.  Less prosecutable offenses, although malevolent, misleading and violative of the laws of civil discourse, are, needless to say, of no interest to the police.

And so, many blogs have become showcases for carefully concocted stews of truth and falsehood well stirred and generously seasoned with gall and spleen.   The Jewish sites among them like to malign guilty and innocent people alike – extra points for Orthodox Jews and triple-score for rabbis.

On some sites, targets’ guilt is established purely by rumor, innuendo, anonymous accusations and alleged association with accused or confirmed wrongdoers.  Innocent until proven guilty?  Not in the blogosphere.

Indeed, if a Jewish blog were fully reflective of Jewish values, even those who are actually guilty would not be subject to “open season” maligning.  Truth may be “an absolute defense” in American libel law, but not in Jewish law; true statements are precisely the focus of the prohibition of lashon hora.  It might strike some as strange, but the Torah teaches us that the evil of such speech is inherent, not a function of falsehood.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the apparent gullibility of so many visitors to those blogs, who, from their own postings, seem ready to swallow any accusation or character assassination, as long as the charges are sufficiently salacious or forcefully asserted.   Some of the many adulatory comments posted on offensive blogs may have been planted by the blogerrai-meisters themselves, but many certainly seem to be from other citizens anxious to join in the fun.

Responsible bloggers don’t deserve to be lumped together with the louts and understandably chafe at having their entire enterprise tarred with the sins of individuals.  Unfortunately, though, those individuals and their sins comprise the bulk of the blogosphere.   Those who counsel avoidance of blogs are no different from those who advise against frequenting dark, crime-ridden neighborhoods.  There may be bargains to be had in such locales, maybe even a good library or pizzeria.  But they are scuzzy places to spend time in.

The Internet in general is, pace the popular arbiters of societal propriety, not a healthy place to hang out in.  That is why our Gedolim have frowned upon its use altogether for any but essential purposes like livelihood.  They feel that the windows it opens to every corner of the wider world allow in not only some sunlight but much pollution of the most pernicious sort.

But even if business or other life exigencies require individuals to utilize the Internet, there are dark corners of the Web that are filled with venomous spiders, that pose extraordinary risks and should be avoided at practically all costs.  The blogosphere is a particular infested corner.

All Jews should be concerned with basic Jewish values like shunning loshon hora, refusing to judge others, showing kovod for Torah and for talmidei chachomim.  And if we are, we are rightly warned against patronizing the untamed areas of Blogistan.   Because, while larger society may hallow the idea of free speech, the Torah considers words to carry immense responsibility.  Used properly, they can teach, inspire and elevate.  But used wrongly, or recklessly, they can be virtual weapons of mass destruction.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

19 Responses

  1. Ok, so this article is basically complaining about the proliferation of blogs and articles written against Ortho-Jews and Rabbis. This article is written by….a Rabbi!
    Rabbi Shafran – You believe that much of it is falsehood; I cannot argue with that. But there is just so much out there that you also have to concede that much of it has to be based on truths and reality as well.

  2. If loshon harah was the worst problem in the blogesphere, we’d be in great shape. Maybe Rabbi Shafran intended to limit the scope of this piece to these issues, but it is downright irresponsible to ignore the biggest threat on the Blogs, that being KEFIRAH!

    There are many blogs devoted to the questioning and denial of the Torah MiSinai, basic emunah, the Chazal and Ribbono Shel Oilam (R”L)! I’m not talking about other denomination within Judaism, but frum yidden going off the derech. Many of the blogsters are educated well meaning individuals that are m’vakshei emmes. They ask well founded philosophical questions and the problem is that many impressionable uneducated individuals are inadvertently swayed into shepticism and eventually go off the derech.

    I recently spoke with Rav Yankel Horowitz, of Project Yes and he related that the problem is much worse than we’d like to admit and that we are miserably failing to address this issue on almost every front. Rabbi Horowitz deals with these issues ion a daily basis and he has stories that are numbing.

    He tells of a maggid shiur (daf yomi) in a respected community that is an apikoros gamur and about parents of children in Yeshiva that lead a double lives. On one hand they don’t believe in anything but they worry how their kefirah will impact their children’s shidduchim. Of course the gedolim are correct in assuring the Internet, but it is here v’ha raya this post! So while loshon harah and motzei shem ra are undoubtedly horrific problems on the blogs, Rabbi Shafran’s utter silence on the issue of kefirah speaks volumes. On a positive note Emmes always prevails!

  3. What Rabbi Shafran neglects to point out is that the anonymity of blogs cuts both ways. Sure, it leads to some (ok, a lot of) nonsense being spouted, but it also provides a forum for people to discuss issues that would otherwise be impossible to raise effectively.

    For example, whatever one’s thoughts on some of the bloggers covering abuse in the Frum community, there is no disputing the fact that blogs have played an integral role in dragging this issue out from under the rug.

    Sunlight (even virtual sunlight) is the best disinfectant, and if Rabbis are unable or unwilling to provide, the task falls to someone else.

  4. Having come across some of these blogs, I have a number of observations which I would be interested in hearing Rabbi Shafran address the following, though the questions may be more appropriate for a Rav than the Internet, as a whole.

    1. With society what it is, and with “Ki Adam Ayin BaAretz Asher Yaase Tov ViLo Yecheta” and “Mi SheYesh lo Maneh Rotze Masayim”, someone, somewhere, even a Rabbi, may have fallen prey to the clutches of corruption or some other nisayon.

    Since many of these Rabbis/organizations may affect the broader community’s day-to-day life (kashrus organizations, for example), the information does need to be told, though, obviously, in a responsible and truthful fashion, litoeles.

    As another hypothetical example, say a school employs one or more Rabbeim who are “known” to beat the students (even “lightly”). Should one not be aware of that, in the event they move to that neighborhood, or if someone calls them for advice?

    In this global village of people meeting people from all over, in there not a toeles involved to be informed? Going back to the kashrus example, what if one visits that city or town?

    2. Since Agudas Yisrael, like anything or anyone else, has interests of its own, it may be biased, or “nogea bidavar”, in certain matters. How else does Rabbi Shafran propose being able to learn about issues that may be against Agudah’s interests in telling about them – in other words, is there an organization that might present things differently and liToeles without needing to resort to the blogistan?

  5. I think all of us who post on YW would do well to take to heart the following comments, especially, before posting. It doesn’t just apply to people who comment on blogs…
    “Perhaps even more disturbing is the apparent gullibility of so many visitors to those blogs, who, from their own postings, seem ready to swallow any accusation or character assassination, as long as the charges are sufficiently salacious or forcefully asserted.”

  6. Reb Matisyahu characterized the blogs we are discussing as “Moshav Leitzim”. As Jews we already have plenty of guidance from tanach and mussar seforim on how to deal with a moshav Leitzim. There is no need to reinvent the wheel just because the technology has changed.

  7. “Perhaps even more disturbing is the apparent gullibility of so many visitors to those blogs, who, from their own postings, seem ready to swallow any accusation or character assassination, as long as the charges are sufficiently salacious or forcefully asserted.”

    That is very true, and these are who these blogs target. Some bloggers present themselves as very well read and educated, which is hardly the case if one actually researches their claims. They state things as accepted fact when it’s obviously not. Yet surprisingly enough people swallow it whole.

  8. Rabbi Shafran writes with noble intention. He speaks the truth about the issues of Loshon Horah and simple lack of derech eretz on many blogs, especially in the comments. What He also does, perhaps inadvertently, and what some here have picked up on, is that the modality of the internet has allowed for a demonstration of what has apparently been kept quiet until now. Namely, that many Frum Yidden, young and old alike, have serious, burning questions about both issues of emunoh and issues of halochoh that have simply not been addressed in the forums available to them until now. Does anyone here truly believe that during times of shmad and difficulty, during starvation, exile, and unnumbered tears, none of our ancestors had gnawing doubts, or questions that their leaders and teachers either could not or would not answer? What do you think it did for the kind of yiddishkeit they passed on or demonstrated to their children – not just the nisyonos, but more importantly the rote doing of mitzvos and community norms they no longer believed in or understood? How many can look around their communities and not see too many frum yidden “going through the motions”?

    I think that our mosdos and our leaders must address this evaporation of personal understanding and relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu and its replacement with – do it because that’s the way its done, or do it because I said so, or do it because everyone else will shun me if I dont.

    The Kotzker Rebbe once gave an explanation for a posuk in sefer devorim that others passed over. Between two mitzvos lo saase, there is what seems to him to b an extraneous posuk – “lo saasu kein l’hashem elokeichem”. He says that this seems to repeat what was said immediately before, and since there is not a single extraneous word in the Torah, it must be coming to tell us something else. He says dont read kein as “thus”, referring to the previous posuk. Rather, read it as YES. HKB’h doesn’t want people to do “yes”. He doesn’t want yes men. HKB’h wants yidden to ask, to struggle, to be like Yaakov Ovinu who was named Yisroel because he grappled with HKB”h.

    Maybe we all need to take this kotzker vort to heart. Are we answering our childrens questions? Are the Yeshivos and Rebeeim in them addressing the issues of emunoh and doubt in a positive, realistic way? Are all of those we put on a pedestal modeling the kind of midos we want to emulate,and our kids to emulate? If not, how can we change the environment from one that forces emesdik questions into the silent darkness or anonymous blogs into one where sincere questions lead to satisfying answers and if not answers, then at least direction where to find them.

  9. Poster #1. Im not sure what you’re referring to, nor do I want to, based on some stuff I’ve seen online,. The issue is that people who believe that something is factual based on information they’ve read on blogs are making a severe error. The frightening proliferation of those who believe (and I’m actually keeping the REALLY scary stuff out of here) that Israel conspired with the CIA to engineer 9/11 believe what they are saying to be true because of their “research”. This “research” means a close perusal of online sources, non of which display a droplet of evidence beyond the writer’s own conjecture. This is the case with many many examples of slander/rumors/conspiracy theories that exist on the internet. One crackpot says something and other crackpots latch on until eventually you have a huge network of crackpots all saying the same lies. The casual, naive individual looking for ideas online stumbles accross these networks and thinks he’s found truth, thus leading to even more spreading of this kind of thing among people who honestly believe it’s true. Just because a writer on the internet says something doesn’t mean it’s true. In fact it almost certainly casts aspersions on the factuality of the information.

    Not that I suggest repeating my error and doing this, but if you were to look up the word “Jew” on google video’s search engine, the results are terrifying. You’ll find a few nice videos, maybe (if you’re lucky) something from aish, but by the second page the nazi videos and holocaust deniers are dominant. Additionally, even on the good videos, these people have posted (and been allowed to post) sickening things about Jewish people which are ripped straight out of Mein Kampf and the racist legacy it emerged from. Every now and again some of these people write about where they derived the information that they now are spewing far and wide on the internet. 90% of the time it’s from a lone blogger somewhere on the internet.

    Blogs aren’t just not credible, they can be very dangerous. How can you possibly believe something written in a blog to be fact? Even if you are completely apathetic towards halacha, lies are lies, no matter how widespread or they may appear to be or how well written they are. Don’t buy into this garbage! For G-d’s sake and the sake of your own intelligence stay away.

  10. On a similar note, discrediting someone simply because of they’re background is an elementary logical fallacy. No educated or intelligent person says that a person cannot be telling truth because he’s biased. You have to PROVE the bias and show how it is false. This type of “ad hominem” fallacy is typical of mud-slinging bloggers and constitutes much of their basis to fend off those who justly villify them. Hashem Yirachaym

  11. I have learned a great deal from blogs: in matters of hashkafa and in halacha, but also I have learned about what goes on in the minds and hearts of the disenchanted and the angry and the confused. It has helped me to understand and to address the problems that have, in the past, been hidden to fester in the dark. Very often I hear from a friend an off hand remark that I recognize from these blogs, and I know that it’s important to address the problem before it gets worse.

    Yes, they are classic Moshvei Leitzim, and without a darn good reason to be there, it is definitely a disgrace to participate in them or read them at all. And yes, by exposing the sickness they can ensnare others who would otherwise outgrow their doubts. But they’re never going to go away, and if you can take the stench, they do serve as a good window into the hearts of the wounded and damaged souls that participate in them.

  12. R’ Shafran raises some good points. But, I am unsure what he hopes to gain from this article. The crazy bloggers don’t care what he has to say. Neither do those who read those blogs. I think we have to understand that there are kofrim in every dor & they will never be convinced. The many blogs out there that mock Gedolim & Rabbanim will continue doing so even if you write 1000 great articles.

  13. Unless there is a forum for questions and inquiring minds re: Torah editorials and viewpoints, the blogspere will grow larger and larger.

  14. A prominent Rov once mentioned to us in shiur, that one of the main problems with blogs, is that every Tom, Yankel & Shmeril suddenly becomes a world expert at Halacha, Hashkofa, Musser & everything else & can add their piece to the conversation & have the last word.
    (until the next commentator comes along).
    Do I or any of the other commentators have any better qualifications than the author of the original post? {No need to write a comment – just think about it}

  15. “Do I or any of the other commentators have any better qualifications than the author of the original post?” – There is a need to recognize that sometimes a person could have better qualifications than the author, how? He lived in that city, he participated in the event spoken of, he traveled to the place being spoken about, he is the victim, the teacher, child that the article might be speaking of, etc. etc.

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