Rabbis vs. anonymous Internet posts

Rabbis vs. anonymous Internet posts

Scholar asks, who is in control of the conversation now?

Yakir Englander
Yakir Englander

The digital age has brought with it many opportunities to expand Jewish learning through online courses, remote study sessions, and access to religious experts.

However, the Internet’s anonymity has also posed a problem, particularly for Modern Orthodox rabbis, who are being bombarded with tens of thousands of questions about sex the Talmudic giants never had to contemplate. 

“The system of asking rabbis about halacha, Jewish law, has shifted to the digital world and there is something very strange happening that has never before happened in Jewish life,” Dr. Yakir Englander told NJJN in a telephone interview. “For the first time they have more than 2,000 questions about masturbation” while in rabbinic conversation from ancient times the subject was discussed minimally. The thousands of questions he referred to are ones posted anonymously on websites about Jewish law. 

Englander, a visiting scholar from Israel, is spending the spring semester at Rutgers University’s Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life.

According to Englander, these rabbis have been inundated with thousands of questions about the roles of women, homosexuality and lesbianism, and challenges to religious authority, which have changed the power dynamic between students and religious teachers as students are the ones now setting the conversational agenda. 

Englander, who co-authored with Avi Sagi the book “Sexuality and the Body in the New Religious Zionist Discourse,” said the impact of the Internet on Zionist Orthodoxy in Israel, the equivalent of Modern Orthodoxy in the United States, has been historic. 

Our digital age, he pointed out, has turned many rabbis from the traditional role of religious leaders into a role more akin to that of a Christian pastor as they focus more on what it means “to be a modern person living on the inside of the secular Israeli society.”

Many of the issues confronting Zionist Orthodoxy are also issues among the Modern Orthodox in America, he said. 

“The Modern Orthodox live together with the secular world and they had a lot of assumptions about that and how they would use halacha to push their ideology,” explained Englander, whose research is interdisciplinary, touching on the interfaces between Jewish philosophy, Jewish law, and gender studies.

Englander’s second book, “The Male Body in Jewish Lithuanian Ultra-Orthodoxy,” was published in Hebrew in May and he is now working on an English translation. 

“My main work is connected with my personal life,” said Englander, who grew up chasidic. “One of my specialties is gender and Jewish thought.”

In his post-chasidic life, Englander joined the Israel Defense Forces, serving in a special unit during the second intifada assigned to identifying dead bodies, including a small number of Palestinians, which left him “dedicating my life toward peace.”

This scholar is also the director in Israel of Kids4Peace International, a global interfaith dialogue organization, and is also committed to bringing Palestinian and Israeli children and their families together for nonviolent social change. 

For the last three years, he has led a program in Jerusalem, Dialogue to Action, which brings 20- and 30-year-old Palestinians and Israelis to underprivileged areas to help steer young people away from crime and violence.

“I believe in dialogue only among kids, but I believe adults need to take action,” he said.

A former Fulbright Scholar, Englander was a visiting scholar at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.

He is now working on a third, untitled book about the ultra-Orthodox response to the Holocaust, bringing in voices of rabbis, scholars, and women.

“I am reading their statements about why this rav said this and other rabbis said other things using the theory of cultural studies,” said Englander. “Why did different rabbis read the Holocaust in different ways? I have not only read responses from famous rabbis, but I’m reading all the ultra-Orthodox responses, diaries never published before in English, and a lot of materials by ultra-Orthodox women.”

The women, denied a voice in ultra-Orthodox theology, have provided “amazing” insight.

“There is a huge difference in how women reacted,” said Englander, who is viewing his research through the “dignity honor theory,” which focuses on how humans react to disasters. 

He said the ultra-Orthodox leadership silenced the diversity of voices in the 1970s. 

“After that they reacted with one response and half the voices that were very strong in the ’40s were hidden,” said Englander. “I believe my book and lecture will bring new light to gender and post-Holocaust studies.”

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