Jewish Cyber-Theology

Article excerpt

The place of the Internet in the Jewish religious experience is undoubted. No less than in other religions, the Internet has created a revolution in accessibility to information about Judaism and Jewish-related matters. A search of Google in 2007 discovered that Judaism had 15,900,000 hits (Patrick, 2007, p. 71). By my estimate, there were 8,500 Jewish websites by 2005 (Cohen, 2006). These may be broken into grassroots groups and individuals, organizational, Jewish-related and Israel-related news, and commercial. Religious content in the the grassroots group and individual categories includes the Bible, commentaries, the Talmud, and Jewish law codes. Sites enable the surfer to participate in the daily study of a page of the Talmud (the daf Yomei) and hear inspirational talks about the weekly Torah reading (divrei Torah). This category includes a number of Jewish outreach programs; among early leaders in identifying the potential of the Net were Habad and Aish Torah. Organizations include the Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform religious movements; synagogues; and community organizations, with listings of synagogues, kosher restaurants, places of Jewish interest, and other services. The news category includes the website versions of Jewish and Israeli newspapers. The commercial category, which was relatively late in developing on the web, today sells most current Jewish books and Judaica.

But the entry of the Internet into everyday Jewish life has, in turn, brought with it theological dilemmas and challenges to rabbis. Judaism, in not preaching ascetism or social isolation, encourages social participation and, therefore, communication between people. While not rejecting the "good life," the Jewish weltanschauung is that humanity should raise its stature to emulate the characteristics of the Infinite God. As an ethical religion, Judaism regulates the human relationship with God and with each other. Given that the Torah and later Jewish law works like the Mishnah, Talmud, and such codifiers as Maimonides necessarily predated the mass media age, it is necessary, in determining the "Jewish view of the Internet," to locate points of overlap between Judaism and mass media behavior in general and the Internet in particular. The extent to which Judaism itself intrudes into social life is unclear. Some Jewish theologians argue that with the exception of specific subjects including family law and the Sabbath, Judaism has nothing to say about much of human activity. But others define Judaism as an entire way of life with something to say about all spheres of life. Whether narrowly or widely interpreted, much of the overlap between the Internet and Judaism appears conflictual. On the other hand, there can exist a confluence of interests between Judaism and the Internet--such as the provision of information about events and societies, or networking, which contribute to understanding, but these are not generally identified as a peculiarly religious goal.

This article attempts to extrapolate from the Jewish Tradition a Jewish view on the Internet. To be contrasted are the Orthodox stream, itself broken into the ultra-Orthodox Haredi and Modern Orthodox (dati leumi), and the non-Orthodox streams, the Reform and Conservative. The Haredi outlook favors social isolation from modernity, whereas the Modern Orthodox seek to synthesize religion and modern life. Haredim reject modern Zionism, believing that only the Jewish Messiah is authorized to reestablish Jewish statehood, in contrast to modern orthodoxy which views the modern state of Israel as the fruition of Jewish messianism. The Reform defines Judaism strictly as a religious code not bound by Biblical laws and rejects nationalist sentiments. The Conservative movement evolved as a reaction to Reform excesses. The Orthodox streams are the dominant streams in Israel, and the non-Orthodox streams account for 70% of American Jewry, the remainder comprising the Orthodox.

Jewish theological objections to certain aspects of mass media behavior were raised by rabbis already in the pre-computer area. …