This past Shabbat morning at Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob, I delivered a sermon entitled Do Not Stray Left or Right from Rabbi Google: Rabbinic Authority in the Internet Age. I discussed perspectives on Lo Tasur, in short, the Torah-granted authority of the rabbis. To what extent to rabbis have legal and interpretive authority? Who has that authority, from whom may we “not stray right or left?” Does it apply to all rabbis through today, or only to Hazal (the sages of the Talmud)? Towards the end, I reflected on today’s greatest perceived challenge to rabbinic authority: the internet. I described the phenomenon of Facebook groups and online searches for Halakhic sources, and came to the following conclusions:
With the widespread use of internet searches and other online forums to ask Halakhic questions, there is still a need for rabbis and trained scholars.
1) For communal matters. Rabbis are trained and equipped to understand their communities and to be sensitive to communal matters, and they are charged and entrusted with making communal decisions. Those decisions affect everyone, and ought to be made by someone who is entreated with studying Halakha, having concern for the community, and putting serious thought into matters involving the intersection of the two.
2) For expertise and intuition. Ultimately, any bright and educated individual can find the sources needed to make any argument they want—ask any college freshman! Rabbinic scholars will continue to be experts who develop halakhic intuition and can sense whether or not an argument is valid and can be accepted. In fact, this is the way my Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, always treated questions from his students in the Yeshiva. He would give us some guidance as to the sources and encourage us to learn and arrive at a conclusion. We could then present our findings to Rabbi Cherlow, who would tell us whether our methodology was proper and we’ve arrived a reasonable answer, or we have made some grave error. I concede that sometimes people need a very quick response from a rabbi. However, due to the widespread availability of information, I believe this longer form of psak is no longer limited to the realm of Yeshiva students.
However, I also think it places two new obligations on rabbis:
1) Rabbis must be extremely accessible. People want to contact via texting, WhatsApp, Facebook messages, or otherwise- so rabbis need to meet people in those arenas. Rabbis who are not accessible in those ways are ipso facto discouraging people from asking questions of them.
2) Rabbis must be reasonable. In days gone by, rabbis could simply say “permitted” or “forbidden,” perhaps appealing the authority of one particular text or a well-known rabbi. With the accessibility of information in this age, everyone knows in an instant that there are more opinions than the one cited by the rabbi. Rabbis ought to present their opinions and explain the underlying logic and background information while avoiding jargon and technical minutiae. They need to know the other opinions, and be able to explain in a reasonable manner why they accept one opinion and reject another.
Finally, I’d like to address whether this overall trend is good or bad. The answer is that it doesn’t really matter. Any attempt to combat Rabbi Google is destined to fail because searching online is simply the way younger generations operate in every realm of their lives. There is no reason to believe Halakha will be different, and rabbis must learn to work and teach within this system.
In addition, I believe that those who oppose the practice are misinterpreting Lo Tasur and distorting the phenomenon of internet-based Halakha. Since Immanuel Kant and the Enlightment, the notion of “Personal Autonomy” in ethics and decision-making has been the enemy of traditional societies generally and Halakhic observance specifically. How can we remain committed to Halakha when we exist, live, breathe, study, and socialize in a world of personal autonomy?
Perhaps the phenomenon of Internet Halakha is the answer to that question which has plagued us for close to three hundred years. On the one hand, people are able to exercise their personal autonomy in that they can procure all the sources and study and analyze them. On the other hand, the very act of searching for Jewish law on the internet denotes a commitment and fealty to that system of Halakha in the first place. If not fealty to one particular rabbi’s “rabbinic authority,” it certainly implies fealty to “Rabbinic Authority” in the broader sense, meaning a commitment to Halakha and the interpretations of our sages. With such accessibility, more and more people are interested in seeking retzon Hashem (the Divine will) and following in the ways of the Almighty — and that’s something we can all “Like.”