Recently, I wanted halachik advice. I didn’t feel I had a rabbi I could automatically turn to, so I googled halachik articles on the internet and posted on some Facebook forums. I’m not alone: People my age are less likely to be part of official Orthodox communities, even if they observe halacha according to Orthodox standards, and much more likely to use the internet and social networks for our life dilemmas.
When it comes to medical questions, there are Facebook groups where various doctors volunteer to answer -and nobody without an MD is allowed to post a reply to an inquiry. I don’t know of similiar groups for questions of Jewish law, where rabbis -and only rabbis -can respond to people’s questions.
To a certain extent, this makes sense: One of the beauties of halacha is that it often isn’t a one-size-fits all system; it recognizes the complexity of human life and provides solutions that may be applicable to one situation, but not others.
On the other hand, many Modern Orthodox Jews who go online in search of halachik answers, when faced with inadequate answers, will simply use the limited information they can find, rather than go and ask a proper halachik authority.
And while some questions require complex answers, there’s no reason why rabbis shouldn’t publish free, online mini-responsa about the daily questions they get asked frequently by community members -with names and certain details withheld to protect congregants’ anonymity. These posts should, of course, be accompanied by the “Best to ask your Local Orthodox Rabbi” caveat.
Similarly, a compendium of halachik sources on certain topics should be made available, to aid people who want to make decisions on their own, but don’t have the knowledge to automatically know which paragraph of the Shulkhan Arukh to look up.
The refrain repeated by Orthodox rabbis is that empowering people to make their own decisions, without asking a rabbi for an official halachik ruling, is a threat to tradition, and encourages people to live their lives independently of the official Orthodox religious framework. It encourages disrespect of formal Torah learning and formal Torah educators.
However, the opposite is true: When Orthodox halacha is freely and easily accessible, we are more likely to incorporate it into our lives -which helps us to see how halacha is relevant to us, thereby encouraging respect for the tradition. Reading a helpful article or Facebook post from a rabbi is more likely to make us respect rabbis, and may encourage us to try to find a Local Orthodox Rabbi to consult in person in the future. Seeing that formal Torah learning is producing things that are practical and responsive to our need for certain types of knowledge, makes us respect it more -not less.
The alternative to free and easily accessible official Orthodox rulings on the internet isn’t consulting a Local Orthodox Rabbi -it’s failing to take Orthodox halacha into account, and learning to live our lives without any sense of connection to halachik authority -virtual or otherwise.