66th IFLA Council and General
Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August
Code Number: 020-160-E
Division Number: V
Professional Group: Government Information and Official Publications
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 160
Simultaneous Interpretation: No
Judaic Law in an Internet World
Technical Editor, Knesset Website
Hakirya, Jerusalem, Israel
As the Internet becomes more central in the daily life of the individual, the question arises how have various sociological groups adapted to this change. Specifically, this paper will deal with how those adhering to "ancient Jewish law" relate to the Internet and its related issues. What will be covered is a summary of the development of Judaic law, how it views something considered "neutral", and how various groups of observant Jews use or prohibit the use of the Internet..
The development of technology is moving at a pace unfathomable even twenty years ago. The world is becoming "smaller" as telecommunications become faster, cheaper, and more sophisticated. Such rapid change in how the world looks and how one looks at the world brings with it the need to adapt in terms of the individual, the family, society, hobbies and interests, and even values and beliefs.
Before proceeding, I must offer here two disclaimers. First, when tracing the development of Jewish Law, I am only presenting an introductory outline of the full picture. Entire books are written on the subject, and my brief presentation here does not do it justice. For further reading, please see the references. Secondly, today, there are many active streams within the Jewish world. For the purposes of this paper, I will only be citing the view that is considered "Orthodox." (Describing the discrepancies among the various tracts would take up volumes.) Hence, the term "Judaic" or "Jewish" will be used to describe that body of material regulating the life of the "Orthodox" (observant) Jew.
Where and when did this body of law start, and how did it evolve to its current state?
Historically, it starts at the base of Mount Sinai about 3300 years ago. As written in Exodus 19-20, at the time of the "Divine Revelation," Moses ascended the mountain to receive the Law from God. This Law was encapsulated in the Ten Commandments, expounded in the "Written Law" (the Five Books of Moses) and simultaneously transmitted with the "Oral Law." This "Oral Law" is a substantial body of material passed on orally from generation to generation as the inseparable supplement to the Written Law. 1Together, the Oral and Written Law are known as the "Torah."
As the generations continued after Sinai, the Sages (Jewish authorities during and following the Second Temple Period - 586 BCE - 500 CE) began to realize that the Oral Law was slowly being forgotten. As a result, the Oral Law was eventually compiled and written, comprising that body of material called the "Talmud." 2
The sealing of the Talmud in the Sixth Century CE brought with it certain principles of Judaic Law. First, all of the law that is to be expounded has already been expounded. From this point forward, there are no "new" laws - everything has been covered, and it is up to future generations to clarify or derive contemporary law from those already in existence. Any future principle or derived law that either contradicts or rejects any that came previously is considered invalid. 3
The next stage in the development of Judaic Law involved taking the massive and verbose volumes of the Talmud and codifying the law in clear terms. The idea was to enumerate the 613 commandments incumbent on a Jew in his/her daily life. Such codification already began in the early tenth century CE, though the most commonly used codifications today are the Shulchan Aruch (written in the sixteenth century CE) and its commentaries.
One more relevant body of literature is called the "Responsa." Essentially, the works of Responsa are written by individual scholars, usually community spiritual leaders, to whom practical questions are posed. Their detailed answers form the basis of the methodology for interpretation of Judaic Law in the modern world. The Responsa are always based on earlier notions and principles within Jewish Law. For example, when "modern issues" such as birth control, space travel, blood transfusions, etc. are posed to an authority, the practical response will never contradict or reject principles written in earlier works. At times, one may find seemingly conflicting Responsa among various authorities, but each may be legitimately derived from earlier sources. 4
In summary, the development of Jewish Law has a clear direction connecting the ancient to the modern. The whole body of Judaic Law is appropriately termed "halacha" in Hebrew, derived from the word for "going" or "following a path." Though the general commandments are enumerated at 613, the halacha which surrounds it serves as an all-encompassing guide for how one should lead a Jewish life. What may come as a surprise to some is that the body of halacha includes more than the "typically Jewish" observances such as Sabbath or dietary laws. A major portion deals with issues of how the individual should relate to those in his/her surroundings - civil law, prohibitions against slander, gossip, revenge, bribery, etc. In short, halacha forms the basis of the functioning of the individual as an individual, within the family, and within society as a whole. 5
While halacha stipulates the "what and how to do" of Jewish life, another body or works prescribes the "effective way to do." This literature, called Mussar, (loosely translated as "Jewish ethics") dates from the present back to the 16th century. Such works, 6 the content of which has become an inseparable part of the Orthodox Jewish outlook, guide the individual toward self-growth by enhancing positive character traits and positive actions that are not necessarily halachic. For example, it is recommended to the individual to be watchful, passionate (about the Law and its observance), humble, and non-indulging. These and other traits, while not laws per se, are advised to protect and further the individual in his/her effort to keep the Law in the best way possible.
In order to understand how Jewish Law and Ethics handle the constant progressional development in the modern world, one must first explore the concepts of neutrality and subjective qualification.
From the perspective of the human being, there are very few (if any) items in the world that are inherently "good" or "bad." Until one considers something in a negative light or uses it for a positive purpose, the item is essentially "neutral." It is the human modification or manipulation of the item that will give that item its subjective qualifying label.
Let us take a knife as an example: One can use it to slice vegetables for a salad (a "positive" use). In the hands of a psychotic serial killer, the knife becomes a dangerous murder weapon. Used in self-defense to fend off such a potential killer, that same knife seems to be a good thing once again. The bottom line is that how one views or uses any item will determine subjectively if it is "good" or "bad" or anywhere in between.
When applying these concepts to Judaism, one has to redefine "good" and "bad." Prior to that, it must be made clear that the world and its contents are indeed considered "neutral" at the start. "Good" would then denote the description of something that helps the person come closer to fulfilling his/her potential as a human being in general, and as a Jew in particular. Anything that hinders the individual would be considered "bad." Hence, the labels used from here forward shall be "useful" or "hindering." The tremendous body of Judaic Law becomes the framework for determining how to label each and every action, item, or even perception - as useful or hindering.
For example, writing on Saturday is not inherently a bad thing. Yet, for a Jew striving to observe the commandments properly, it is a hindrance. Similarly, lighting candles is a neutral act. Lighting candles and making a blessing over them at the beginning of the Sabbath is considered an action that will further the Jewish spirituality not only of the individual, but also of the household.
Throughout the ages, as ideas were developed, new items were invented or scientific phenomenon were discovered, the authorities of Jewish Law of the time would examine each new development, using the Law as their guide, to determine where and how it would fit into the existing framework. Again, it must be emphasized that at the outset, each new discovery/invention/idea is considered "neutral" until its place is determined in Jewish Law. The discovery and subsequent use of electricity is an appropriate example: Examining electricity through Jewish Law finds that in general it is a very useful tool for many obvious reasons. The question remained whether or not using electricity on the Sabbath or holidays is useful (meaning allowed) or hindering (not allowed). Rigorous investigation in the law determined that electricity may be in use during the Sabbath (lights, heating, refrigerator) but may not be turned on or off because of earlier related Sabbath prohibitions.
One may now understand what has had to happen with the advent of the Internet. As with everything else, Jewish authorities have to take this neutral item and see how it fits with Jewish Law. Is Internet something that can help the individual fulfill his/her spiritual Jewish potential, or is it a hindrance to that same end?
With the exception of the technical side of using the Internet or running an Internet server on the Sabbath, regular use of the Internet falls under a category similar to other forms of media such as television, magazines, newspapers, radio, etc. In short, use of the tool itself is neither mandated nor prohibited in light of Jewish Law. Jewish Ethics, however, as an added protection for the individual's adherence to the Law, would stipulate the following additional scrutiny: The examination of two issues central to Jewish observance - perused content and time - for guiding the observant Jew in determining how, for what, and how much to use Internet. Below is a description of the two considerations followed by several current Jewish approaches to Internet use.
The possible nature of the content on the World Wide Web varies almost infinitely. When one sees the word "Internet," many associations may come to mind: shopping, information, research tool, news, business, games, social chatting, humor, culture, pornography, recipes, emotional support (through email lists and groups), and much more. Most of this material or applications of Internet would be viewed by the majority of the world as "neutral", even useful. Judaism would view most content of the Internet in the same light. It is not likely that an article on the feeding habits of whales has an immoral nature to it. Or that being in email contact with people in a similar situation to oneself is a bad thing. However, it is precisely the minority questionable content and its easy accessibility that causes ethical hesitations about usage of the Internet.
To begin, any material that people would not want their children to see or read is also considered off-limits for the Jewish adult. (Is an adult less susceptible to the negative impact of the media?) Furthermore, what the Western world considers acceptable may not be considered "kosher" in Jewish terms: pictures of women clad in bathing suits; men pictured in leather or chains, love stories, music with a violent nature - these are examples of material that Orthodox Judaism (and other groups also) would consider "hindering." Standards of modesty and a striving to protect the innocent (from exposure to promiscuity, violence or anti-Torah ethics) demand the regulation of Internet use.
From an Orthodox point of view, however, there is actually a very positive side to the Internet and its content. If there is a useful tool available that can help spread Torah Judaism to other Jews, then not only can one use it; one should use it. As a result, tens of thousands of Jewish websites covering a very wide range of topics and concerns have sprouted up on the Internet. To cite a few, one can find websites with Jewish articles and printed lectures on all levels - for one who is less versed in the texts to one who spent years in intensive Jewish study. 7 Additionally, Jewish texts and their translations, list-servers providing Jewish courses via email, "ask the Rabbi," the Jewish calendar, learning Hebrew, geography of Israel, statistics of the Jewish Diaspora, how to run a synagogue, matchmaking, Sabbath times around the world, are some topics available to any user, but directed at the worldwide Jewish community. 8 The facts that learning Torah is one of the Jewish commandments and that so much Torah is available today via the Internet are considered when determining the regulation of Internet use vis-à-vis the content.
The second area that must be examined with regard to the Internet is the element of time. There is a concept in Jewish Law and ethics about "wasting time." The premise is based on the fact that one's time and energy should constantly be used to fulfill one's Jewish purpose. Such an assertion allows for activities such as sleeping, eating, and healthy recreation. However, any "free" time on one's hands should be used wisely - in the study of Torah (which itself is a commandment), in doing acts of kindness, in engaging in exercise, etc.
Many Internet users are aware of the "lost-time" facet of cruising the Web or getting involved in a "chat." Hours, which can feel like minutes, pass without notice until after the fact. Additionally, home users are known to suffer a sort-of "addiction" to the Internet - every free moment (and even not supposedly free moments) finds the user sitting and cruising, chatting, playing a game, or downloading just one more piece of software. To be fair, though, one must also recognize the timesaving elements of the Internet: using email, net-shopping, and scholastic or academic information available on the Web, would save the user the time it takes to run the respective errands, whether to the post office, to the store, or to the library. Concerning the element of time regarding the Internet, Judaism would take both the time-wasting and time saving considerations into account.
Before describing the various approaches taken by Orthodox Jewish community to the Internet world, a basic premise must be first stated: because Jewish Law on principle does not reject technology (unless its specific use contradicts Jewish Law), the Orthodox Jewish community does utilize new technologies, including and especially computers. 9 Statistically, the use of computers among the Orthodox Jewish community at home, work, and school is very high. However, nowhere will you find an Orthodox authority who will sanction unbridled use of the Internet and its applications - whether for children or for adults. Across the range of attitudes toward Internet use, this principle applies among the strictest and among the most lenient. Basically, the question of approach relies on how one chooses to balance the following factors: potential exposure to offensive material; Torah-learning; time wasted, and time gained.
Below are three general Jewish approaches taken toward the Internet:10
Don't-Bring-Junk-Food-Into-the-House Method: The assumption is that if junk-food is found in the house, then it will be eaten - even if the intention is to not eat it. If it is not available at all, then no one can eat it. Similarly, if one surfs the Web, even with a useful and positive objective, one is likely to encounter something not so "kosher." By staying away completely, one will not come into any contact with such material; one won't enter a "chat" with obscene undertones; one won't develop an intimate relationship with someone who may pull him/her away from their Judaism. Again - the logic behind this approach is that when it is available, an individual with the best of intentions can still fall prey to "temptation" and be pulled in the "wrong" direction.
This approach is illustrated best with the recent pronouncement made by a number of Ultra-Orthodox (called "Hareidi" in Hebrew) rabbis on January 5, 2000. This ban simply forbids the use of Internet at home. It allows use of Internet at the workplace or if needed for earning a living, and with that, only in a very limited manner. In explanation, the Hareidi authorities see no way of balancing the benefits of the Internet with the potential costs in terms of the exposure to "moral pollution." Furthermore, the possible "addiction" to Internet use is seen as a grave danger in quashing the motivation to learn Torah - especially among children. In conclusion, the time-wasting factor and the problematic content combine to make Internet forbidden among the communities that follow the authorities signed on the January 5th decree.
See-Only-What-We-Allow-You-To-See Method: This approach to the Internet may be best described by the words "filtering" or "censoring." There are several companies that have developed two types of content-specific web browsers specifically marketed toward the Orthodox Jewish user. One type involves merely filtering out the potentially problematic sites. The other type is a browser that has built-in links only to a limited number of "approved" sites (such as those containing only religious Jewish content). Any attempt to visit a web site not on the list is met with an error message. Censoring sites deals with the content problem of the Internet while the suppression of email and chat programs are meant to combat the time-wasting aspect of Internet use.
Several schools in Israel have implemented these browsers in their computer labs. It was seen as the only alternative to completely severing the connection to the Internet. If this software is indeed successful and does what it is meant to do, the Orthodox (including some hareidi) educational system may see this as a permanent solution to the problem of balancing the educational benefits of the Internet with its harmful downsides.
The Uncensored-Just-Be-Very-Careful Method: Though this approach is seen as the most lenient, it still demands regulation in terms of time and content. Many Internet users, including many Orthodox Jews have adopted this approach. Basically, it states that a user should surf the web only with a specified purpose and with an eye on the passage of time. Users must try their best to stay away from problematic sites. If they accidentally land on one, they must exit promptly. Moreover, one should take advantage of the Torah available on the Internet - especially if one's busy schedule doesn't allow for regular study in the traditional way. At the same time, users must educate their children to be aware of the questionable material on the web, and to stay away from it. Many will allow their children to use the web and even email only under supervision and only with a specific goal or purpose in mind.
In conclusion, it is clear that the development and dissemination of new technology demand careful examination through the eyes of Judaic Law. However, when the object under examination is not clearly prohibited or mandated, the discretion is left to the individual with clear halachic and ethical limitations. Specifically with electronic media, there are limitations to which the individual is expected to adhere, even if adopting the most lenient approach. On the other hand, as mentioned earlier, if some form of modern technology is found to be very beneficial (in light of the Law) to the user, then not only can one use it, but one should utilize it in the most effective way possible. It must be noted though, that this analysis does not end here. The Internet is now a vibrant and enduring entity. As it becomes even more integrated into normal modern life, those adhering to Jewish Law will continue to evaluate and reevaluate the balance between the benefits and detriments of its use.
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Brafman, A. (1999) "Freedom VS. Limits" Online. Available http://www.jlaw.com/commentary/ourchoices.html.
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1For example, it is commanded in the Written Law to observe the Sabbath. Nowhere there does it say how to go about observing. However, the Oral Law describes that Sabbath observance requires that one refrain from doing any of 39 forms of "labor." These 39 types of labor are very specific and each branches out to many tasks that are forbidden. Without the Oral Law, all of that supplementary information would be missing.
2The Talmud consists of the Mishna, a work that compiled Judaic law by topic, and the Gemara, a work expounding using a mix of law and lore. Though there were other works compiled at the time - Midrashic Law, the Braita and the Tosefta - the Talmud is the main literature.
3One interesting example of a derived law in modern times is the discussion of space travel and the Sabbath. There is no new law simply because of the invention of a space ship. The laws regarding space travel and Sabbath will be based on Talmudic discussions of travel to places where the sun never sets or rises, or the concept of traveling for weeks at a time on a boat…
4It is quite common to have conflicts among various authorities of Jewish Law. The destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (70 CE) and the subsequent exile brought with it the end of a centralized authority on Jewish Law. Accordingly, one can already see various differences of opinion throughout the Talmud, each derived logically and legitimately. The codified law does embody a unified set of laws, though as new issues emerge, differences of opinion may still exist. In such cases, the requirement is to adhere to one's "regular" authority or the authority of one's local community.
5One may be surprised to find that the 31 commandments related to speaking maliciously about another person greatly outnumber the commandments on dietary laws.
6For example, The Path of the Just, The Ways of the Righteous, and Strive for Truth, to name a few Mussar books.
7The following is a small handful of Jewish websites:
8The advantage of using the Internet for the purpose of "spreading Torah to Jews" is invaluable. By breaking the traditional barriers of a physical, geographic community, Jews in the most remote places have found that Jewish material on the Internet has kept them connected to their heritage or has connected them to it for the first time.
9 See Jonathan Rosenblum's "Of Ostriches and Cavemen" where he writes, Though hareidim ("ultra-orthodox") don't reject modern technology… They seek to remain masters of technology, not its slaves.
10One may generalize and say that these are also approaches taken to the media in general, including television, periodicals, and radio.