Before the popularity of Yahoo groups, which every Jewish community seemed to have a decade ago … before Facebook became the rage … before the development of WhatsApp groups for every particular interest and segment of our Jewish lives … there was Avodah and Areivim, two of the very first online discussion groups for Torah observant individuals.
It was started in 1998, exactly 25 years ago this summer, by Rabbi Micha Berger, the author of “Widen Your Tent.” Rabbi Berger envisioned an online forum where hashkafa and halachic topics could be discussed in an intelligent and thoughtful way by a broad number of individuals across the Orthodox spectrum.
Avodah was the forum in which halachic topics were discussed; Areivim was the forum where sociological and hashkafa topics were discussed.
Unlike today’s social media and online discussion groups, where one can immediately post a comment and it magically appears to everyone in real time, the Avodah/Areivim groups were moderated, so posts were accumulated and then delivered to all registrants in a digest form once or twice a day after they passed through the moderator’s eyes.
I was an early member of the two groups, and they brought me and many other folks a lot of online reading enjoyment.
Why were they so successful? I think there were a number of reasons.
First of all, Rabbi Berger intentionally brought together individuals of various stripes of Orthodox Jewish thought. I remember a Satmar Hasid who regularly posted his thoughts and a Chabadnik from Australia who was part of the group. There were various academics, pulpit rabbis, YU types and some folks who identified with Open Orthodoxy. I think if we had all been physically placed in the same room to discuss the topics we tackled online, we would not have been able to dialogue successfully. But in an online moderated forum, the group functioned quite well — the discussions were lively, intense, and for the most part, also respectful.
Second, all members had to identify themselves by their real names, which forced people to be more careful with what they posted. Even if someone wanted to bait another into anger, he or she would have to do it under a real name. So insults and inappropriate posts were rare.
Finally, there was a real sense of community that existed among members. Announcements about family simchas were regularly shared with each other, as well as any sad news about deaths in the family. Everyone felt each other’s joy and pain, even in the midst of heated arguments about halachic and hashkafic issues.
There were some heavy hitters who regularly contributed posts to Avodah/Areivim: Rabbi Elazar Meir Teitz (from Elizabeth, New Jersey); Rabbi Yosef Blau (the mashgiach ruchani at RIETS); Rabbi Yehudah Herzl Henkin, z”l (author of “Teshuvos Benei Banim,” whose wife, Rabbanit Chana Henkin, heads Nishmat); Rabbi Dr. Seth Mandel, z”l (OU’s rabbinic coordinator for shechitah); Dr. Marc Shapiro; Rabbi Natan Slifkin; and several other notable figures in the Orthodox community. Rabbi Gil Student and Rabbi Harry Maryles each posted regularly on Avodah/Areivim before focusing on their now well-known blogs.
The topic that created the most heated discussion on Avodah/Areivim was the question about whether the Biblical flood was global and whether it was historical at all. This online dialogue happened right before three of Rabbi Slifkin’s books were banned as being heretical by several distinguished Haredi rabbis.
Another discussion that got very intense was the one during the Rubashkin scandal, with several folks vehemently speaking out against Rubashkin and others who defended him. We also had a very lively discussion about Mark Shapiro’s book, “The Limits of Orthodox Theology.”
And, of course, the question of women being ordained was a very hot topic for a long time, with active members on both sides of that debate.
I also remember a very long exchange about the Baruch Lanner scandal. Rabbi Berger told me that Rabbi Yosef Blau, the mashgiach of RIETS, credits those discussions on Avodah/Areivim with helping him hone a sexual abuse policy to recommend to YU and other organizations.
Twenty-five years after it was founded, the Avodah/Areivim platform still technically exists, but virtually none of the original users are currently posting comment as Facebook and other online media have pretty much made the groups obsolete. I spoke to Rabbi Berger about this and while he admits that Avodah and Areivim have faded into the night, he still feels that social media has not really filled the void for intelligent online discussion about Torah topics.
“People going to the new venues was the cause, not the effect, of the decline of email lists,” said Rabbi Berger. “It wasn’t like the mailing list collapsed, leaving people looking for an alternative. They were spending more time on Facebook and other social media — and simply stopped following Avodah/Areivim.
“However, I do not think fundamentally that social media can fill the void. In an email list, you can leave an email flagged or marked unread, and come back to it a few days or even weeks later after you have done research. Or continue the conversation months or years later when you happen upon something new. Social media discussions happen in these tiny edit windows. And a few hours to a day or two later, it is hard to find. So, people are writing shorter pieces that reflect less thought. The conversation is necessarily shallower.”
Rabbi Berger also points out that algorithms create echo chambers so that so much of what we see is other people giving similar shallow opinions. It all starts seeming plausible and convincing. And then the various camps become more extreme and more at odds with each other.
Said Rabbi Berger, “This is happening to public discourse in general. People are trying to keep up with far too much, and so they form simplified, two-dimensional opinions based on less data. The problem goes far deeper than replacing email lists; the same cause is a fundamental piece for the breakdown of political discourse.”
What does the future hold for online discussion of Torah topics? I’m not sure, but I hope that 25 years from now, we will still be able to discuss matters of Halacha and hashkafa together in a respectful way, as we did 25 years ago on Avodah and Areivim.
Michael Feldstein is a contributing editor for the Jewish Link. He owns his own marketing consulting firm, MGF Marketing, and can be reached at [email protected].