July 17, 2024
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July 17, 2024
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Halacha in the Modern Technology Age

Reviewing: ‘Torah in a Connected World: A Halachic Perspective on Communication Technology and Social Media,’ by Jonathan Ziring. Maggid Books. 2024. Hardcover. 464 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1592646241.

On the topic of transgender issues, the late great Chicago-based posek Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz said, “They didn’t really prepare me for this in yeshiva.” Rabbi Schwartz echoed the sentiment that what was studied in the pristine study halls was often theoretical and abstract and didn’t match what was occurring in the real world.

Another area that yeshiva didn’t prepare many rabbis for is the interaction between social media, modern communication and the myriad aspects of shemiras halashon.When the Chofetz Chaim was writing classic works on lashon hara 150 years ago, the notion that a person could write something and, within minutes, it could be amplified to tens of millions of people across the globe was unimaginable.

Now, with modern communications, the “shot heard round the world” is a reality. The ability to spread good news and gossip to everyone is a new reality that halacha must deal with.

In “Torah in a Connected World: A Halachic Perspective on Communication Technology and Social Media,” (Maggid Books), Rabbi Jonathan Ziring (rosh hayeshiva at Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah in Modi’in, Israel) has written a spectacular and much needed reference that tackles the problem head-on. Ziring is comfortable in the beis midrash and understands the intricacies and nuances of the subject he’s dealing with.

A book like this is critically important, given how pervasive modern communication technologies and social media are. Irrespective of bans on the Internet and technology, nearly every yeshiva and tzedakah organization uses these modern tools to facilitate their goals. And they can only do that when there is an audience to whom they can be sent. And for all parties involved, doing that—according to halacha—is expected.

Not long ago, messages would take days or weeks to reach their destination. With modern communication technologies and social media, it’s not just the speed at which the information flaws, which can and often is instantaneous; it is also the breadth of the message such that a tweet from an average user can easily reach tens of thousands of people within minutes.

Another contemporary problem is the sheer amount of information people have access to and can share. What information are people allowed to believe? Can negative information in a Facebook post be acted upon?

One prominent posek Ziring often references is Rav Asher Weiss—one of the most sophisticated, bold and aware poskim of recent memory. Rav Weiss is the rare posek who has both a complete mastery of Shas and poskim and also mastery of modern applications. A perusal of his “Minchas Asher” makes that eminently clear.

Ziring notes that Rav Weiss has a somewhat radical approach to an aspect of lashon hara, where he argues that by definition, the prohibition is “to gossip for the purpose of harming.” Thus, if one is relaying negative information for a positive purpose, it is permitted by definition. And that is a very different approach than the Choetz Chaim.

What Ziring does remarkably well here is to break down the component parts of the halacha and show how they need to be dealt with in modern communications. Anyone using social media is immediately barraged with massive amounts of information. Can they believe it? Should they be concerned? Can they share that information with others?

None of those questions are unique to modern communications. But Ziring shows how to apply them to modern communications and how to use modern communications in a proper halachic manner.

The book’s first half lays out the halachic foundations and theory. In the second half, he asks how those outlines apply to the numerous new ways of communicating that social media has introduced. Issues such as slander, the prohibition of reading others’ mail, deception, confidentiality, stealing information and more are very real issues he deals with.

The assumption in halacha is that there are cases in which sharing negative information is permitted. What is the nature of this dispensation, and what are its parameters? The book addresses these hugely challenging questions.

There are many complicated cases unique to the age of social media. How one uses it depends on one’s framing and posture. Ziring concludes the book that the challenges we face in the digital age are unique in many ways. Some of these challenges have not been dealt with by the poskim at all.

The Talmud writes that one who embarrasses someone in public is akin to murdering them. Today, one of the effective ways to free an agunah is by publicly shaming her recalcitrant husband, often via public protests and social media. Adina Sash—aka “Flatbush Girl”—has successfully used that approach to free agunos. But what are the parameters of that? How can others participate?

Here, Ziring presents his thoughts, which he writes are tentative and meant to begin the discussion. This is needed as modern poskim start to grapple with these questions in serious ways and push the conversation forward. The only lack in this near-flawless book is the absence of an index. Ziring covers many topics and references to many sources that an index would have helped.

Using modern communications is now part of daily life. But using these modern communications is akin to walking onto a battlefield. If someone doesn’t know what to do, they can encounter some of the worst aspects of human conduct and violate numerous Torah prohibitions.

But modern communications also enable myriad benefits. In years past, one’s ability to learn Torah was limited to those in walking distance. Now, the Internet allows people to learn from scholars across the globe. The Talmud talks of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. Seemingly, his was the largest audience in history. Yet modern communication enables someone like Rabbi Eli Stefansky—one of the world’s most well-known Daf Yomi maggid shiur—to reach that number of people nightly.

Ziring has written a remarkable book outlining the complex halachic and technological issues we face today. Modern communications introduce innumerable halachic issues. He brilliantly shows how one can thrive using these when one understands the underlying halachic issues.

Ben Rothke lives in New Jersey and works in the information security field. He reviews books on religion, technology, philosophy and science. Follow him on Twitter at @benrothke. His new book was recently published: “The Definitive Guide to PCI DSS Version 4: Documentation, Compliance, and Management.”

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