Jewish cyber-theology.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Internet (Usage)
Internet (Religious aspects)
Jewish religious education (Technology application)
Jewish religious education (Methods)
Judaism (Analysis)
Author: Cohen, Yoel
Pub Date: 03/01/2012
Publication: Name: Communication Research Trends Publisher: Centre for the Study of Communication and Culture Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 Centre for the Study of Communication and Culture ISSN: 0144-4646
Issue: Date: March, 2012 Source Volume: 31 Source Issue: 1
Topic: Event Code: 290 Public affairs Computer Subject: Internet; Technology application
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Israel Geographic Code: 7ISRA Israel
Accession Number: 285994483
Full Text: The place of the Internet in the Jewish religious experience is undoubted. No less than in other religions, the Internet has created a revolution in accessibility to information about Judaism and Jewish-related matters. A search of Google in 2007 discovered that Judaism had 15,900,000 hits (Patrick, 2007, p. 71). By my estimate, there were 8,500 Jewish websites by 2005 (Cohen, 2006). These may be broken into grassroots groups and individuals, organizational, Jewish-related and Israel-related news, and commercial. Religious content in the the grassroots group and individual categories includes the Bible, commentaries, the Talmud, and Jewish law codes. Sites enable the surfer to participate in the daily study of a page of the Talmud (the daf Yomei) and hear inspirational talks about the weekly Torah reading (divrei Torah). This category includes a number of Jewish outreach programs; among early leaders in identifying the potential of the Net were Habad and Aish Torah. Organizations include the Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform religious movements; synagogues; and community organizations, with listings of synagogues, kosher restaurants, places of Jewish interest, and other services. The news category includes the website versions of Jewish and Israeli newspapers. The commercial category, which was relatively late in developing on the web, today sells most current Jewish books and Judaica.

But the entry of the Internet into everyday Jewish life has, in turn, brought with it theological dilemmas and challenges to rabbis. Judaism, in not preaching ascetism or social isolation, encourages social participation and, therefore, communication between people. While not rejecting the "good life," the Jewish weltanschauung is that humanity should raise its stature to emulate the characteristics of the Infinite God. As an ethical religion, Judaism regulates the human relationship with God and with each other. Given that the Torah and later Jewish law works like the Mishnah, Talmud, and such codifiers as Maimonides necessarily predated the mass media age, it is necessary, in determining the "Jewish view of the Internet," to locate points of overlap between Judaism and mass media behavior in general and the Internet in particular. The extent to which Judaism itself intrudes into social life is unclear. Some Jewish theologians argue that with the exception of specific subjects including family law and the Sabbath, Judaism has nothing to say about much of human activity. But others define Judaism as an entire way of life with something to say about all spheres of life. Whether narrowly or widely interpreted, much of the overlap between the Internet and Judaism appears conflictual. On the other hand, there can exist a confluence of interests between Judaism and the Internet--such as the provision of information about events and societies, or networking, which contribute to understanding, but these are not generally identified as a peculiarly religious goal.

This article attempts to extrapolate from the Jewish Tradition a Jewish view on the Internet. To be contrasted are the Orthodox stream, itself broken into the ultra-Orthodox Haredi and Modern Orthodox (dati leumi), and the non-Orthodox streams, the Reform and Conservative. The Haredi outlook favors social isolation from modernity, whereas the Modern Orthodox seek to synthesize religion and modern life. Haredim reject modern Zionism, believing that only the Jewish Messiah is authorized to reestablish Jewish statehood, in contrast to modern orthodoxy which views the modern state of Israel as the fruition of Jewish messianism. The Reform defines Judaism strictly as a religious code not bound by Biblical laws and rejects nationalist sentiments. The Conservative movement evolved as a reaction to Reform excesses. The Orthodox streams are the dominant streams in Israel, and the non-Orthodox streams account for 70% of American Jewry, the remainder comprising the Orthodox.

Jewish theological objections to certain aspects of mass media behavior were raised by rabbis already in the pre-computer area. But the computer and the Internet raise special questions and problems not raised by earlier media forms. Religion and mass media have received little academic treatment in Israel, and religion and the Internet has received even less. The question of Jewish theological attitudes concerning the social role of traditional media forms prior to the Internet was discussed by Korngott (1993), Chwat (1995), and Cohen (2001). While the Haredi press has been described by Baumel (2002), Levi (1990), and Micolson (1990), their writing preceded the Internet. While the main political party-sponsored Haredi newspapers have had an important role over the years in constructing the Haredi reality and determining the Haredi agenda in Israel, this began to weaken with commercial weeklies from the 1980s, with Haredi radio stations, notably Radio Kol Chai in the mid-90s, and most recently with Haredi Internet websites. Cohen (2012) examines religious content in Israeli newspapers, radio, and television, both religious and secular, in a broader study of the interaction of media and religion in contemporary Israel. The coverage of religion in Israeli websites has received almost no attention. Horowitz (2000) describes early Haredi rabbinical attitudes to the Internet. Cohen (2011) and Barzilai-Nahon and Barzilai (2005) examine how the Internet has been adapted to Haredi community needs. As one rabbi, Alfred Cohen, editor of the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, noted:

This essay will examine, first, areas of religious legal conflict between Jewish religious practice and the Internet. Secondly, it investigates the question of whether communal prayer may, according to Halakha (Jewish religious law), be conducted on the Internet. Thirdly, the article will discuss the phenomenon of on-line rabbinic counseling.

2. The Internet and Jewish Religious Practice

Each media form brings its unique characteristics. The subjects where Judiasm and the Internet overlap or conflict while in some cases are identical, raising the same issues, reactions, and solutions, in others are different. In some cases the level of conflict with Jewish theology is greater with the Internet than with earlier media forms; in other cases, the opposite is true. Among the areas to be discussed where the Internet and Judaism conflict are sexual modesty, the Sabbath and Internet functioning, e-commerce, copyright, and social and political gossip on the Internet.

A. Sexual modesty

Although the Jewish Tradition is critical of sexual exposure on the Internet, this is less obvious than it appears. Physical pleasure from sexual relations within marriage is regarded in a positive light in Judaism. Rabbinical discussion of modesty as an ethical value concerns mostly the manner a person behaves in his social relations. Yet, the Israelite camp in the Wilderness in which "God walked shall be holy ... that God should not see anything unseemly and turn Himself away from you" (Numbers 23:15), an allusion to nudity being looked on negatively. A concern of Jewish sources is that as a result of his exposure to images alluding to sex, a man could be sexually aroused to masturbation or "improper emission of seed" (onanism) (Genesis 38). The same prohibition on men does not apply on women. Different branches of Judaism interpret sexual modesty differently. Orthodox Judaism forbids a man to look on a female immodestly attired; in the ultra-orthodox community it includes the uncovered hair of a married woman. Similarly, Haredi rabbis forbid a man to listen to a woman singer lest he be sexually aroused; the modern Orthodox community permit this if the song is pre-recorded. These restrictions raise profound artistic questions of how love can be portrayed and expressed in a manner which is religiously acceptable. Conservative and Reform rabbis are critical of sexual freedom as expressed on Internet websites, the latter taking a stand on media sexploitation of women.

The question of sexual content on the Internet websites generated widespread concern in Haredi circles. The "Eda Haredit" (or Committee of Torah Sages), the umbrella group of Haredi rabbis, established a special bet din (or religious law court) to deal with questions concerning communication related matters. The Internet was regarded by them as a far worse moral threat than television: whereas television was supervised, the Internet enabled free access to pornographic sites. The bet din banned the Internet.

The specific question of extra-marital romantic relationships on the Internet has been addressed by rabbis, with the question of whether it is tantamount to adultery. According to one rabbi, Yair Lerner (2005), while a couple in which one partner carried out an on-line romantic extra-material relationship is not obligated to divorce (which is the case, for example, where one partner has had sexual relations with another married person), the rabbis regard such a deed as a profound breach of Jewish values, and would recommend that the pair divorce. Lerner would not however see a marital cancellation because of an Internet relationship as grounds for not giving the woman her dowry, detailed in in the original marital contract between the two

B. The Internet and the Sabbath

One focus of rabbis' legal discussions around the Internet has concerned the Sabbath. The prohibition of work on the Sabbath Day, as enjoined by the fourth of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8), has implications for the functioning of the Internet on the Sabbath and Jewish festivals. Whereas the Sabbath functioning was an issue which occasionally came up in earlier media forms, it became center stage in halakha discussions of computers and the Internet. Given the prohibition on activating electricity on the Sabbath, the computer and the Internet may not be switched on (Auerbach, 1996), according to Orthodox as well as Conservative Judaism. But Reform Judaism, which does not oppose the use of electricity, will have no problem with the use of computers and the Internet. The subject of Sabbath observance in the modern technological age is one that occupies rabbis today. Several research institutions have been established over the years to research technological developments from a Jewish law perspective with special reference to their functioning on the Sabbath. The Jerusalem-based Institute of Science and Halakha comprises rabbis, engineers, and scientists. Another organization is Zomet, which has invented practical solutions to the application of technology in the modern state.

The prohibition of work on the Sabbath day as enjoined by the fourth of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8) has implications given both that the Internet operates simultaneously across time zones and that the Sabbath--the period commencing at sunset on Friday and continuing for 24 hours to Saturday eve--falls at different times in different parts of the globe. Questions raised by the rabbis include whether it is permitted to receive e-mail in your mail box when it is the Sabbath, or when the email is sent from a country where it is the Sabbath. May one send mail to an address in a country where it is currently the Sabbath? Is it permitted for a Jew to enter a website in a foreign country where it is currently the Sabbath? According to Yuval Churlow (2002), who heads a talmudical college (yeshiva) in the Israeli city of Petach Tiqva, identified with the modern Orthodox stream, the obligation to observe the Sabbath is for the surfer himself, and therefore one can send mail to a site where it may be the Sabbath. Illustrating the lack of consensus among rabbis about Internet-related matters, other religious Jewish authorities recommend that one should not check a website in a time zone where it is currently the Sabbath even if it is not specifically resulting from an e-mail sent to you.

The Sabbath Day is not only characterized by restrictions on work but also as a spiritual experience of prayer, study, and rest on the holyday. Mundane activities such as media exposure, including newspapers, take away from the Sabbath atmosphere. A separate halakhic question concerning the Internet raised by rabbis is whether a computer or the Internet could theoretically either be left on from before the commencement of the Sabbath, or be turned on automatically by a time-clock (the device by which many Jews have heating and lighting on the Sabbath), if the computer program is of a religious nature.

C. e-commerce

e-commerce has important implications for halakha. In Jewish law an acquisition (kinyan) occurs when someone performs some sort of physical action that demonstrates his ownership, such as lifting up the object. In e-commerce, the item advertised on the screen exists only virtually. Does an acquisition take place if it does not exist, or has not yet come into the possession of the seller? Can something be acquired which does not yet exist and is still at the supplier and has not reached the retailer on the website? To be sure, acquisition is widely discussed in the Talmud. According to one rabbi, Shlomo Dickovsky (2002), "'Virtual' acquisition is not regarded as an obstacle to a sale, since they do exist even if not in time in the physical possession of the seller, and it is still considered a sale." Nevertheless, a secondary type of acquisition in Jewish law is the signing of an agreement, or kinyan situmqa (Babylonian Talmud: Babba Metzia 74a). Acquisition with a computerized signature is regarded as a signature and the deal is a deal to all intents and purposes. The signature by the mouse on the computer is an indication of this.

The Sabbath has special implications for e-commerce. Similar to a store's closing on the Sabbath given the prohibition to benefit from trading on seventh day, the day of rest, may one leave one's own trading website open including in a time zone where it is the Sabbath and the chance that a Jew there may breach the Sabbath law? Or, should a site which engages in online trading be closed by the owner on the Sabbath? One website, Babbakamma, is a list of Sabbath observing websites for those strictly observant. Reflecting the ongoing discussion about the Internet within rabbinical circles, one U.S. rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Heinemann initially wrote that a site should be closed because the owner's property, his website, is making money for him on Sabbath. The rabbi had assumed that clicking a button automatically caused a charge to be registered against the buyer's credit card and instantaously transfers the funds to the seller. Subsequently, the rabbi learnt that a credit card processors and banks never actually transferred funds on Saturday or Sunday (Cohen, 2005). And, with regard to midweek holydays like the New Year he recommended that a website be built in such a way as to defer credit transfers until after the holyday falling mid-week. One solution to a Jewish trader is to go into partnership with a non-Jew and in a fictitious manner give over ownership of the business at the commencement of the Sabbath to receive it back after the end of the Sabbath.

Is the leaving open a trading website on the Sabbath tantamount to placing a "stumbling block before the blind" (Leviticus 19:14)? And, may one purchase from a Jewish-owned website functioning in a time zone where it is currently the sabbath? According to the Eretz Hemdah, a Jerusalem-based center for training rabbis, a payment for an on-going weekly or monthly service to a data-base is not regarded as trading on the Sabbath, yet a one-time transaction would be. Is a trader obligated to close one's website in a specific time zone where it is there the Sabbath? According to the Eretz Hemdah Institute, it is not necessary to close down the website in time zones where it is the Sabbath, since other websites are available. Nor is it is considered a violation of the biblical command "not to place a stumbling block before the blind." Morever, the Torah does not require you to go to the financial expense of closing down the website when "the cause of the stumbling block is a passive agent rather than an active one" (Eretz Hemdah, 2003).

D. The sanctity of Internet communication

Knowledge and information also possess Jewish ethical dimensions in terms of copyright ownership, accuracy, and usage of God's name. Jewish law recognises copyright ownership and the value of stealing knowledge. Knowledge about events which are publicly known is not subject to copyright ownership. Material, such as a book or song, which is the exclusive property of one person may not be copied without permission. Rabbis have begun to consider the question of whether copying texts is regarded as stealing. While not specific to computers, the question of copyright has received renewed attention in the computer age in light of the proliferation of these practices. Given that downloading and copying texts is regarded as by some as acceptable practice, why, it is asked, should religious Jews be deterred? While there is a basic principle in Jewish law that once an owner has given up possession of an object which has gone missing, somebody in whose possession it falls does not have to return to him, one rabbi, Ram Cohen of Otniel Yeshiva, ruled that since some people do pay for downloaded texts and other downloaded materials, the owner has not "given up hope of receiving it back." Jewish law cannot be different from national law, and the unauthorized copying texts is therefore forbidden.

One exception is texts like the Bible, which are public property. In the case of Bible-related material--such as sermons--some rabbis argue that since the Bible is not the exclusive property of one party, no copyright stipulation exists for Bible-related materials.

Information reported in the media has to be accurate to avoid the audience being deceived. A separate question concerning the requirement of accuracy is when a news website, under tight deadlines, faces news sources which do not wish to give their account of events. The problem of deception is acute in advertising in all media forms, and not just the Internet, such as persuading customers to buy a product which they would not otherwise do if they knew all the facts.

In an extension of the Jewish law prohibition to pronounce the Holy Name, the Tetragrammaton, Jewish law regards as sacrilegious the destruction of texts with other names of God. To overcome the problem, texts such as prayer books have, by tradition, been buried in a cemetery. Some religious publications print God's name in an abbreviated form (for example, G-d). With the introduction of computers and the Internet, rabbis have addressed the question of the name of God appearing on the computer screen and have ruled that the prohibition on erasing God's name occurs in print, not in electronic form. In contrast to paper, electronic forms are not permanent: the result of electrons fired at the inside of the screen, forming light patterns that cannot be seen from the front of the screen. They are constantly being refreshed, but at a rate the human eye cannot see. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, a leading rabbinical authority in the Haredi community, ruled that since no complete letter actually exists, this does not constitute writing. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef says that erasing on a CD is an indirect act of erasing. Moreover, there is no specific intention to write God's name permanently. However, Moshe Feinstein, a leading halakhic authority in the U.S., ruled that one should nevertheless refain from removing God's name because it appears as if one is erasing (Brueckheimer, 2003).

E. Political and social gossip on the Internet

A major innovation of Judaism in the field of religion and mass media behavior concerns the divulging of previously unknown information. Leviticus (19:16), in warning against not being "a talebearer among your people, or standing idly by the blood of your neighbor," imposes substantial limits on the passage of information. The rabbis have divided types of information into a number of categories. Most severe has been divulging secret information to the wider public which is intended or has the effect of damaging someone's reputation (loshon hara). When Miriam spoke ill of Moses for "the Cushan woman he married," she was smitten with leprosy (Deuteronomy 12). Also forbidden, but with lesser severity, is the disclosure of even positive information about somebody (rehilut) (Israel Meir Ha-Kohen, 1873). While in modern society the right to privacy is subservient to the right to know, in Judaism the right to know is subservient to the right to privacy. These rules were no less relevant to earlier media forms such as newspapers, radio, and television than to the Internet, even if freer uncontrolled Internet forms like blogs make this of even greater importance. In Judaism the only right to know is the right to know Jewish knowledge, that is, the Torah, national laws, and information which if kept secret would cause damage to someone. Modern society permits everything to be published apart from that which personally damages someone's reputation. This includes a large middle category of information which is not of vital importance to know. Judaism does not acknowledge an automatic right to this middle category of information.

These restrictions in Judaism profoundly affect the disclosurre of previously unpublished information. A journalist, for example, draws much of his information from sources which often selectively disclose in order to weaken a political opponent. However, once the information is known to three people it is no longer forbidden, but it becomes permitted to hear it. As the Babylonian Talmudic Tractate Erachin (16a) notes, once the information is known to three people, it is the same as announcing it to the world. Information, therefore, takes on a relative value. The source and his informant have carried out a most heinous act in making the information public, but that same information may be heard by other people.

Yet the Torah says that it is not only permitted to disclose information which if kept unpublished would damage society, but obligatory. The same verse which prohibits the disclosure of secret information continues "... do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor," suggesting that if someone hears of information, such as corruption committed by a government minister or an official, he has an obligation to take steps to rectify the situation. The Bible acknowledges the fourth estate role, or societal watchdog, fulfilled by the Internet (Korngott, 1993). If the matter can be dealt with by other means than press disclosure, this is preferred. If not, media disclosure is necessary. Thus, Judaism distinguishes between the large flow of otherwise interesting information disclosed by the media which does not come under this category, disclosure of which it prohibits, and the much smaller category of information of social value (Chwat, 1995).

A related question which has occupied some rabbis today concerns the disclosure of information of corruption or sexual improprieties committed by rabbis. Such disclosures defame the religion and even God. Over the years rabbis have generally favored covering up rather than disclosure even if it may be in the social interest for people to know. Yet, the Bible was not averse to publishing details of the sins of the righteous as means towards moral teaching.

3. The Virtual Synagogue

One of the first cyberspace synagogues, Temple Beit Israel, founded in 2006, in "Second Life" has members residing in, amongst other places, Brazil, The Netherlands, the U.S., and Israel. Lacking any physicial structure, its 400 members, or "residents," and thousands of visitors every week, meet on-line. Of all the branches of Judaism, only the Reform have fully incorporated modern technology into the synagogual service. Off-line Reform synagogues have gone online. For example, Temple Emanu-el, a leading New York Reform synagogue, has since 2000 broadcast its High Holyday services. Temple Emanu-el holds a virtual seder on the first night of the Passover holiday, enabling people in different locations to participate in the seder. Temple Beth El, in Charlotte, North Carolina, has since 2006 offered evening holiday services on the Internet. An estimated 2,500 people in 15 countries watch the High Holiday services of Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur of Temple Emanuel in Birmingham. Temple Bnai Shalom, in Fairfax Station, Virginia has podcasted since 2006, enabling the ill and elderly, as well as armed personnel with U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and foreign service personnel, to follow Temple services. According to Temple Bnai Shalom's Rabbi Amy Perlin, "when a woman tells me that she had listened to a podcast while walking on a beach to sort out her life, when a 'new Jew' is able to learn the service by listening to Friday's podcast, when a Jew becomes comfortable reciting the Kaddish that way, or when a man hears the ' Mishebeirach' (prayer) with the voices of fellow congregants before surgery or during chemotherapy, we are meeting needs beyond our walls and touching hearts and lives." Rabbi Dan Cohen of Temple Shaarei Tefilo-Israel, South Orange, NJ remarked:

I was officiating at a wedding. One grandparent was not able to be present due to health issues. The bride was heartbroken. At the beginning of the service I pulled out my cellphone, called the grandparents and placed the cellphone, on speaker, on the podium in front of me. While being present via telephone is a poor alternative from being physically together, having the grandparent present via this device was itself a cause of celebrating. (Reform Judaism, 2009)

An unaffiliated synagogue in Loveland, Ohio, created Our.Jewish.Community.Org to stream Sabbath and High Holiday services to surfers. A West Coast website, Oy-Bay provides details of young Jews who are interested in setting up independent prayer groups. To be true, prayer services in the reform movement had benefited from technology even before the Internet age. The microphone is used in the Temple service. For years Temple Emanu-el in New York has broadcast the reading of the Book of Esther on the Purim festival on the community's local radio station.

Even orthodox Jews have benefited from the technological era. For example, Jews have been leaving messages in the Western Wall, the last remaining outer wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, well before the age of the Internet and faxes. But since the Internet they have been sending their prayers virtually. Prayer services at the Wall may be seen on the Net. There are other cases of the usage of Internet. In 2006 Israeli Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yona Metzger established a day of prayer on a special Internet website, "Embracing the world," to pray for missing Israeli soldiers. Thousands of Jews worldwide signed on. KEY, a Hebrew acronym for Kulani Yehudim Kulani Yachad ("we're all Jews and united together") coordinates a "tehillim campaign" (prayers from the Book of Psalms) for individual cases, especially of sick people. Owing to the Internet, tehillim campaigns have become cross-border, embracing Jewish communities wordwide (Marks, 2000). Charity giving is done on the Internet, making e-charity--or e-tzedaka--into a growing area of Jewish philanthropy. The custom prior to the New Year and Yom Kippur holydays of Jews seeking forgivenness--or "mekhilla"--from fellow Jews whom they had hurt in the outgoing year has taken on an Internet dimension and some now request mekhilla by e-mail rather than meeting, encountering, and apologizing in person. Yet this failure to encounter the person has weakened the value of e-mekhilla; as one New York orthodox rabbi put it "you have to have the experience right in front of the person, for them to see your face, and you have to see theirs, the face of foregiveness" (Nussbaum Cohen, 2000). The religious obligation of returning lost objects has also taken on Internet dimensions and has become an informal website or noticeboard for announcing lost and found.

Mourning rituals have also benefited from the Internet era. Burial societies in some Israeli towns, including Tel Aviv and Kiryat Shemona, have erected devices so that funeral services at cemeteries may be seen on the Internet. This enables those who cannot participate in a funeral, particularly given the Jewish custom of burial close to time of death, to be present virtually, including from abroad, at the funeral. The custom of comforting mourners during the seven day shivah or mouring period after the funeral has taken on an Internet dimension, with some people sending condolences by e-mail. But Shmuel Eliahu, rabbi of the northern Israeli city of of Safed, has spoken out against this practice, arguing that comforting the mourner is a religious obligation that should be done in person. Moreover, honoring the dead ought to be done, Eliahu argued, by going to the house of the deceased soul. The custom among observant and traditional Jews of visiting the graves of the righteous to pray (such as, for example, for livelihood, a spouse, health, or legal success) has gone on-line; for example, a website created by followers of the Kabbalist, Itzhak Kadduri, includes a "Book of Requests."

Yet, fully-fledged prayer services comprising a communal minyan have not taken effect among the Orthodox and Conservative streams. These reject online virtual prayer services. A fundamental criterion for communal prayer for the Orthodox is the physical presence of 10 men. This is similarly true with Conservative Judaism, with the exception that some communities recognize that women may also form the minyan. According to the Jewish law code, Shulkhan Arukh , Orah Hayyim 55, "the 10 men (who constitute the minyan) must be in one place and the prayer leader (chazan or shaliah zibbur) with them."

While much of the Jew's thrice daily prayer service may be said by an individual praying alone, some aspects of the prayers may be said only in a minyan. The most relevant prayer concerns the kaddish mourning prayer said by relatives of the deceased in the 11-month period after death. So central is the place of the kaddish prayer in the Jewish religious psyche as a familial obligation that even some Jews who are not generally observant make a point of attending services to recite the kaddish--raising the question of whether a mourner, unable to reach a synagogue, may fulfil his commitment in a virtual type of minyan, in which the individual situated at a separate location is connected on-line to a physical minyan of 10. Other prayers which require to be recited communally include the weekly Bible reading from the Torah scrolls on the Sabbath, as well as certain key passages of the Jewish prayer service.

Orthodox rabbis reject the possibility that Jews at another location--whether for reasons of bad weather, or ill health, or physical danger such as wartime--may fulfill one's prayer obligations by going on-line to an existing minyan prayer service. Given the Shulchan Arukh dictum that the 10 man minyan must be in one place and the chazan or shaliah zibbur with them, someone who is outside the room is not regarded as part of the minyan. According to Rabbi Avraham Yosef, son of the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, a minyan based merely upon hearing or sight is not a minyan. According to Rabbi Yuval Churlow, Jewish law is focused upon the physical reality, not the media reality that humans have created. To be true, rabbis over the years have been concerned with the need to strengthen the community-orientated nature of Jewish life. Nevertheless, the requirement that the minyan has to be physical in nature, and not virtual, is perhaps not so clear-cut. For example, one early rabbi, Yehoshua Ben Levi, is quoted in a minority opinion in the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Pesachim (85b), that the relationship between God and His people is indivisible and can traverse any physical barrier--which might suggest a virtual minyan. Yet it seems unlikely that even if a solution to the Internet minyan were found within the limits of Jewish law that most people would prefer to pray at home, rather than come together for a group religious experience in a physical setting, as they have done for centuries.

The Conservative Movement also rejected the "virtual minyan." In a detailed response prepared in 2001 by the movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, Avram Israel Reisner, similarly argued against such a minyan, drawing also upon the Shulkhan Arukh principle that a minyan requires a physical proximity. Drawing an analogy with physical space as a motif in Judaism, Reisner referred to 10 levels of territorial spiritualty. These 10 levels start from outside the Holy Land to inside the Holy Land, outside Jerusalem to inside Jerusalem, and so on, culminating in the Holy of Holies chamber, which, according to Jewish tradition, is entered by the High Priest alone on Yom Kippur. Reisner draws from the laws of the Temple against the possiblity of a virtual minyan (Reisner, 2001).

Yet, according to some orthodox rabbis, as well as conservative rabbis, there are circumstances where one may link up virtually to an off-line minyan service. Notwithstanding the Shulchan Arukh dictum that 10 men must be physically in one location, there is a clause in the Jewish tradition for a person unable to reach the synagogue to pray at home at the same time as the minyan is in prayer. For Dr. Itzhak Arusi, chief rabbi of Kiryat Ono, the prayer of a person not present at a minyan would be strengthened were he to pray with his heart directed towards a minyan at prayer. Both Arusi and Yosef agree that certain parts of the prayers only said in communal service like the kedusha and the baruchu blessing could be recited by somebody praying in a virtual manner and not physical manner. However, a mourner may not say the kaddish prayer, given the rule that the prayer leader has to be physically present with the minyan.

A related Jewish legal question in considering the Internet concerns the transmission of prayer through electronic circuits. Many orthodox rabbis have said that if prayers which should be heard in a minyan like the Bible reading or Book of Esther on the Purim festival are recited in an electronic form, one has not fulfilled his obligation. For many years Israel Television has broadcast the Book of Esther. Yet, not all rabbis agree. Eliezer Waldenberg (Waldenberg, 1998) a former rabbi of the Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, allowed the practice. Rabbi Feinstein notes that the obligation of visiting the sick may be performed by telephone if there is no other way for a person to reach the sick (Feinstein, 1959). May these be precedents for linking up virtually to a physical minyan? For Conservative Judaism, it is a point of departure from the Orthodox stream. Reisner argues that where there is a two-way on-line audio voice connection between a mourner and the physical minyan, kaddish could be said since the kaddish is generic praise, neither constituting a benediction, nor including God's name. However, even Reisner admits that an individual not party to the minyan should not be the sole reciter to which the minyan responds, but indeed someone in addition who prays with the physical minyan is in practice the prayer leader.

Another question concerns praying from an electronic device like an iPod or mobile phone, which can include among their many features also the daily Jewish prayers. One scholar, Abraham Lifshitz (2010), has argued that it is inappropriate to pray from an electronic siddur, or prayer book, drawing upon an edict that a Jew in the midst of prayer should not hold anything lest his concentration be interrupted by that object, with such thoughts like excessive concern that the object he is holding may become lost. Lifshitz questions whether both the value of the phone, as well as its other features, receiving SMSs for example, might interfere with the individual's concentration in prayer.

A separate question concerns the question of online prayer services on the Sabbath. The prohibition of turning on electricity--regarded as an act of work and, therefore, prohibited on the Sabbath--suggests that even if a solution by Orthodox and Conservative rabbis to an on-line connection to a physical minyan on weekdays were found, it would be even more difficult regarding one on the Sabbath. Yet, it is argued, that if the electrical connection is preprogrammed prior to the Sabbath, like observant Jews use for heating and lighting during the 24-hour Sabbath period, it could be extended to on-line prayer services. Hearing prayer services or religious lessons would, it is argued, be a creative way of enhancing the spiritual quality of the Sabbath. With the prior exception of the broadcasting on the Sabbath of the Sabbath eve service, conducted by an Orthodox rabbi, Avigdor Cohen, the Israel Broadcasting Authority (TV and radio) broadcast religious programs on Friday before the commencement of the Sabbath or on Saturday nights after the termination of the Sabbath in the awareness that their mostly religious audience will not listen or view on the Sabbath itself. In prohibiting on-line transmissions on the Sabbath, Yosef has argued that the voice and echoes of a person's voice has an effect upon the functioning of an electrical circuit, raising and lowering the volume, in effect an "act of labour on the Sabbath day." However, Waldenberg allowed the shophar on the Rosh Hashanah to be broadcast by loudspeaker or radio or TV, begging the question why the Orthodox rabbis are vehemently against, for example, listening to a video cassette on the Sabbath set up before the commencement of the Sabbath. Moreover, most rabbis have not ruled against reading secular literature like newspapers on the Sabbath. Reflecting the conservative nature of Orthodox rabbis, David Lau, rabbi of the Israeli city of Modiin, remarked, "the Sabbath clock is not a solution for all matters," and Yosef ruled that no electricity network may function on the Sabbath except that which is necessary for regular living like heating and eating. But just like after the early invention of electricity, rabbis were reticent to allow the preprogramming prior to the commencement of the Sabbath lest its functioning result in others suspecting that the electricity was manually turned on but today is accepted practice, so it is argued that it is only a matter of time until Orthodox rabbis allow the computer or video cassette comprising religious content to function on the Sabbath itself if preprogrammed prior to the Sabbath--thus enhancing the Sabbath or festival atmosphere.

4. On-line Rabbinic Counseling

Given that the performance of religious commandments (mitzvot) are means of giving expression to Jewish symbols, observant Jews have for hundreds of years sought instruction from rabbis. Instruction includes the interpretation and application of Jewish legal principles of halakha to modern life, and comprises questions of Jewish law (sheiltot). The religious counseling occurred mostly with the local synagogue rabbi or rabbis in educational institutions, but at times individual Jews also consulted rabbis beyond their geographical vicinity who were renowned for their knowledge in particular spheres and enjoyed wide standing among Jewish leaders. One of the developments caused by the Internet is the phenomenon of on-line rabbinical counseling. The "virtual rabbi" replies to questions of Jewish law and offers counseling.

On-line rabbinic counseling is a growing trend, in particular among the modern Orthodox community. Panels of rabbis, comprising some 10-20 rabbis, exist on websites identified with the modern Orthodox including Kipa, Moreshet, Moriah, Jewish Answers, and Project Genesis. To a much lesser extent on-line counselling exists within Haredi communities, with most Haredim preferring to consult with their community rabbi, reflecting a strict adherence to rabbinic authority. Haredi websites include Habad, with its AskMoses website, and the Hitadbrut (or "dialogue"). Yet even many modern Orthodox Jews do not do consult on-line either. An estimated 42% of observant Jews had never used the Internet to ask a rabbi a question, and a further 47% asked less than five questions, according to a Kipa survey. Churlow, who provides on-line rabbinic counseling, and receives between 20 to 40 questions a day, answering an estimated 5,000 questions a year, estimated that 30-40% of questions comprise malefemale related questions such as marriage, relationships, and sexuality. Whereas 5% of men in the Kipa survey said that when they have a religious question they go to an on-site rabbi, 20% of women do so. According to the Kipa survey, asked whom they turn to if they have a religious question, 33% and 8% of women replied an Internet rabbi and an Internet forum, respectively in contrast to 16% and 4% of men, respectively. And, while 45% and 35% of men look up the question in religious books or ask the community rabbi, respectively only 29% and 30% of women replied that they did so.

On-line rabbinical counseling has generated a debate among modern Orthodox rabbis about the pluses and minuses of the phenomenon. Supporters of the new trend argue that non-affiliated Jews now have access to rabbis which they would not otherwise have. Secondly, on-line counseling offers an anonymity which the local community rabbi does not and enables people to raise questions they would not otherwise feel comfortable asking. Critics say firstly, that on-line answers proffered by rabbis are too short and secondly, that personal circumstances cannot be taken into consideration by the rabbi who is unacquainted with the questioner, even though sometimes the personal circumstances can be crucial in a particular instance. Thirdly, quoting the dictum "Make yourself a Rabbi," of the mishnaic tome Ethics of the Fathers, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger characterized the rabbi not only as being a functionary but also being a role model to emulate and identify with. One would not "make oneself a rabbi" if one already has a virtual rabbi. Fourth, instead of accepting the decision of the rabbi, people would be inclined to shop around to different on-line rabbis to find the reply most acceptable and comfortable to them. Fifth, the ease of on-line counseling discourages the Jew from studying the original sources in the halakhic literature.

A more recent addition to the "virtual rabbi" are questions placed to rabbis via SMS or Twitter. One rabbi in the modern Orthodox sector, Shlomo Aviner, receives an estimated 3000 SMS messages a month, and at times of national crsis in the country the figure reached 600 a day. (In one instance, a religious Israeli soldier in enemy territory in the middle of the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese war sent an SMS to Aviner asking for religious approval to use the electricity in a caputured house inside Lebanon in order to recharge his mobile phone. Aviner replied in the affirmative. The following day, the soldier sent another SMS to the rabbi from enemy territory saying that he had nevertheless left money for the recharging.)

5. Conclusion: Future Prospects

As the norms of the Internet develop and become codified, some of the problems raised will find solutions. Sexual explicitness on the Internet may be controlled. Ownership of computer texts will be incorporated within copyright law. Technical advancements may be expected to find creative solutions for the observant Jew who prefers that mail sent to him on the Sabbath will only be received after the termination of the Sabbath, and that e-commerce transactions be conducted without breaching halakha.

Like in other religions, rabbis as religious leaders are decidely conservative, but as time unfolds, religious content on computers and the Internet may be allowed to function on the Sabbath if pre-programmed beforehand. So will on-line rabbinic counseling become standard practice.

Even if certain parts of the communal minyan may be allowed by some rabbis to be permissable for the observant Jew, the fully virtual minyan will not come into effect given the fundamental Orthodox and Conservative objections. And, given the centrality of prayer and the synagogue in the Jewish spiritual experience, the impact of the Internet upon Judaism is, therefore, necessarily circumscribed. Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, bound by limits of Halakha, are, therefore, unable to benefit fully from the benefits of the modern information technology. All the other benefits, whether religious educational websites or other websites, fade into the background given that the synagogue service remains in the physical realm.


Auerbach, S. Z. (1996). Shidurei Radio B'Shabbat [Radio broadcasts on the Sabbath]. Alon Shevut: Tehumin, 16, 15-35.

Barzilai-Nahon, K. & Barzilai, G. (2005). Cultured technology: The Internet and religious fundamentalism. The Information Society, 21, 25-40.

Baumel, S. (2002). Communication and change: Newspapers, periodicals and acculturation among Israeli Haredim. Jewish History, 16 (2), 161-187.

Brueckheimer, A. (2003). Halakha and technology: Erasing G-d's name from a computer. Journal of Halacha & Contemporary Society, XLII (Spring).

Cardon, D. (2006). Hadoar HaElectroni B'Semuchas LaShabbat [Electronic mail on the Sabbath eve]. Alon Shevut: Tehumin, 27, 84-89.

Churlow, Y. (2002). Questions and answers, Moreshet (23 June).

Chwat, A. (1995). Itonim V'Hadashot Mitzva O Isur [Newspapers and news: Religious obligation or prohibition]. Elkana: T'lalei Orot, 164-188.

Cohen, A. (2005). Internet commerce on Shabbat. Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, 50, 38-61.

Cohen, Y. (2001). Mass media in the Jewish tradition. In D. Stout & J. M. Buddenbaum (Eds.), Religion and popular culture (pp. 95-108). Ames: Iowa State university Press.

Cohen, Y. (2006). Judaism. Encyclopaedia of religion, communication & media (pp. 206-212). New York and London: Routledge.

Cohen, Y. (2011). Haredim and the Internet: A hate-love affair. In M. Bailey & G. Redden (Eds.), Mediating faiths: Religion & socio-cultural change in the twenty-first century (pp. 63-72). Farnham, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Cohen, Y. (2012). God, Jews and the media: Religion and Israel's media. New York and London: Routledge.

Dickovsky, S. (2002). Internet B'Halakha [Internet and Jewish law]. Alon Shevut: Tehumin, 23, 325-333.

Eretz Hemdah. (2003). Mishar B'Internet Ushmirat Shabbas [Trade on the Internet and Sabbath observance]. Shut B'Bmarei Habazak, 5, 89.

Feinstein, M. (1959). Igeret Moshe. New York: Section 208.

Ha-Kohen, I. M. (1873). Hafez Hayyim. Vilna. [For an English translation, see Z. Pliskin (1975). Guard your tongue: A practical guide to the laws of Loshon Hara based on the Chofetz Hayyim. Jerusalem: Aish Hatorah].

Heilman, S. (1990). Religious Jewry in the secular press: Aftermath of the 1988 elections. In C. Liebman (Ed.), Conflict and accommodation between Jews in Israel (pp. 45-66). Jerusalem: Keter.

Horowitz, N. (2000). HaHaredim v'Ha-Internet [Haredim and the Internet. Kivunim Hadashim, 3 (October, 730).

Korngott, E. M. H. (1993). Or Yehezkel [Light of Ezekiel: Contemporary issues in Jewish law]. Petach Tiqva, 335-366.

Lerner, Y. (2005). Kesher Romanti B'Internet [A romantic relationship on the Internet]. Alon Shevut: Tehumin, 25, 227-230.

Levi, A. (1990). The Haredi press and secular society. In C. Liebman (Ed.), Conflict and accommodation between Jews in Israel (pp. 45-66). Jerusalem: Keter.

Lifshitz, A. (2010). Tefilla mitokh Siddur Electroni [Praying from an electronic prayer book]. Alon Shevut: Tehumin, 30, 413-417.

Marks, J. (2000). God, you've got mail. New York: Jewish Week, January 28.

Micolson, M. (1990). Itonut Haredit B'Yisroel' [The Haredi press in Israel]. Tel Aviv: Kesher, 8, 11-21.

Nussbaum Cohen, D. (2000). You got mechila. New York: Jewish Week, September 29.

Palmer, D. (1991). The international date line and related issues. Journal of Halakha and Contemporary Society, 21 (Spring).

Patrick, G. (2007). Hinduism in cyberspace. Religion and Social Communication, 5(2), 71-81.

Reform Judaism. (2009). Cyber Judaism. (Summer).

Reisner, A. I. (2001). Wired to the Kaddosh Barukh Hu:. Minyan via Internet. New York: Rabbinical Assembly [OH 55:15 2001].

Waldenberg, E. (1998). Tzitz Eliezer, Jerusalem VIII, II.

Yoel Cohen Ph.D
Since use of the Internet is such a new practice,
   there has scarcely been time for a body of broadly
   accepted halakhic literature or rabbinic comment
   to develop. Consequently, much of our
   study will involve trying to find cognate situations
   discussed in earlier generations, to identify
   the appropriate categories of activities discussed
   in rabbinic literature which could guide us in the
   current situation. (2005, p. 39)
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.