REVIEW: Torah in a Connected World

Tamar Koslowe Tradition Online | June 24, 2024

Jonathan Ziring, Torah in a Connected World: A Halakhic Perspective on Communication Technology and Social Media (Maggid Books, 2024) 436 pp.

More than any societal change that has altered the course of human development, technological advancement in the twenty-first century has axiomatically transformed how people interact and form community. The advent of technology and social media has spawned new halakhic questions, both for individual mitzvot and for broader, hashkafic sensibilities, that we must seek to address. Constant interconnectedness can be consumed as an elixir of life or a poison of death. We can share Torah teachings more speedily and to a wider audience, benefit from digital libraries of Jewish text, and contact halakhic authorities or havrutot with tremendous ease from across the globe. Yet, technology also enables us to quickly disseminate slander, suspect our peers of sin, or cheapen sacred Jewish customs like praying for close relatives or asking for forgiveness in a crude, public fashion.

Torah in a Connected World, authored by Rabbi Jonathan Ziring, seeks to address many of these new, abstract and particular questions posed by technological advancements. Ziring bridges the gap between the proliferation of technology usage and the need for a correspondingly rigorous and comprehensive halakhic analysis of its implication for everyday life and mitzva observance. In particular, Ziring wrote this book during the heart of the Covid-19 pandemic, when new halakhic questions were being raised across Israel and the diaspora regarding porch minyanim, use of technology over Shabbat and Yom Tov in unique cases of pikuah nefesh, Zoom megilla readings, and so on. If the interplay between Jewish life and virtual life was not on the community’s radar before, the coronavirus shutdown placed these questions at the forefront of the Jewish community’s mind.

Ziring splits the book into five sections, but structurally it might have been divided into two. The first would treat particular mitzvot, offering an halakhic analysis of how the mitzva can or cannot be performed through the use of technology. The other half (here comprised of the middle three sections of the book) reads more like open discussions on how Rabbinic discourse considers broad issues, such as the responsibility of social media companies to protect users and the classification of humiliating another person through a digital medium.

In both the first and final sections of the book, Ziring seeks to define how virtual presence might suffice to fulfill the requirements of physical presence in different halakhic scenarios. His initial case study of Sheheyeyanu (originally published on TraditionOnline), the blessing a person would say after going thirty days without seeing a close friend, explores the prerequisites for its recitation. If the berakha reflects the delight we feel in discovering our friend is alive and well, was this fear ever a real concern if we exchanged text messages every day? In fact, could one argue that the likelihood of not hearing news of misfortune befalling this friend in such a connected world is itself evidence of their well-being? Ziring highlights other mitzvot that specifically relate to physical presence as a mandatory requirement. He explores the requirement for ten men to come together to create a quorum for communal prayer, a halakha that is premised upon spatial proximity. The Talmud itself contemplates how a sick person can be part of a minyan even from a distance, and the population of sick or homebound praying population grew tremendously during the pandemic when this question became all the more pressing (Berakhot 7b). Ziring also discusses cases that require physical presence as more of a necessary component but not a central feature of the halakha. Can a husband authorize delivery of a bill of divorce over the phone or through a call on FaceTime? Ziring depicts a thorough explanation of the high halakhic standard required of a husband to demonstrate his absolute willingness and commitment to giving a get, and how this might militate against halakhic leniency.

Stylistically, since many of the questions raised throughout the book are new and modern in nature, Ziring relies heavily on the writings of contemporary scholars when devising potential answers. He often starts his analysis with the mitzva’s foundational Talmudic passages and tries to get into the mind of our ancient sages. Hazal don’t generally accept lack-of-contact as positive proof that a husband lost at sea is, in fact, deceased. However, they do raise the possibility that no news regarding a lost Torah scholar is good proof of his demise, for if he had washed ashore elsewhere, news of his arrival would certainly have reached his wife (Yevamot 121a). The Talmud rejects this possibility, and Ziring tries to decipher the nature of this rejection; is this possibility renounced because our standards of proof would never permit the absence of information as proof positive, or, perhaps Hazal felt that even a great Torah scholar would not have been able to send the news back under every circumstance—but nowadays nearly every person certainly could. Methodologically, while this sort of analysis is typical in a classic Talmud shiur, Ziring actually uses this form of reasoning to spur practical halakhic rulings. His conclusions and assertions are well sourced in early and modern scholarship alike, as he journeys from the psyche of the Talmud to constructing psak halakha for today.

Though these sections are analyzed objectively, for the most part, at points Ziring shares his own reactions to modern developments. He admits his discomfort with mass apologies, insincerely offered, posted on social media platforms in advance of the High Holidays (53). These legitimate feelings are accompanied by thorough halakhic analysis, though it is interesting to contrast these sentiments with contemporary developments to which Ziring raises no objection or concern. When discussing how the position of Mara De’atra, the local rabbinic authority, has essentially transformed from being a leader of geographic proximity to a leader of ideological association, Ziring accepts that with access to so many talmidei hakhamim, today people choose a leader to whom they will turn with halakhic quandaries or for pastoral advice rather than defaulting to one’s local Rabbi. R. Aharon Lichtenstein is quoted as saying that “spiritual commitment rather than geographic contiguity” is the new determinant for religious community, a development that Ziring finds “so appealing and so practical” (87).

The thrust of the chapter on digital tzedaka fundraisers similarly shows deference to ideology over geography, as he concludes that “the emotional pull” of one’s ideological community is an extremely important factor when considering the causes to which to contribute, but justifies that “there are reasons to not fully abandon the geographical considerations” (109). It is notable that although Ziring makes the case that one should give to the needy in his or her immediate surroundings, the broad transition from physical to digital association is not criticized. Two families living next door to one another can now belong to entirely different schools of thought and decide that one another’s standards for dishwashers or prayer times are sacrilege. There is something to be said for the loss of unity in the Jewish community engendered by hyper-ideological selectivity enabled by technology. I did find it interesting that Ziring doesn’t mention the obvious limitation posed by Shabbat and Yom Tov, when the use of communication technology is broadly prohibited. In cases when an urgent halakhic question must be answered, communities are left to consult those authorities nearest by.

The central portion of the book focuses on how social media has affected Jewish life and impacted religious practice more broadly. Ziring depicts a singular technological development, lays out relevant halakhic concepts, and finally draws the parallels between the two. He accepts as a given that social media in many ways is damaging to life. Platforms like Google, Twitter, and Facebook are known to host misinformation, libelous accusations, and biased news.[1] While in practice these companies are protected by Section 230 in American law, what does halakha have to say about the responsibility of these companies, whose product is harming both those on and off the platforms? Are individual users of these platforms guilty bystanders who participate in a system that is causing tremendous harm? Ziring writes a tour de force on lifnei iver, the Torah prohibition to prevent those around us from coming in the way of harm and sin. He references a New York Times by Dr. S. Matthew Liao as a sort of foil for halakha’s reaction to social media. Where the former is presented as a social moralist who believes that even innocuous participation on Facebook is a failure to remove oneself from a platform that leads to the “deterioration of democracy,” Ziring does not present an ethical argument but a halakhic one (120). In his final analysis of these issues, Ziring intriguingly ventures into comparative law, contrasting the definitions of responsibility in American law and Jewish law. He does not answer every question—Can I invest in a social media company to financially benefit in potential harm? Can I write code for these companies as my job?—but he gives readers the framework through which they can draw their own conclusions. His analysis is thoughtful and balanced, recognizing the good social media companies do and along with their bad, and views any approach to social media through the lens of halakha.

R. Jonathan Ziring

Ziring also discusses the phenomenon of social media posts being taken out of their original contexts and misinterpreted by asynchronous viewers. He analyzes whether an onlooker is required to judge a halakhically questionable post favorably, and explores how preoccupied an individual must be with how he or she is perceived online through the lens of marit ayin and judging others favorably (dan le-khaf zekhut). Ziring brings examples of people whose careers have been ruined from misunderstood posts and harkens back to Facebook’s early days when users posted images of their idyllic lives, while in truth the greatest utilizers of social media are much younger than this population. Young people are utilizing social media in unprecedented numbers and the damage social media can cause to their fledgling self-perception and public reputation is qualitatively more severe than it is to adults.[2] The more pressing application of Ziring’s analysis falls on adolescents whose lives are often connected with Instagram or TikTok accounts at younger and younger ages and who in many ways have more to lose from misguided or misinterpreted posts.

Finally, Ziring explains how the prohibition against sharing slander, lashon ha-ra, on digital media functions halakhically by providing various definitions for lashon ha-ra and rekhilut. In his efforts to consider how innocuous or harmful posts on social media may violate the biblical prohibition, Ziring explores many definitions of confidentiality, publicity, and intangible damages that could be relevant, even though many standard definitions of these concepts would not apply in the social media context. He ventures into unexplored territory, including when one might be obligated to consume or share damaging content under the dispensation of constructive sharing (lashon ha-ra le-toelet). This section raises many more questions than provides succinct halakhic answers, which in part makes the analysis all the more interesting and thoughtful.

As the current of modernity continues to rage, this book will only become more relevant. An entire generation of Jews is growing up alongside the technological revolution, and confronting how technology affects our religious lives is prudent. In his analysis, Ziring largely refrains from commenting on the permissiveness of using technology itself or to what degree the Jewish community should or should not integrate these media into their lives. He does not weigh in on whether technology is more evil than good, nor does he preach about what age technology should be used, what types, or how much. The reader walks away from Torah in a Connected World knowledgeable and motivated to thoughtfully consider these questions. More than any particular elucidation of halakha, Ziring asks the reader to, at the very least, think critically about the technological changes that are transforming lives across the globe. This book motivates us to not passively welcome every new element of technology into our lives without consideration. Even in the face of a great communication revolution, Ziring reminds us that we are not blind consumers but serious religious personalities.

Tamar Koslowe is a recent graduate of Yeshiva University’s Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Studies, is currently studying in Nishmat’s Yoetzet Halacha Program, and will begin a teaching career at the SAR High School in September.

[1] Like many authors who comment on social media websites, Ziring lumps these three companies together although they have very important differences. Twitter exists entirely to share its users’ thoughts, whereas Google serves as a search engine and provides many resources to its users. Distinguishing between platforms based on their primary and auxiliary functions should be relevant to Ziring’s halakhic analysis. He also faults these companies for reading their users’ communications to bolster their profits, but it is worth noting that this is information disclaimed to voluntary users of the websites before signing up. A tobacco company that conceals its ingredients is very different from a tobacco company that discloses the risks that its customers don’t read.

[2] This is a central thesis in Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness (Penguin Press).

1 Comment

  1. DAVID L. KLEPPER says:

    Good review. Buying the book appears essential.

Leave a Reply