TRADITION QUESTIONS: Orthodox Influencers’ Influence

Zissy Turner Tradition Online | April 20, 2023

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What is it? Utilizing platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, Orthodox women have built significant followings sometimes consisting of tens of thousands of followers. Sharing personal stories, photographs, videos, and divrei Torah; they reflect on their Jewish lives, enabling them to subtly guide the Orthodox communities of which they are a part. This content affects how religious Jews (typically women, but also many men) think and act in terms of modesty, tefilla, communal politics, and halakhic norms.

Providing short bursts of entertainment, content creators don’t simply recommend recipes and home décor. They become mini-celebrities and, in some small way, part of their followers’ lives. The specific content varies by the audience that each influencer has cultivated around herself. Consumers often seek social media personalities who share a common interest with them. In wider society, this can include things like healthy eating, fitness, or political outlook. Orthodox culture becomes a common interest around which Orthodox influencers grow their audience. In sharing religious advice, social commentary and words or Torah, Orthodox influencers use many of the same tools of secular influencers but shape them to a unique subculture. Similarly, by partnering with marketers, Orthodox influencers generate income off the content that they produce.

Two important distinctions: Some influencers are unpaid – simply sharing their lives and their perspectives with others. Some influencers will share ads or products and services that they have developed. The lines between these two are not always clear. Some influencers are not educators or communal leaders, but women who happen to be Orthodox using these platforms without a mission to instruct their followers’ religious lives. Others see themselves as digital Jewish educators utilizing a new technology to achieve a personal or communal mission.

As they move through their day, followers consume Orthodox influencers’ content alongside that from general society. They might read a short dvar Torah or watch a viral video as they wait in line or sit on a train. Orthodox influencers become one of the many attention merchants vying for space in their followers’ minds – offering them a jolt of content to enliven or fill time.

What does it mean? For years, the “Facebook Rabbi” has been an online reality. By posting the sermon that he gave in shul the previous day, the rabbi harnessed technology to further spread his Torah teaching. What was missing from the “Facebook Rabbi”’ phenomena was female contributors. Women want to connect with and learn about Jewish life from other women who have their own perspectives and unique voices. The emergence of Orthodox women influencers, primarily through Instagram, meets this desire. 

Orthodox influencers’ social media accounts track these frum women going about their daily lives, doing much good. There are charity campaigns, petitions to free agunot, inspirational stories, and tips to combat antisemitism. Yet, the freedoms allowed by the medium can allow for things that might lead to non-halakhic practice. The normalization of such activities might spread spiritual connectivity, but it does so without halakhic structure. 

Social media is a two-way street. While much attention is placed on the influencers, as in any market, we must also pay attention to the consumers, the influenced themselves. Users of this technology must learn to filter information that they consume – understanding how it guides or misguides their decisions and actions. 

In the past, community norms were often communicated as women spoke to one another after shul on a Shabbat morning, or in other personal settings. Modern technology allows for the transfer of such norms constantly – speeding the spread of such information and allowing Orthodox society to compete with the messages coming into it from general society. However, as in general society, the technology often filters for what the viewer wants to see and not necessarily for what is true or ultimately meaningful. 

What questions remain?

  1. What does it mean that we and our children receive religious knowledge and advice from people we may not consider “experts”? 
  2. How might social media be consciously employed as a tool for growth in religious communities?
  3. Do Orthodox influencers have a responsibility to the community? Are they private members of the community? Or public ones, akin to community leaders?
  4. What is the extent of Orthodox influencers influence relative to other sources of influence, including parents, teachers, and real-world friends.

Closing Thought

Consumers use influencer pages for connection, relaxation, and distraction. Yet, influencers gain something from their work beyond financial incentives. Influencers’ postings help their audience know that they exist in a way that “common” people do not. Influencers matter because they are followed. This raises questions about the very idea of celebrity and psychological, “spiritual tzniut.” Is it right for influencers – men or women – to share themselves and to thereby “exist” in this way. 

Zissy Turner is a Yoetzet Halakha and teaches Tanakh and Gemara at SAR High School in Riverdale, NY.

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