Thursday, April 08, 2004

Blogging and Avodas Hashem

A topic that has been occupying me lately, in particular by reading AB and SIW is the relationship between blogging and Avodas Hashem.

Now, there has been (too) much talk about the general nature of blogging and the role that blogging should take and the relationship between blogging and journalism, politics, intellectual life, etc and there has been some discussion about the nature of Jewish blogging, though mainly of Judaism as defined as an ethnicity or community and less of Judaism as religion.

My question is what blogging can do (positively) for one’s avodas hashem (the service of God). I know that blogging (and the internet in general) can have a very detrimental effect on one’s religion and one’s avodas hashem, but that is not the topic at hand.

The Seminarian has written in the past (albeit briefly) about the how “personal blogs” are antithetical to such Jewish values as Tzneiut/s, and Kavod Habriot/s. If someone does not understand how, I feel genuinely sorry for that person.

In the early days of the internet there was much talk about how this would revolutionize Kiruv (Jewish outreach), Jewish education, and the study of Judaism and Jewish texts. In large part, this has failed to materialize. By and large, more Jews study Judaism as they always did. Though Aish HaTorah re-branded itself as, and attempted to make a “cool Judaism” and (as they have done for decades) use Jewish identity as a way of enticing non-Orthodox Jews into ultra-Orthodox Jewish religion (maybe one of us will blog about Kiruv sometime soon).

But I am not talking about Jewish education or Kiruv; using the internet as a vehicle for accessing Jewish texts online, which has been a slow process, and most people I know still prefer books, (except when preparing source-sheets for shiurim/classes).

I am talking about Avodas Hashem, serving God, improving one’s worship through prayer, study, acts of chesed, self-introspection, etc. Now, while the internet can bring us knowledge about opportunities for chesed or shiurim or transcripts of shiurim and there are hundreds of Divrei Torah e-mailed and posted weekly, that is the same as the pre-digital days, just sped up. And in Avodas Hashem, making things “easier” is not necessary the best path.

Having the Tzeitele Katan of Reb Elimelech of Vitebsk or Yisod ve-Shoresh Ha-Avodah online might make reading about service slightly easier, but they do not make its application and implementation any less work.

Among the approaches that looked promising was an using list-servs to discuss matters of Avodah. This would be a variation on the Mussar Vaad (which itself had precedent in 16th Century and on Kabbalistic pietistic groups), but would solve spatial difficulties by bringing everyone into an online community to discuss Religious issues. However, the problem with most list-servs is that they are open. Far more people join then than should. (Incidentally, this is why I do not promote list-servs on this blog, for fear having people join and blab who should not be participating.) So most open list-servs (or even moderately moderated list-servs) end up with too much talk and not enough useful discussion.

Which is not to say that list-serv do not serve useful functions as forums to discuss such things as halakha, politics, hock, public policy, or theology. But personal religious growth, I find list-servs do not serve.

And even in groups where everyone has the right intentions, most people lack the knowledge and background (reading books and tracts about avodas hashem for serious participation; if you need a required reading list e-mail me and I will be happy to provide you with one). Or they lack any interest in pouring effort into Avodas Hashem. Even if they have moments of interests, piety is not a passive pastime.

Of course one could have a closed list-serv, but then that is merely a small selective e-mail group of similarly interested people. (Which might be the only possible route.)

So with the growth of blogs, the same question should be asked. Can they be used for Avodas Hashem (personal or communal religious growth)?

At first glance, I would say no. If only for the reasons mentioned above about Tzenius. However, there is a distinct possibility that I have been thinking about lately.

The Jewish literary tradition has been remarkable absent from spiritual diaries and biographies, as has been discussed many times (recently in Professor Yaakov Elman’s Orthodox Forum 2000 Paper). The historical exceptions are notable. Another exception is Baal Teshuva biography, which is a significant genre.

Now, I am suggesting a possibility. One of the difficulties of pietistic literature is that they often hard to relate to the “real” lived world. Real life examples are often hard to come by. A female acquaintance several years ago, when reading Sefer Cheshbon HaNefesh (which is a loose translation of Ben Franklin’s autobiography and a staple of mussar literature), complained that it didn’t have enough stories. Now most stories used to illustrate religious literature use either theoretical examples or Gedolim stories, both of which are nice and possibly useful, but often do not reflect our own experiences. Blogs have the potential to discuss personal concerns in Avodas Hashem, challenges, and concerns, in a way of illuminating and articulating our own problems.

Now the dangers here are many. Spiritual autobiography can quickly become self-righteous, shallow, self-indulgant, or silly (or all of the above). Furthermore a discussion of one’s sins can provide readers with prurient thrills, perverse pleasure, or justification for their own failings (because everyone is doing it). And lastly, most people are spiritually immature and lack the sophistication to have anything enlightening to say about Avodas Hashem in their blogs. (But I can hope for a few mature, self-aware, spiritually deep, blogs.)

Another advantage of blogging is anon-a-blogging. One can anonymously discuss one’s religious life without the self-consciousness that normally prevents any discussion of Avodas Hashem. Or the fear of consequences of discussing one’s personal challenges and concerns before one’s peers.

However, despite these dangers, this is still a possibility.

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