Any tool has the capacity to build or destroy. A hammer can put up a house or it can smash priceless artifacts. It all depends on how you use it and what your intentions are when you pick it up.
The information age is also a tool and like a hammer, it has tremendous potential to build and destroy. Again, it all depends what you do with the information. But one thing is certain. Once the hammer was invented, people stopped headbutting nails into the wall and anyone today who insists on doing so "like in the good ol' days" is an idiot. It's the same with modern information services. Like 'em or not, they are here with incredible penetrance into society. They cannot be ignored and those who would tell us to have their heads in the sand.
Like Rav Doron Beckerman over at Cross Currents, for example. In his latest missive, he bewails the anarchy that the Jewish blogosphere has created. Once upon a time, he muses, we were disciplined and obedient servants of our rabbinic masters and that was a good thing bcause they knew best and by following them without question we were fulfilling the will of our Father in Heaven.
But now, but now! People are thinking for themselves! They're discussing what "the Gedolim" are saying and second guessing them! They're coming up with their own opinions! And what's worse, they're aware that not all of these great sages are perfect human beings!
He then spells out three scenarios. The first is the worst case one:
To the left lies a future where the Torah leadership of the Jewish nation has been completely undermined and discredited. Their mistakes held under the microscope, magnified, and determined by the bloggers to be fatal. No longer can they be trusted to lead, and the best course is Ish Hayashar B’einav Yaaseh. Let each man do what is right in his own eyes.
Taking this turn means adhering to, or adopting, a philosophy of Torah leadership having no inherent value. It is only when they are proven correct that we accept their authority (if ever), but when they are not, maybe after some sort of three strikes rule, then, plainly, the very concept of Torah leadership, in any practical form, is to be jettisoned.
I would agree that this is certainly not the shiny future that any observant folks desire. A few years ago Time magazine's lead story was on how the Internet, with all its unlimited possibilities, had essentially turned into a giant XXX shop. Left to ourselves, we humans don't reach for the stars but for the gutter. Well yeah, that's humanity's history in a nutshell.
But Rav Beckerman's other solutions that concern me too:
To the right lies a path of passivity, where no questioning or criticism is tolerated, no mistakes acknowledged or allowed for, and frustration is kept in check for the sake of maintaining the status quo. One problem with this, is, of course, the hit counter. A more critical problem – it isn’t healthy. Input from the layman is critical to proper decision-making, and sometimes the best ideas come from them.
Although I doubt they'll publish it, my comment on this was "Yes, this sounds just like the Agudah dealing with pedophilia." Cynical comments aside however, this is exactly the model being pushed by many askanim in the Chareidi community today, one of mindless obedience to "the Gedolim" because they have "ruach hakodesh", are on a different spiritual plane, know everything about everything, etc. As the demographics show, this may work for a small segment of the Jewish poeple but for many it's a non-starter. I'm not interested in checking my brain at the door.
Rav Beckerman's compromise solution however, doesn't seem much different:
Straight ahead lies a path of responsible partnership, where Torah leaders are not undermined by ridicule, open disdain, or even disrespectful disagreement. Correspondence should not be made public without explicit consent, tempting as it may be to get the scoop. Bloggers pining for particular courses of action should certainly state their case, but I believe that actual calls for adherence should be channeled through Torah leaders, whatever camp they may come from. There are lines of communication to all the English-speaking Torah leaders, both in the US and in Eretz Yisrael.
What's the difference between this and the solution immediately previous? Ah yes, we simple minded folk get to make suggestions. Not decisions, mind you. We wouldn't be trusted with anything as important as that! But we get to tell our leaders what we think of their guidance. Unless we disagree with them of course. Yes, Rav Beckerman mentions the possibility of respectful disagreement but in Chareidi discourse that often translates into "But sir, I don't think you were machmir enough!" Otherwise, disagreement is automatically equated with ridicule, and open disdain, to use Rav Beckerman's terms.
As a physician, I am aware that the authority of my profession of patients has diminished over the past few decades. Some are bothered by this, but I'm not. After all, in place of unrestrained paternalism has come patient autonomy. Why is this a good thing?
Fifty years ago the doctor didn't enter into a discussion with the patient. He analyzed the case and instructed. We all know that more often than not the patient mutely nodded his acquiescence and then went home and did what he wanted to, even if it was against the doctor's advice.
Nowadays, it's much easier for physicians. We advise the patients, engage in some education and at the end of the day put the whole thing in the patient's lap. The patient then goes home and does what he wants to do. In other words, what people are doing has not changed but I now know my limitations. What's more, by admitting them I don't feel any sense of crisis when the patient gets into trouble. I treated him as a responsible adult and therefore the fault for his problems is on his shoulders, not mind.
Perhaps "the Gedolim" could take a hunt from this model. After all, we know from the news on the accursed Internet that most Chareidim are not following their every instruction to the letter. What's more, as the pashkevils and gezeiros pile up, less and less of their authority seems to be respected. About the only thing that really unites Chareidim anymore is a chance to riot in Yerushalayim.
The era of the shtetl is over. Once upon a time, Yankl might have been a simple fish monger who could barely read. Today he has access to information from around the world. Once upon a time a crisis or spiritual lapse in an important rabbinical figure could be shushed away. Today it makes all the headlines.
Wishing people would turn their back on this in just that: wishful thinking.