Feb 8, 2011

Some Uncommon Questions

Photo a la OneShul.
I'm busy at work in my second semester at NYU in the Education/Jewish studies dual M.A. (yes, I already have one M.A. from the University of Connecticut in Jewish studies, but you can't have too many, right?), and I've discovered that my technological and social media know-how is a huge boon to my experience. In just about every class so far, I've been able to pull on my experiences online to make connections that are ever-so-much-more important when it comes to education, and not just in the Jewish world. Social media skills are what we have to teach students, because at some point, I have no doubt in my mind that such skills will be a prerequisite for just about every job out there.

Along with the growth of social media and online networks, however, come questions. I've been thinking more and more about these questions, and as I prepare for my panel at SXSW Interactive next month, I really would like some kind of insight into whether we have answers or whether we've moved along quickly enough to even be able to consider answering these questions. And these are just a few. Ready?

  • Yichud. Basically this word refers to the prohibition of men and women who are not married from being in seclusion or in a private place together. There are a bajillion ifs and buts tied to this law, but that's the basic gist. This means that I wouldn't invite a single man or a friend's husband over to my house for coffee, k? Now, my question is how we apply the laws of yichud in a digital age. Is it okay to text and email with a woman who is not your wife? With your wife knowing? Without your wife knowing? I'd say the former is okay, the latter violates yichud. What about online chatting or messaging through Facebook or Twitter via Direct Message? How do we apply the laws of yichud to Social Media? Should we? Is it being too strict to think that it should be? You have to consider that just as it was "dangerous" for a man and a woman to be secluded privately because g-d knows where it would end up, so, too, have people found that in the digital age, private communication is quite the same thing, just in a different medium. Thoughts?
  • Davening. There are great collaborative communities online like OneShul from PunkTorah.org that create an online space for prayer (davening), but can you count in a minyan (a quorum of 10 men needed for prayer) if you're only there digitally?
I guarantee you these are two things that the rabbis of old never would have considered, even on the most distant of horizons. So how do we approach these kinds of things today? My big thing is the idea of the New Community, which exists online, where people in the most remote of locations can find a community and participate Jewishly online. This community comprises a bevy of denominations and boasts synergy in a beautiful and innovative way. The question is: Are we ready for it? I know the Reform community is, but what about the Orthodox community? How do we approach life online via halacha and modern sensibilities? 

20 comments:

Melissa S-G said...

The yichud thing is really interesting. In the digital era there are so many intimate relationships formed through initial online contact, that it does create an interesting grey area.
Really interested to see where thoughts on that one lead...

Meanwhile, I think the digitial minyan idea is brilliant. It allows an expanded view of community which is relevant in our era as fewer and fewer people live and work in a place where they can get to a live minyan for daily prayers.

Anonymous said...

I don't get the yichud thing at all. Men and women aren't forbidden to speak to each other over the phone, so what's the difference between that and a chat room/IM situation?

I don't know of an Orthodox response to the online minyan question, but the CJLS did tackle the question in 2001 (http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/teshuvot/docs/19912000/reisner_internetminyan.pdf) and said that while a minyan has to be made up of people who are actually physically with one another, you can respond to a minyan and be yotzei on your obligation if you're hearing in real time over a web cam/streaming audio (text doesn't count).

le7 said...

Anon - I think the yichud question is valid, because while men and women can talk to each other - they can't talk to each other alone, in a locked room.

Are texting and online chats equivalent to talking in a private room?

I'm leaning towards yes. Not because I'm "sooo religious," but because of the rather close private relationships I formed with people I met online when I was a teenager. AIM was kind of like a locked room when my mom was asleep.

MokumAlef said...

Interesting questions! As to the yichud issue, AFAIK it only pertains to being physically together in a closed space. It’s ok if there’s an open door or window thru which anyone at any time could come/peek in. Anonymous’ telephone is a good analogy why an online chat would probably be ok. Now the next and related question would be: how about Skyping? Still not physical, but possibly problematic?

On the online davening matter: a virtual shul is a splendid idea! With all the restrictions of not being in a physical minyan, and matters of being yotsei with e.g. laayning and answering berachot or so, one could argue for a binding togetherness if the virtual shul is accessible to its members, so they can interact. Maybe even have a shokkeling avatar! Sound-link-ups are no problem, so either the avatar or video-conferencing?

A little bit related to these questions – i.e., the transposing of halachot pertaining to real-life physical situations that are translated to the virtual realm – how about this hypothetical one I heard ask. Could a cheese burger or pork chop that is replicated in the food replicator of the StarTrek universe be considered kosher? It’s not created through the regular food processing, or even derived from the animals in question. It’s a rearranging of molecules tasting like and shaped into any form you’d like. Much like (apparently) the manna in the midbar…. I also have no clue about the nutrition of this so-called food.

As to the various communities being “ready” for this digital/virtual community. Don’t forget that there’s a whole host of Orthodox of a certain persuasion who do not condone computers for any purpose at all. So, the normal Orthodox can probably be convinced that much (if not all) can safely play out within the parameters of Halachah.

Chaviva said...

I think Le7 hit it on the head. I don't think it would be acceptable to have a private phone conversation with someone of the opposite sex, would it? Emails and texts and online chats ... those all have the potential to be questionable.

Leah Sarah said...

The purpose of yichud is to avoid further transgressions like having sexual relations with someone you are not supposed to(ie your friend's husband). Is this really something that is able to happen via emailing someone else of the opposite sex who isn't your spouse? I guess you can say affairs can start this way, but I feel that is blaming something else for the affair rather than the two people involved in the first place. I dunno, I just don't see any correlation between yichud and internet.

I think there may be a connotation of inappropriateness for certain situations. I think maybe it's considered inappropriate to email your friend's husband without your husband or your friend knowing. But is it inappropriate to email your long time single friend from college who lives 2,000 miles away? How about skyping with your fiance? Where do you draw the line on what is "yichud" and not then? I don't think yichud is the issue, it's just certain types of dialog may be considered socially unacceptable.

Chaviva said...

@LeahSarah You said, "I think maybe it's considered inappropriate to email your friend's husband without your husband or your friend knowing. But is it inappropriate to email your long time single friend from college who lives 2,000 miles away?" And this is precisely what I'm talking about. I talk to my unmarried BFF Cesar frequently, who lives in California and has a live-in girlfriend, and my husband knows that I speak with him. I don't consider that inappropriate. But the first thing you mention is what concerns me and I think would need a "ruling" of sorts.

Chaviva said...

A comment from someone via Facebook on this topic:

Regarding Yichud - under the right circumstances I don't think it's a yichud problem. For example if 2 separately married people talk, and as long as it doesn't become inappropriate then it's fine. If it was behind their spouse's back then that's leading to impropriety. This would be a modern twist on hilchos yichud. Regarding the shul - well it's definitely not a minyan. You can learn this from the idea of only needing 6 people davening together in the same room, as long as you have 10 people collectively answering amen etc - even if they're not in the same room but can hear what's going on. Together with that idea, we know that certain mitzvos can't be fulfilled by hearing them artificially, such as over a phone or even a microphone - the sound has been distorted. I don't see how davening on the computer would be considered anything different, especially as part of the idea of davening with a minyan is that there are people who are answering amen and saying parts in unison.

Mottel said...

I don't believe these questions are really as far-fetched from an ancient perspective as you may think.

Speaking from the cuff (you'll forgive me - it's late and I don't have the time to crack open the books tonight):

1. Yichud: While the technical laws of yichud may not apply to texting IMing etc. the spirit of the law most definitely applies! I would venture, purely on the basis of speculation, that public conversations i.e. those conducted over Twitter, Blog comments et al could be comparable to public conversation with the opposite gender (which has other implications - but not yichud). Previous precedent can be drawn from the halachic rulings about speaking over the telephone - and in ancient times sending letters to each other.

2. Minyan: In this matter things are even more clear in black and white halacha. There is great discussion the gemara and in shulchan aruch on how a minyan can be formed when the parties are divided within different physical spaces - in antechamber or sideroom, in the same hall - but one so vastly large that its impossible to hear what's happening on the other side of the room, and standing outside and observing through a window etc.

It would seem pretty clearly that a minyan can not be formed if the people are in not all in the same (relative) physical proximity. See Shulchan Aruch Simon 55 for the details of forming a minyan.

The question of being able to join an already complete minyan and fulfill one's obligation of answering Amen etc. by watching via live telecast is perhaps somewhat more complex. I know that when the Rebbe would daven by the amud it was broadcast live to some of the Chabad Yeshivos (starting with Los Angeles back in the early 1980s). There was some discussion as to the ramifications of it.

I might add a general note:
The beauty of our system of Torah Sh'baal Peh and the different rules of psak is one that allows the Torah to accommodate all future cases that may arise.
Thus the Midrash Tanchuma says: Kol Mah sh'talmid vasik asid l'chadash kvar nemar l'moshe b'sinai - anything that diligent student is destined to come up with as a novel insite was already given to Moses on Sinai.
Obviously driving cars, flying in spaceships and yichud via Direct Message and @reply were not given as is to Moses. Rather - the elasticity of Torah sh'baal peh as a set of rules that can be adapted to any situation when derived from biblical source - gives the possibility for all of these answers to be connected to the long chain of halacha.

Hadassa said...

Shalom!
I would say that's it's not a question of yichud, rather a question of tzniut, modesty. Even when my husband is standing next to me I shouldn't talk to a man about certain subjects, right? You'll find a wide range of answers, all technically within halacha, on any question of modesty.
Mottel saved me the trouble of relating what I know about the minyan question, with which scholars have been dealing since the invention of the telephone.
(I'm Hadassa from Batya's blog.)

Hadassa said...

Shalom!
MokumAlef, if the ingredients are kosher and the production equipment is kosher, then the product is kosher. Today you can buy fake shrimp, fake meat, fake cheese, fake almost anything you want.

Elle said...

very good topic! I am wondering this very thing myself... actually it was what was on my mind when I popped over hear and saw it was on yours as well. oddly enough.

I can't pretend to know the ins and outs of all rulings. I don't. But I can known the human heart. The human heart can quickly make attachments where they don't belong. One must be HYPER diligent about this when talking to members of the opposite sex. I think this is doubly important for women as we do, as a rule, tend to attach ourselves sentimentally quite easily, and often with the best of intentions.
When I write to a member of the opposite sex I try to visualize my husband sitting beside me while I type. would he approve? would I be embarrassed or concerned about what I was saying? etc. Another thing is that I envision their wife sitting next to them and reading it with them. How would they feel? think? etc

Of course none of this is a perfect measurement. and there a great many people who say "so long as it's not a clear ruling, then there is no harm". Those, in my opinion, are usually that find themselves unnecessarily in harms way frequently.

so texting may not end up n a sexual affair. But is CAN pull you away from your husband/wide and pull you closer to another individual. And the Utmost respect should be given to our spouses when considering the relationships we form with people outside our marriage.

So with that, I think it should be handled very cautiously, based on the laws of human relationships if nothing else.

sheldan said...

My feeling is that anything can be taken to an extreme. From what I have read here, I would probably say that generally there is no yichud problem with people e-mailing/IMing/chatting, but it has the potential to be problematic. Better if one's spouse knew about the conversation. Anything can be abused and therefore I understand why some people will be more conservative about this than I would be.

I am not really sure about the "virtual" minyan. A shul that conducts programs online may be better for classes than prayer. It's doubtful that all Orthodox would agree on the propriety, but even as is it would be strange having a minyan without being with nine others in the same room.

Sara said...

I think that with yichud, like you said, if wife knows it's okay, if not it's not okay. That said, I think avoiding it altogether is ideal. At the end of the day it's a risk.

Davening: I know that you cannot hear the Shofar online for it to count, it has to be heard in person. Same thing for the megillah. For this reason I would say that davening in a minyan has to be done in person, because the point is that you are saying it together, and the amen's and all that stuff that comes along with it...okay, I'm rambling now, my apologies.

I'm sorry if I am repeating anything from prevous comments -- I haven't read them but I will later on!

Laura said...

I am very uncomfortable with the online minyan idea—just because the possibility is there doesn't mean it's a good idea to use it.

MokumAlef said...

Why would it not be a good idea, Laura? I could think of very specific circumstances under which it would be desirable and it could (possibly)work. I am suggesting this from a practical point of view. Ultimately halachah will be the determinator of whether or not it could be applied. So, here's the idea. How about people who - because they are somewhere in the boondocks, e.g. for work - have need for a minyan. Of course this applies only for weekday minyanim. And of course you can davven alone. But it would be quite nice perhaps to have access to a virtual minyan. This could be set up in such a way that all 10 participants can follow each other simultaneously. Split windows and the sound turned up. Something like that. Just an idea. And, looking at it differently, just because it is possible, it could actually be a good thing. But under specific conditions and if halachically ok.

Anonymous said...

See the answer given in forum kipa to the question of Yichud and the Internet - I don't necessarily agree with the answer but want to point out that in recent years rabbis have been asked such questions...

PunkTorah said...

Hi everyone! Just thought I'd contribute my two cents. I am the Spiritual/Creative Director for PunkTorah and OneShul, as well as the interning rabbi for the organization. I have written an article for Zeek magazine specifically addressing the halachic issues regarding online minyanim, if you are interested:
http://zeek.forward.com/articles/117182/
We have had much luck and success in creating a truly intertwined community online that cares for and learns with each other. There have been scores of people who have told us directly that creating a sacred space online works for them, and they love it. having said that, it certainly doesn't work for everybody, and we don't really expect it to! We are there for those who are comfortable with it and who can benefit from being engaged with a true community, even if it is online. If it is something that you would like to do, great! We welcome everyone who is interested. If not, there are nearly limitless opportunities for you to be engaged in a form more comfortable to you. Either way, more power to you!

EYR said...

Regarding the Yichud issue, there is no doubt in my mind that this is not Yichud, nor should it be. However, that does not mean that it is correct or legitimate behavior to have such conversations behind your spouses back - indeed, I believe these are very dangerous and inappropriate.

Let me explain.

This is, 100%, not a Yichud issue. First, from a simple Halachik argument, texting etc. do not meet the definition of Yichud, which is spending time in the same room with someone. Moreover, the dangers that Yichud was designed to avoid were specifically that a man and woman who are not married would partake in forbidden PHYSICAL activity. Even though two people who live close by could become close over the Internet, if they would adhere to the current, traditional Yichud laws they would still not be able to commit the sin of adultery. And so, I see no reason why anyone might need to change the rules of Yichud.

Now, on the other hand, this does not mean that such behavior is acceptable or should be tolerated in a relationship. Personally I believe that indeed the Internet has created some very problematic options for people, such as the one discussed here. Indeed, I would say that one must not have such online relationships without sharing this with his/her spouse, but based on a different Mitzvah - "Love your friend as you love yourself", which R' Akiva translated into "do not do unto others that which you would not want others to do to you". Just like I don't want my wife to keep such relations hidden from me, I must act the same towards her. Note also that this is positive commandment, on how one must act with decency, and not a prohibition.

I think, also, that there is something more that must be said here: Not everything has to be translated into Halacha. The Torah is filled not only with specific actions one must do, but also with general guidelines, like "VeAsita Hayashar VeHatov", which indicate that we are also expected to use common sense and morality in addressing real-life situations. I believe that there are enough strict guidelines in the Torah to keep me from doing something really bad (e.g. Yichud), but that I am also expected to learn from these rules the underlying morals that are their basis and apply them everywhere in life. So, in this case, I can LEARN from Yichud that hidden online relationships are a problem, but there is not need (nor any real basis) to codify this understanding in Halachik terms.

Chaviva said...

So many good clarifying responses ... definitely thanks to @EYR for bringing in some clarity and common sense, which sometimes gets lost in the journey to figure things out.

@PunkTorah Thank you for popping in on the convo!

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