Curiously enough, if you look at the biggest change in both communication and skeptical dissent in religious communities, you'll find two web sites with overwhelmingly huge traffic numbers: Vos Iz Neias and Yeshiva World News. These sites have created a sort of self-policing news filter, reprinting mainstream news stories (from sources as varied as FOX News and PETA), sometimes with names filtered out to prevent gossip or immodest photos deleted, with which ultra-Orthodox people can reliably access "safe" internet content. Of course, the actual news stories reprinted pales next to the comments sections of these sites, which routinely run up to 500 or 1000 entries per story, in which people trade information, debate rulings of Jewish law, and call out mainstream Orthodox authorities (and each other) on inconsistencies or simply gossip about the best new kosher restaurants in a certain area. Is the internet becoming the new rabbinical authority among ultra-Orthodox Jews? Of course not. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't know tons of people who have Googled their own halachic questions (and I've used the same methodology once or twice myself).

From this group, smaller communities have begun to form, along the lines of personal blogs such as Frum Satire and "official sites" of rabbis such as Yacov Horowitz. So far, these internal communities have formed less along religious lines, and more along lines of what sorts of dialogue we're interested in. But even these sites are starting to self-impose structure, creating forums where like-minded individuals can compare notes and offer tips, and creating other forums or rooms where those who want to fight or debate, can.

Meanwhile, individual communities are creating their own resources -- such as Chicago's Anshe Shalom publishing and regularly updating a .pdf list of acceptable kosher standards -- in order to wade through the muck of too much information.

Lately, the biggest internet advances haven't been about discovering new information so much as organizing the information that's already there. Facebook's mass attraction is not the plethora of information so much as it is the republishing and organization of already-there information in easily classifiable ways (Tweets from friends in San Francisco, photos from any comics convention I've ever attended). In terms of observance -- both in spreading information and ideas that are already around, as well as in ways of dealing with future challenges that we haven't even come in contact with yet -- information organization will play a more significant role. Imagine being able to scan any packaged food item and tell instantly whether your rabbi/kosher organization/high-school best friend would eat it. But imagine the possibilities on top of that -- that you could not only tell what foods are safe to buy, but be able to figure out where a ruling came from, read the original text, find out exactly why different rulings exist and even share your opinion instantly -- and you're one step closer to having a religion that's of the people, by the people.

 

Matthue Roth is an associate editor at MyJewishLearning.com, and the author of the novel Losers and the memoir Yom Kippur a Go-Go. With Sarah Lefton, he is the co-creator of the animated Torah series at G-dcast.com. He lives in Brooklyn with his family, and he keeps a secret diary at www.matthue.com.