The Digital Shtetl

digitalshtetl

Internet forums for ultra-Orthodox women are not creating the rebellion expected by many rabbinic leaders.

by Marley Weiner

 

When it comes to the Internet, ultra-Orthodox authorities’ responses have been ambivalent at best. Some communities, such as Aish and the Chabad movement, use the Internet to draw non-practicing or liberal Jews into the fold. Others have banned the Internet for personal use, fearing its secular influences on the community. It is difficult to keep something as ubiquitous and life-changing as the Internet completely away from committed Jews. However, the Internet has not caused a mass defection from ultra-Orthodoxy’s ranks; rather, it has become a safety valve through which ultra-Orthodox men and women can give voice to their challenges without fear of reprisal.

Many online communities have sprung up in recent years in which ultra-Orthodox Jews engage in freewheeling discussions of extremely personal topics. In many of these discussions, halakhah (Jewish religious law) is debated freely in a space that is far more egalitarian than the study halls of the most prominent yeshivas. Especially fascinating are sites devoted to the concerns of ultra-Orthodox women. These blogs and message boards, written mostly by and for young ultra-Orthodox women who are either about to be married or recently married, contain frank discussions of sex, familial relationships, and struggles with the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. Behind the anonymity of a username, these women seek advice on topics that are usually not addressed in official ultra-Orthodox sex education. As an example, the forums at wedding planning site Calm Kallahs (http://www.calmkallahs.com/BeCalm.php) include such topics as “goodness… porn is not that bad,” “body confidence?” “birth control,” and “mikveh on Pesach.” These forums are a chance for women to open up about the unexpected challenges of married life, and they support one another with frank and explicitly honest answers.

“This blog is aimed at girls, like myself who may be considered “bummy”… We have numerous nisoynos [challenges] constantly and we are just trying to deal with them as best we can.” (Semgirl)

The interesting thing about these communities is that, while some of them offer differing interpretations of halakhic practice or encourage questioning certain community mores, they do not advocate for a break from the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. Instead, they serve as a safety valve for less modest conversations and ultimately support those who visit the blogs and message boards in continuing to live as ultra-Orthodox Jews.

When asking for advice, participants on numerous forums want to know if certain behavior is “kosher” or not. For example, one poster on the Calm Kallahs forum, upon learning a halakhic justification for engaging in oral sex, wrote, “Thank you every one for there [sic] answer and it makes now even more exited [sic] to and have some fun with DH [Dear Husband] now knowing that we are having true fun.” Sometimes it is not enough for these women who post to know that their desires are “normal”; they also want to make sure that they are valid according to halakhah. There seems to be a distinction on the blogs between questions about “normalcy” (Is it normal for men to watch pornography? Is it normal for me to feel depressed and hostile after two weeks of being niddah?) and questions about “permissibility” (When can I ask for birth control? Is it acceptable to have anal or oral sex?). It seems as though permissibility questions still demand, at least on the part of the person asking, a halakhic framework.

Conversely, when people ask for advice—especially for halakhically thorny topics like birth control or infertility—others may defer from answering their questions, telling them instead to ask their local rabbi. Since many of the issues covered on these forums are extremely delicate, sometimes they are seen as beyond the power of the community to answer. Despite the fears of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, permission from the proper rabbinic authority with the proper halakhic training is still considered extremely important, especially when making decisions about aspects of one’s life that are emotionally fraught.

…the views expressed on this site are those of the contributors alone, and do not reflect the opinions or practices of any person… other than the original author.
—Mayim Rabim forums, About section (http://home.mayimrabim.com:443/)

In these communities, critique is a vital part of the discussion, but only up to a point. Beyond that point (and every forum has its own breaking point) there is a policy of shutting down the debate. While people are free to engage in criticism of the way in which law is carried out, or transmitted, or of supposedly hypocritical societal standards, the path of halakhah is assumed as inherently valuable. Those who go so far as to ask whether or not halakhah, and the rabbis who transmit it, are inherently flawed, are immediately shut down.

Ha-historian on the Semgirl blog (http://semgirl.blogspot.com), September 2005: “I have no respect for a man [he is speaking of a prominent Orthodox Rabbi] who sold out 10,000 jews of gush katif just for bribes from that fat pig sharon for his yeshivas. p.s. I live in Lakewood.”
Semgirl: “Could you please refrain from talking against Gedolim on my blog during Elul.”

Much as ultra-Orthodox rabbis have feared, the Internet has opened up vast, unsupervised spaces for learning and debate. However, there is much to suggest that while the Internet fuels discussions, and even criticisms, of how halakhah plays out in the lives of ordinary women, the fears of the rabbis that the Internet will create space for sinning is largely unfounded. Rather, these debates serve more as a release and a chance for women to reaffirm their essential commitment to a halakhic lifestyle. These blogs have not become a rallying cry for rebellion.

About the Author

marleyMarley Weiner
Marley Weiner is a program associate at the Jewish Outreach Institute and works to make the Jewish community a happier, healthier place for intermarried families. In her free time, she is on the board of a local independent minyan. She also enjoys cooking, scolding her cat, and dancing crazy.

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