Traditionally, when we think about asking a shayla in Halakha, we picture either walking to the Rabbi’s door or picking up the phone. We might try catching the Rabbi between Mincha and Ma’ariv or sending a family member to ask a question in our name. All these scenarios involve one-on-one interaction with a Halakhic authority who is familiar to us and whom we trust to analyze and judge our situation objectively – someone who has perception and understands the circumstances. This personal communication results in a thorough appreciation of what is being asked and why, giving Halakha its vital and closely knit connection to real life.
This modus operandi has been true for people who define themselves by membership of a community that they are linked to both ideologically and geographically. Today, however, communities are diffuse: people daven in different shuls every Shabbat or arrange independent minyanim that do not have rabbinic leadership; students travel overseas to learn in various Batei Midrash or colleges; and single women and men live apart from their home community and often create virtual communities online.
In order to keep up with today’s reality, we are called on to rethink the definition and means of Halakhic guidance. We have to consider the new methods of communication that people choose for placing their Halakhic questions. Emails, WhatsApps, SMS and Facebook have to a significant degree taken the place of face to face encounters. In virtual communities, people ask each other questions or research material online themselves rather than turning to a Halakhic authority in person.
Furthermore, since the flourishing of women’s Batei Midrash in recent generations, new types of questions have found their way into the Halakhic discourse. Their nature is, at times, specifically feminine. One example that comes to mind is that many young women studying Torah in depth deal with the extent to which they wish to add mitzvot they are not obligated to keep. Which ones can they take on themselves? How does that affect their commitment to perform the mitzvot once they have a family? Women scholars can truly and sincerely address questions of this type out of their own experience; more often than not, they are asked to do so online.
Having said that, it is important to stress that questions online cannot take the place of personal communication with an Halakhic authority. Halakhic guidance encompasses so much more than the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, and the realms of ‘permissible’ or ‘forbidden’ stretch further than the person asking can see. Some questions have to do with particular Minhagim and norms of a given community, while other questions necessitate personal acquaintance with the questioner.
Nonetheless, a great responsibility lies in creatin
g a Halakhic resource online that deals with relevant issues that are a result of the social dynamic mentioned above. This requires Halakhic Responders who are fully committed to our Mesorah and have the depth of knowledge, sensitivity, and insight to address the challenges and opportunities these changes bring.