Judaism.StackExchange.com and Embracing Online Torah Communities
The events that take place on February 29th of any given year are more difficult to wipe from one’s memory than the happenings of some other ordinary day. But it was more than a remarkable calendar date that made February 29th’s lunchtime meeting showcasing Judaism.StackExchange.com as memorable and enlightening as it turned out. A delicious lunch from Golan Heights never hurts either. Co-sponsored by SOY, the illustrious YU Computer Science Club and StackExchange.com, the event was organized to raise awareness about the idea-sharing website and pique YU students’ interest in getting involved with the site.
Judaism.StackExchange is a sub-site of the larger StackExchange.com, a website and network dedicated to bringing experts, hobbyists and the curious web-surfers together in open dialogue on a variety of topics. Each subject area has its own separate site where it hosts a community of users who come together to pose questions, share innovative solutions and ponder contemporary issues relating to their topic. StackExchange currently has well over half a million users on its eighty five “Q&A” sites with topics ranging from poker to Japanese language and culture to Android enthusiasts. Think of StackExchange as the place where the vast and expert information of Wikipedia meets Facebook’s regular human interaction. Like in Wikipedia, StackExchange allows anyone to contribute content, but they also have a feature which encourages users to vote on the questions and answers posted, allowing people identify the top users and most popular content. The voting system also encourages people to give accurate and interesting answers, since it gives them points. That’s right; users get points when other people vote on the content they contribute. While this kind of point system seems to echo the mitzvah notes we used to get in kindergarten, it certainly encourages users to contribute accurate information while motivating them to build credentials within the community.
The Judaism.StackExchange sub-site targets itself to “those who base their lives on Jewish law and tradition and anyone interested in learning more” and features questions on topics of hashkafa, halacha, Jewish history, lamdus, parsha, and divrei Torah galore. A cursory glance at some of the questions asked and the ensuing dialogue hints at just how rich and useful the content of such a website can prove to be. Look around for long enough and you’ll gain a sense of how powerful this kind of tool can be for a committed Jew living in the digital age, and how important it is to embrace the depth and breadth it can offer to both our learning and practice. On Judaism.StackExchange, educated baal habatim, yeshiva bachurim, aspiring ba’alei teshuva and even rabbanim come together in serious Torah discussions that model the rigorous thoughts and multi-level interactions that accompany what we are familiar with doing in the bet midrash. Some threads end up as a shakla v’tarya, while others more closely emulate shaaylot uteshuvot. A few will make you laugh or sigh in despair. Sure, you can find most of this content scattered throughout the internet on largely outdated blogs, abandoned listserv forums or d’var Torah wesbites, but there are few other conduits for the kind of virtual bet midrash Judaism.StackExchange offers to its users.
We all hear and have hopefully understood the warnings of how a ben torah must act when it comes to the internet. And as enabled YU talmidim and students, I’d venture to guess we have largely learned how to avoid the major pitfalls of the internet and how to embrace the harbatzas torah technology has to offer. As such, we have listened to countless YUTorah shiurim and integrated that rarely used Tehillim App to our handheld devices. We can look up the z’manim in a moment’s notice, and can put together mareh mekomos for an entire shiur in under an hour. Despite all this, I’m not sure if we have fully embraced the interconnectivity and interaction the internet can provide the Torah observant community. And I’m not talking about Lakewood hock travelling at light speed via VosIzNeias.com or TheYeshivaWorld.com. Orthodox Jews have mastered that kind of information exchange on the internet. We have not, however, embraced the use of internet to help Jews from all walks of life connect in sharing Torah ideas, quickly get answers to important questions and benefit from the multitude of perspectives others have to offer on any given conundrum. You can find published divrei Torah online, but little Torah related content that is more casual. If the world has become so heavily reliant on social media type platforms for the exchange of mundane information, and we are all using the internet anyway (even if just “for email” or “only for school”), isn’t it time we begin participating in healthy online communities of Torah? We have so much to gain from using websites like Judaism.StackExchange.com. I’m not suggesting we stop asking rebbeim our questions or avoid classical bet midrash learning. But I think we have a lot to gain from the question and answer style Torah learning that Judaism.StackExchange.com offers, and probably have much to give back to the community.