Ovadiah and the Asifa, Using the Internet to Perfect an Imperfect World

As a Tanach teacher, one of my favorite people has always been Ovadiah. You might remember Ovadiah as the author of one of the books of the Trei Asar. However, Ovadiah first appears in the story of Elijah in the Book of Kings I Chapter 18 where he represents the counter-balance to Elijah's zealousness. Let me explain.

Both Elijah and Ovadiah are faced with the same dilemma. The evil King Ahab and his even wickeder wife Queen Jezebel have spread the cult of Baal to Israel where every hilltop now has an idol and the prophets of G-d are being hunted down and murdered by Jezebel's henchman. How does one deal with a society that has descended into such a state? Elijah, the righteous zealot, takes one extreme. He curses the land with no rain and then at the behest of God goes into hiding. Meanwhile, the righteous Ovadiah who VERY much feared G-d takes a different tactic. He becomes Achab's chief of staff using his position of power to successfully hide and feed 100 prophets of God from the clutches of Jezebel. Eventually the two meet when Elijah returns to arrange a grand "Asifa" on Har Carmel. Although Ovadiah clearly reveres his master Elijah, one senses a fear on his part that Elijah will once again disappear and Ovadiah will be once again have to keep things going while he is gone.

Eventually, Elijah is forced to flee to the desert after his great Asifa against the prophets of Baal, an apparent astounding success, does nothing to change the fundamental reality of the situation. After Elijah receives a heavenly vision at Har Horeb, he still refuses to budge from his zealous position that the children of Israel have forsaken the covenant of God. At this point, Elijah is told by God to prepare for his retirement as he has yet to learn that prophets of God should not speak with fire and brimstone but should lead the people with a soft voice and cords of love. (For a more extensive elaboration on this approach see the Malbim on Kings I Chapter 19 Verse 11 and the book Yonah ben Amitai ve-Eliyahu: le-hora'at sefer Yonah al pi ha-mekorot by Rav Yehoshua Bachrach.)

Our rabbis teach us that Elijah's zealous approach can only work in a perfect world and it is for this reason that he will be the harbinger of the redemption when the world will be perfected. In this imperfect world, we need to follow the example of Ovadiah and seek to engage the forces of evil and darkness and attempt to bring out the light. In one noted irony in the story, while Elijah is hiding, he is fed meat and bread by ravens. Our rabbis teach us that the meat came from Achab's slaughtering house which was under the kashrut supervision of Ovadiah. In this way, even Elijah benefited from Ovadiah's engagement with the imperfect world.

When contemplating the recent Asifa against the Internet in Citi Field sponsored by some elements of the Hareidi world, I cannot help but think back to this fundamental argument between Elijah and Ovadiah. How does one deal with the darkness in some areas of the Internet? Does one spout curses and hide behind fences or does one seek to engage in this world and bring light to it? The element of the Hareidi world represented by this Asifa seeks to hide behind bans and whitelist filters (used only for business of course). Since there are many bad neighborhoods in the Internet they assert that the only viable approach is to disengage from it. My approach, greatly influenced by my Centrist Orthodox philosophy, is that the Internet is a tremendous tool which can be used for bad, I admit, but also for great good. (For two well balanced defenses of the Modern/Centrist Orthodox position on the Internet, see recent blog posts by Aaron Ross and  Doni Joszef.)

As I tweeted during the Asifa, I believe that the only way to combat the darkness in some areas of Internet is to use it to spread the light of Torah. Many great Centrist Orthodox Yeshivot are accomplishing this by using the power of the Internet to spread high level Torah on websites like YUTorah, the Gush Virtual Beit Midrash, and WebYeshiva. I personally benefit from this as I "attend" a shiur from Rav Herschel Schachter during my morning and afternoon commutes thanks to podcasts that I subscribe to which automatically download from YUTorah. I seek to follow this approach with my high school students by posting my own Flipped Classroom Nach videos on my YouTube channel and many of my colleagues in Jewish educational technology do the same.

I do not see a similar level of engagement with the Internet from the great Haredi Yeshivot of higher learning like Lakewood, Ner Yisroel, The Mir, or Ponevitch. Honestly, I think it is a shame. The world would greatly benefit from the broadcasting of high quality Torah from these and similar Yeshivot. I would benefit. The Torah world embraced the printing press, the last great innovation in the spread of information, and as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asserts, Judaism began the revolution in information technology with the invention of the first alphabet in ancient Israel. It is my hope that the Hareidi world will soon engage with the Internet, the next great leap in the information age and realize its tremendous potential for spreading the light of Torah to the world. Then perhaps Elijah will be ready to return to this perfected world.