I. Technology and Halakhah
The influence of technology on halakhah offers a fascinating study of flexibility within a framework of conservation. Experts apply an eternal law to new situations, using analogies and abstract principles to fit previously unimagined objects and situations into an ancient framework. Contrary to what some have called a “paralysis” in halakhah, there is a vibrant halakhic literature on new technologies and innovations (see R. Howard Jachter’s letter in Tradition 37:1 – link). But technology can influence halakhah in another way — by changing sociological patterns.
An interesting example came to my attention recently, while paying a shiva call for my friend and mentor, R. Dr. Aaron Levine. R. Levine was a giant of Torah knowledge, particularly well versed in financial halakhah, the complex maze of torts and acquisitions known as Nezikin and codified in Choshen Mishpat. His expertise in academic Economics — he was the longtime chairman of Yeshiva University’s Economics department — was not a separate area of his interest but part and parcel of his Choshen Mishpat activities. He was a paragon of Torah U-Madda synthesis, in which all areas of knowledge unite as varying aspects of a single truth.
II. When Is Yom Ha-Atzma’ut?
R. Levine was also a Religious Zionist and the synagogue over which he presided thanked God annually for returning Jewish sovereignty to Israel by reciting Hallel on Yom Ha-Atzma’ut. While the holiday was initially established in 1949 on the fifth of Iyar, its date was slightly modified in subsequent years. In 1950, when the date fell on Shabbos, the holiday was moved forward to Sunday in order to avoid desecration of Shabbos in the festivities. Later experiences led to more details of changes in the date, with the latest going into effect in 2004 moving the date from Monday to Tuesday, as happens this year (see the details here: link).
In America, where the celebrations can be more easily controlled to avoid the desecration of Shabbos, many authorities did not recognize the change of date, among them R. Ahron Soloveichik and R. Hershel Schachter. They insisted that people recite Hallel on the fifth of Iyar — the day of the miracle of the declaration of the State of Israel — regardless of when Israelis celebrate the day. R. Aaron Levine’s son, R. Efraim Levine, told me that his father had to change his position on this question over time.
Initially, R. Levine followed R. Soloveichik’s ruling on this subject and instructed his congregants to always recite Hallel on the fifth of Iyar. However, the internet forced him to change his position. If I understand correctly from our brief conversation, R. Levine’s reasoning was that, in the past, Yom Ha-Atzma’ut celebrations were local, taking place in synagogues and schools with perhaps some articles in the Jewish newspaper. It was easy for a community to determine its own date to celebrate.
III. The Global Village
Today, however, advances in communications have turned celebrating a holiday into a global event. We not only receive e-mails and newsletters from around the world, announcing when and how others will celebrate the day. We see and hear live feeds from other communities. We join their festivities! We no longer celebrate locally and, therefore, a synagogue cannot determine its own date for the holiday but must observe the international date. Therefore, in recent years R. Levine had his synagogue follow the official Israeli date for Yom Ha-Atzma’ut.
This new form of interaction that technology has engendered yields a changed sociological reality for which halakhah must account. It is not the technology itself that demands halakhic consideration but the way we use it, the way our communities are structured and people interact. I am generally suspicious of exaggerated claims of change due to technology. However, I suspect that other cases of changing halakhic applications due to new sociological realities will slowly emerge with these new technologies.