Thursday, August 13, 2009

Why I Blog...

I recently received the following email:
Dear Rabbi Reuven Spolter,
I've stumbled upon your blog "Chopping Wood" and I would like to interest you in joining the Jerusalem Post’s Submission Contest powered by BloggersBase. com
I thought your posts could fit perfectly in this contest, which is powered and driven by users like you.
Top-rated entries will be published in The Jerusalem Post online and print editions, increasing your overall exposure.
My initial reaction was, "sure, why not?" But then ambivalence began to set in. Do I really care about "increasing overall exposure"? (Honest answer: yes.) But if so, then it's really all about me, isn't it? All of this blog-soul searching led me to the ultimate question: why am I doing this? Bottom line, why do I blog?

I know why I started blogging. Writing weekly Divrei Torah for the YIOP announcement sheet (I strongly felt that every shul publication should have some Torah value), I would email the piece to Julie in the office every week. I quickly realized that I could just as easily post the piece to a blog for her to copy the piece, and it would also be available - out there - for anyone else to find.
Truth be told, I've always been a proponent of internet-based Torah. I've had a website for a bunch of years where I upload different shiurim and source sheet in both audio and pdf formats. I enjoyed creating the web pages, and got a great deal of nachas out of the fact that I could look back after a period of time and know that I had given shiurim to literally thousands of people (or at least thousands of shiurim) without having lifted a finger. So blogging my divrei Torah was simply an extension of the website.
Initially, I used the blog solely to publish shul materials: Table Talks and articles for the YIOP Monthly Bulletin. Every so often I would use the blog to express myself on an important community issue. (this post was quite effective.) But as my tenure with the shul ended and I left the pulpit, I lost a critical avenue of personal expression. I loved speaking in shul. I worked very hard at it, almost always writing out my drashot in long form (but never, ever reading them from the pulpit). In my drashot, I always tried to say something. While the Torah component played a critical role, I wanted my drashot to be more than just a d'var Torah. I wanted the members of shul to walk away with an idea, a message - something that they could take home and consider and discuss. To a large degree, I feel that I was successful, and took pride in my drashot in shul. (I won't kid myself - there's a big element of ego, in having the ability to stand before hundreds of people each week and say whatever you want.)
And then we left Oak Park, and that avenue was gone. I missed the ability to express myself and connect issues and events happening in the world to the timeless ideas of the Torah. Actually, that's not totally true. I missed expressing myself and knowing that someone else cared what I thought. I not only wanted to speak. I wanted people to listen.
I guess I still do. A little more than a year into our aliyah, I look back at the adjustments that we've made and the changes we've undergone in our lives. It was a great decision to move to Israel, without a doubt. But I won't deny that there are aspects of my old life that I miss - and public speaking is certainly one of them. So I blog to have a voice; to say something in the hopes of adding to the conversation, giving people food for thought, and teaching Torah as well.
But blogging for me isn't only about looking back. It's also about moving forward. Exposure is important, especially if I want to continue to teach and speak and hopefully publish. Even with a small following, I will sometimes get feedback that tells me that a post hit the mark and really did make a difference. And the bottom line is, blogging to me is a form of teaching that allows me to continue to teach about Torah and Jewish values even from Israel.
But there's a small snag. If the goal really is to "increase exposure", that can easily lead a writer to focus not on what's important, but what's popular. I could begin to write pieces that I think people want to read, but not what I want to (or should) write about. I am not a foreign policy expert. I don't know more than you about the Israeli-Palestinian debate. And there are already too many blogs and articles on these types of issues.
Still, as a former pulpit rabbi, I know a little Torah which
I enjoy teaching. I have good sense of the issues that challenge the Orthodox community. I write about issues relating to Jewish education about which I know. And I also feel that there's a huge amount of information that appears in the Israeli religious press (specifically the weekly Shabbat sheets and the major weekly newspapers) that doesn't show up in translation, and that an English-only reader would never know about. I try to share that information as well.
So, I think I'm going to enter the "contest." But if you notice that my posts begin to get more and more salacious; if I start writing about Madonna and her "conversion" or if you see a post about "American Idol", call me on it.
Because then I'll be writing for the hits and the exposure, and not to promote the values of Torah so critical in the seemingly crazy times in which we live.