Ancient Advice for Social Media

Image: The words of Elohai N’tzur on page 180 of Mishkan Tefilah, the Reform Siddur, CCAR Press, 2007. Photo by Ruth Adar.

This past Shabbat, I noticed an ancient prayer that has a very current application: it’s a great prayer for improving my social media use. The original prayer has been used for centuries, and is based on Psalm 34:14:

Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile.

The prayer is best known as Elohai n’tzor [“My God, guard”] and here is the text, with my comments for contemporary social media use. The translation is from Mishkan Tefilah, p 180, with line breaks altered to facilitate my comments in italics:

My God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception.

I take responsibility for my own words and behavior. I will speak the truth and conduct myself mindfully.

Before those who slander me, I will hold my tongue;

I will avoid taking the bait offered by trolls and bots. 

I will practice humility.

I will remember that my word is not the last word on any subject, and my sources of information are frequently imperfect. When I have erred in facts or behavior, I will admit it.

Open my heart to your Torah, that I may pursue Your mitzvot.

I will follow the commandments of Torah in my speech, valuing truth over falsehood, and kindness over cleverness. I will keep in mind “lo bushah” [do not embarrass] and I will  avoid rechilut [gossip,]  lashon harah [unnecessary derogatory speech about another,] as well as nivul peh [coarse language.]

As for all who think evil of me, cancel their designs and frustrate their schemes.

I will not engage in flame wars with people whose minds I will never change. My rage rewards a troll; blocking trolls prevents them from getting satisfaction from my reaction.

Act for Your own sake, for the sake of Your Power,

I will own my words and take responsibility for them, because words have power.

for the sake of Your Holiness, for the sake of Your Torah;

I will remember that I am b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of God, and will behave with dignity.

So your loved ones may be rescued, save with Your power. 

I will maintain my focus and use the power of social media to do good in the world.

And answer me.

I will acknowledge others as I wish to be acknowledged myself.

May the words of my mouth

May the words that I type or say

and the meditations of my heart

And the intent behind those words

be acceptable to You, Eternal, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Meet the standards of derech eretz, decent behavior, as befits a person of Torah.

May the One who makes peace in the high heavens make peace for us, for all Israel, and all who inhabit the earth. Amen.

May we find true communication, a meeting of minds and hearts, that will serve all the people of the earth. Amen.

 

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Comebacks for Converts

Image: Two faces with speech balloons. (Artwork by nchlsft/shutterstock.)

Last week I posted an entry that seemed to hit a nerve: Talking About Converts.  I thought it might be good to follow up with a post about ways to deal with nosy questions, etc. What follows is a question or comment (in italics) and some possible responses.

“Are you a convert?”

  • Yes. So were Abraham, Sarah and King David’s great-grandmother.
  • Did you know that halakhah forbids that question?
  • Why do you ask?

“Did you convert to get married?”

  • Did you?
  • Why do you ask?

“So, Plonit* tells me that you are a convert!”

  • Surely you and Plonit* are not gossiping about me!
  • Why is this your concern?

“You do realize that you’ll never really be Jewish, right?”

  • Why don’t you ask the rabbi about that?
  • Why would you say such a hurtful thing to me?
  • Well, then I guess Abraham and Sarah weren’t really Jewish, either.
  • Why does my conversion bother you so much? Maybe you should talk to the rabbi.
  • I didn’t realize you are an expert on halakhah.

“I love hearing conversion stories! Tell me yours!”

  • No.
  • That’s private.
  • I’m too busy being Jewish to think about ancient history!

“I think Plony is a convert. What do you think?”

  • I think it isn’t my business.
  • I’d rather talk about something else.
  • Plony is Jewish. That’s good enough for me.
  • Why are you asking me?

When all else fails, sports can come to the rescue. Just change the subject as if the subject had never come up:

  • How about those [insert sports team name here]?

Personally, my favorite replies are “Why do you ask?” or the ever-popular “Oh?” with a puzzled look. Just put the ball in their court.

If you aren’t sure what might be comfortable for you, try different answers out, either with a mirror or better yet with a friend.

I hope that readers will chime in with their own ways of responding to intrusive or hurtful questions and comments. What do you do when someone says something inappropriate?

*Plony and Plonit are the Jewish equivalents of John and Jane Doe.

Updated on 7/23/17 to add a bit more of the benefit of the doubt to questioners.

The Industry of Evil Speech

Image: Assorted tabloid headlines

Jennifer Aniston is fed up. She is not pregnant, and she’s tired of telling people that she isn’t pregnant. This week the Huffington Post published her article, For the Record, in which she writes about what it is like to be fodder for the tabloids.

Gossip is a huge industry. It masquerades as “news” and in the U.S. the people who profit from it talk righteously about the First Amendment and the public’s “right to know.” It is enormously profitable: in 2011, industry revenues topped three billion dollars.

In Hebrew, the word for gossip is rechilut (reh-khee-LOOT) and it is one of the kinds of speech that are strictly forbidden in Jewish tradition.

You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people; neither shalt you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Holy One. – Leviticus 19:16.

We often cite the second half of that verse but it bears noticing that the two concepts (talebearing and blood) are mentioned together. Gossip has consequences, even when the reports are true, as Ms. Aniston illustrates in her article. Paparazzi make people’s lives miserable; they engage in unsafe practices like car chases and ambushes. They harass not only the celebrity but children and employees and bystanders. They do this because tabloids and magazines like People pay a huge premium for “gotcha” pictures which appear to tell a salacious story or which paint the celebrity in an unfavorable light.

Rechilut, gossip, is a serious matter for Jews. Maimonides explains that it is even worse to spread reports about someone if those reports may damage their reputation. This is what is known as the sin of lashon harah, “evil speech.”

Who is a gossiper? One who collects information and [then] goes from person to person, saying: “This is what so-and-so said;” “This is what I heard about so-and-so.” Even if the statements are true, they bring about the destruction of the world.

There is a much more serious sin than [gossip], which is also included in this prohibition: lashon harah, that is, relating deprecating facts about a colleague, even if they are true. – Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot

And this is in fact what the gossip mongers sell under the guise of “entertainment news.” The headlines are always the same: speculation about marital infidelity, weight gain, weight loss, pregnancy (and who’s the father?) and so on.

Some may argue that when someone goes into public life, they sign up for this treatment. But the fact is that other human beings do not exist for our entertainment. They do not owe us anything except the time and expertise for which we pay them. It is fine to watch Jennifer Aniston’s work as an actress on TV, but it is not acceptable to read gossipy speculation about her in People or the National Enquirer.

Because you see, we are the other half of the equation: this evil industry would not exist if we did not provide a market for it. When we click on a gossipy item, we provide a market. When we buy the Inquirer or People or Us, we provide a market. When we watch TMZ or similar shows, we provide a market.

When I see a tempting item on the screen or the cover of a magazine, I remind myself, “Is it really my business?” The answer is usually “no.”

Let’s step off the lashon harah assembly line. Life is too precious to waste it on trash.

 

“Miracles” in the News

Image: B&W image of words relating to social media and the news. (geralt/pixabay)

My atheist friends give me a lot to ponder.  One wrote passionately on facebook:

Media: Stop using the word miracle. It has a whole host of implications, and some of the ones from the last 24 hours of the news cycle are horrifying, and deeply offensive. Don’t use it. Just don’t.

I knew immediately what he meant: there was a story in the news about three young women who were kidnapped ten years ago and finally managed to escape their captors.  I agree, using “miracle” in this context is a minefield.  We’re talking about three young women who appear to have suffered imprisonment and abuse for a decade – he’s right, the word “miracle” is just gross.

That thought led me to another: is the obsessive reportage of stories like this a problem when we look at it at through the lens of Torah?

The story is all over the news at the time, and because it is upsetting, people want to talk about it. The fact that it is upsetting and sensational is the reason it’s all over the news, too – Big News is in the business of selling advertising time, after all: sensational stories are much more mezmerizing than Afghanistan or an economic matter. It will sell more soap flakes, and more diet aids, and after all, that is the bottom line.

Torah demands of us that we ask questions: instead of nattering about miracles or obsessing over salacious details, let’s stop and think, what speech is necessary? And is there any way we can learn something or be helpful?

OK, it was necessary to report the story; we do need to know what the cops do, and what goes on in our community. I’m less clear that I need to know about something like this in Cleveland when I live in California, but OK, I’ll go that far. But do I need breathless prose about miracles and gory details from well-coiffed anchors? I don’t think so. Do those poor women need microphones poked in their faces? Do their families? No and no.

Jewish tradition forbids talking about other people unless it is necessary. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wrote a wonderful book on the subject, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal. MyJewishLearning.com has an article that gives you the short form of his teaching about lashon hara, [evil speech.]  Especially if the words we use could spoil someone’s reputation, or even cause envy, they are not proper speech for a Jew  even if they are true. Jewish law is stricter than American civil law on this subject: the truth of the words is immaterial, if they have any potential to cause injury, we shouldn’t say them.

There are words that ARE necessary, sometimes, even unpleasant words. We are commanded not to be passive when someone is being hurt (Lev. 19:16) so by all means, if you know of a crime or a possible crime, report it.

What speech is truly  necessary, in the case of the news story? Certainly, if you’ve heard the story and it upsets you, find someone with whom to discuss your feelings. The details of those women’s suffering are not our business; they are the business of law enforcement and the courts.  My fears, and my upset are my business. If I find I can’t leave this story alone, then I should talk it out with a rabbi, a therapist, or maybe a trusted friend.

It may be too, that with the story everywhere, it is necessary to talk to children about it. We need to reassure children that (1) this is very unusual and that (2)it is important not to go anywhere with strangers, etc. We also need to tell our children that we will value them no matter what, that they are infinitely precious, and that nothing will change that.

What can we learn? Perhaps we could learn to ask more questions when a situation in our neighborhood seems “a bit off.”  I’m afraid that’s all I can think of, though: this isn’t a news story that will inform my vote, or cause me to write my congressman, or make me a wiser person.

Speculating about it or treating this event as if it is some kind of entertainment is a low form of gossip.  Making theology out of it (miracles! redemption!) verges on blasphemy.  I am not in charge of Corporate News, but I am in charge of my keyboard and my remote. Jewish tradition suggests that if there is something that needs to be said, I should say it; if there is something that needs to be done, I should do it, but that beyond that, it’s seriously time to turn off the news.