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.


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.

News v Gossip: Let There Be Light

Image: Hands with smartphone, the word “NEWS.” Art by geralt at Public Domain.

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי-אוֹר

And God said, “Let there be light, and there was light. – Gen 1:3

In the Creation story, God uses words to create the world and almost everything in it. Only human beings are different; God uses his hands to make them.

This story in Torah is about many things, but one of the most important to Jews is that words are immensely powerful. Words create worlds.

Today I read about a case of words creating worlds that shocked me to my core. This story by Caitlin Dewey in the Washington Post reports:

Paul Horner, the 38-year-old impresario of a Facebook fake-news empire, has made his living off viral news hoaxes for several years.

Let that sink in. “Fake-news.” “Fake-news empire.” He has made his living for years selling something he calls fake news.

I’m reading messages on Facebook, and I see a link for a story: “Donald Trump wins popular vote!” If I’m a Trump supporter, I think, “Wow! this is great!” and I click for the story. If I was a Clinton supporter in the election, I think, “Wait, that can’t be right!” and I click for the story. Either way, I read the story and I see all the ads that come with it. Paul Horner makes money. Cha-ching.

This example comes from an article on this phenomenon by Madison Malone Kircher. She includes a link to a list of fake-news sources, and I strongly recommend that you take a look.

OK, so this is very bad. A guy writes lies, labels and markets those lies as News, and markets them to people on the Internet, making his money on ad sales. It’s legal, but it’s also wrong by any moral code I know, and reprehensible according to Jewish tradition.

But it gets worse.

In the interview in the Washington Post, Paul Horner brags that “I think Trump is in the White House because of me.” He outlines exactly how he made up stories and planted evidence to support those stories. He talks scornfully about people who take his stories as truth and never fact-check them, sending them along to others. Note that he wasn’t a Trump supporter – he just thought it was funny to fool Trump supporters. He appears to have soothed his conscience about this by characterizing his writing as satire.

Paul Horner creates worlds with his words. He does not do this alone: he has thousands and thousands of helpers, people who blindly click on headlines, accept articles from websites they know nothing about and send links along to their friends, who trust those words because they came from a friend. They post the links to Twitter and Snapchat. The lies spread like a virus.

And Paul Horner isn’t the only one. Paul Horner is the representative of an industry. To learn what sites not to trust, sites that pride themselves on clickable headlines and viral lies, see this list.

According to Jewish tradition, gossip is a sin. Listening to “news” of unknown reliability and repeating those words, those fall under the heading of rechilut, listening to or spreading gossip.

I confess I’ve clicked on some headlines like that.  I confess that I’ve read the articles, been shocked, once or twice tweeted them.  I (naively) believed that things labeled “news” that seemed possible to me were actual reportage of facts, and I spread those lies by sending the links to others. Chatati – I sinned.

Teshuvah is a process for recovery from a sin. I have realized my sin. I take responsibility for it – I didn’t always check to see if the source was reputable. I’m deeply sorry I did that (and I did know better, because usually I do check to see if a reputable journalist wrote it.) Now for the hard part: a plan to make sure this never happens again.

Tempting as it is to get news from Twitter and Facebook, from now on, I get my news from journalists and nowhere else. I am an online subscriber to the WaPo, the LATimes, the NY Times, and my local news organizations. Sure, I may follow breaking news on Twitter, getting first-hand reports from eyewitnesses, but I will always remember that those witnesses are not journalists. Real journalists are bound by a code of ethics, and when they are caught breaking that code, there are consequences. While there are bad apples in every bin, most journos are trying to find the truth and tell it, and they stake their professional reputations on their words.

News from a professional journalist can be relied on as news. Later facts may change the way we interpret the news, but if one of those journalists is caught in a lie, much less spreading lies for profit, that’s the end of their time at a respectable institution. Also, notice that politicians of all stripes dislike the big newspapers – real journalism annoys ideologues on the left AND the right. If a politician seems chummy with a news organization, something is wrong.

Paul Horner and his ilk are not professional journalists. They don’t even pretend to be journalists. Their excuse is that they are making jokes. In my world, unless their words come with a recognizable label (like The Onion, for instance) it’s a sinful use of words. When we pass along clickbait, we become complicit in the sin.




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.