Who knew? Reading this pasuk from Hilchot Deah, I got the feeling that Maimonides was not only a great philosopher but a prophet, because it’s great advice for social media:
The sages of yore said: “He who yields to anger is as if he worshiped idolatry”. 1See Nedarim, 22b. G. They also said: “Whosoever yields to anger, if he be a wise man his wisdom leaves him, and if he be a prophet his prophecy leaves him.”2 Pesahim, 66b. C. Verily the life of irritable persons is no life.3 Pesahim, 113a. C. They have, therefore, commanded to be afar from anger, so that one will train himself not to mind even the things which do cause irritation, for such is the good way. The conduct of the just is to take insults but not give insults, hear themselves flouted but make no reply, do their duty as a work of love, and bear affliction cheerfully.
Social media crawls with individuals who are angry and with others who get their kicks from making other people angry. The temptation is to get angry, as well, but that accomplishes nothing. The problem with that is that the angrier we are, the less in control of ourselves, and wisdom goes down the drain.
This does not mean that we have to be doormats. However, the “block” feature on most social media is a powerful remedy for those who are seeking to make us angry for fun. It is tempting to stick around and trade clever insults, but as the old saying goes, if you mud wrestle with a pig, all that happens is that you get dirty and the pig enjoys it.
Do not rebuke a scoffer, for he will hate you; Reprove a wise man, and he will love you.
Let us save our words for people who will at least give them a chance. Screaming into the wind is a waste of everyone’s time.
I follow a lot of people on Twitter. Many of them are people whose beliefs challenge me. By following them on Twitter, I get leads on readings that sometimes will lead to a shift in my thinking. It’s a great way to learn, if you’ve got the stomach for it.
Recently I decided that I needed to review my thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so I began following people on both sides, from the far left to the far right. My Twitter feed filled up with voices like @naomi_dann and @j_t_rex on the left, members of Jewish Voice for Peace, and voices like @GushEtzion and @GolanShahar on the right. I followed Palestinian voices like that of @AliAbunimah. I tried to find individuals as well as organizations. I subscribed and I listened, and I read articles the twitterers suggested.
Unfortunately, I had to un-follow a lot of people, too. If someone indulged in name-calling or demonizing people they didn’t like, I unfollowed immediately, because on Twitter, followers are prized. I did not want to encourage bad behavior. I was interested in learning, not in filling my mind with sewage.
What did I learn? I learned that I have very little taste for either the far right or the far left on this subject, because both of them seem to have lost all compassion for one side of the dreadful situation in the region. People on the far left seem to have lost track of the fact that generations of Israelis were born in Israel and it is their home. People on the far right seem to have lost track of the fact that not every Palestinian is a terrorist, and that they have a right to live in peace. I don’t see qualifiers on either side that suggest that ordinary people on both sides are suffering in the present situation.
Torah demands that we see “the Other” with compassion. The Haggadah reminds us of this when we spill ten drops of wine at the seder in memory of the Egyptians who suffered from the plagues. The Jewish philosopher and Talmudist Emanuel Levinas built his entire philosophy around his experiences during the Holocaust, and he writes again and again that there is an ethical imperative to choose compassion in our treatment of the Other.
Just as God is called compassionate and gracious, so you too must be compassionate and gracious. – Sifre Deuteronomy 49
Some attempt to justify hatred of Palestinians by citing the case of Amalek. Amalek was an ancient tribe who attacked the weakest of the Hebrews as they traveled through the wilderness at Riphidim, and God decreed their destruction by Israel. (Num. 24:20; Exod. 17:8-16; Deut. 25:17-19) However, they reappeared in the Books of Judges and of 1 Samuel. The Book of Chronicles says that the last of them were destroyed by the tribe of Simeon during the reign of King Hezekiah. (1 Chr. 4:42, 43)
Still, there are clues in the name of Haman the Aggagite in the Book of Esther that he was a descendant of Amalek, and the legend has persisted that every time there is a great enemy of the Jews, it is a reappearance of Amalek. So in modern Israel even 13 years ago, I saw bumper stickers suggesting that Palestinians are Amalek. Some of the people I followed on Twitter made the same claim, and cited the commandment to “blot out Amalek” (Deut. 25:19) as a justification for violence against Palestinians as a group.
I have absolutely no difficulty with the rule of law, holding individuals responsible for their actions by way of a legal system. However, I reject the idea that every enemy faced by the Jewish people is “Amalek” and therefore anything goes.
Both sides of the dispute over the lands between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River are suffering. In any given incident, there may be more wrong on one side or the other, but it does not justify the demonization of either group. Nor does it justify the teaching of hatred to children, whether they are Palestinian children or the children of Israelis living in the West Bank.
After all my Twitter reading and listening, I came back to my uncomfortable seat as a moderate. I reject the anti-Zionist position as a vicious fantasy based in antisemitism. I reject the far-right position that fantasizes about a “Greater Israel” in which Palestinians would be second-class citizens and that seeks to realize that fantasy via the establishment of more settlements. I reject both positions because they are both based in an utter lack of compassion for the situation of the other side.
May the day come soon when both sides choose to sit at the table at one time to find a genuine solution to a situation which is a nightmare for both.
I try to cultivate a broad range of contacts, especially via Twitter. I follow a lot of accounts there, including a lot of folks that have ideas I find difficult – it’s one of the ways I learn and expand my horizons. To that end, I follow a lot of accounts there from many points of view and I try to cultivate a habit of listening more than reacting.
Lately the name-calling on Twitter has gotten worse. It’s happening from all sides of the political compass. It’s as if it’s become too much trouble to explain what is wrong with an idea, it’s just easier to call the person expressing that idea a nasty name.
So here’s the deal: post or RT something with name-calling in it, and I will unfollow that account. I don’t care if I love or hate the politics, I’m going to unfollow that account. Continuing to follow is rewarding the behavior, and I’m not doing it anymore.
Life’s too short. The world is full of important things to discuss, and we should discuss them, not waste our breath screaming epithets at one another.
Image: U.S. Air Force Rabbi, Chaplain, Captain Sarah D. Schechter leads the evening Leil Shabbat service on Friday, Sept. 4, 2009 at Lackland Air Force Base’s Airman Memorial Chapel. Schechter was the first active duty female Rabbi in the Department of Defense. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung)
At Mi Shebeirach, about 4,000 people whispered to their neighbor “I don’t know this one” #URJBiennial
– Rabbi Mike Harvey @Island_Rabbi, November 7, 2015
This is a tweet from Rabbi Mike Harvey, who was attending the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial Convention in Orlando, FL. I loved this tweet because it communicates a great truth about attending services: in any given group, there will be some people who don’t know a particular prayer, or tune, or combination thereof.
The next time you are sitting in a service and you feel badly because you don’t know something, remember that you are not alone. A whole bunch of others in the congregation are lost, too: maybe not 4,000 of them, but plenty.
I have been going to services for a long time, and I have studied the services long and hard. Yet sometimes I will go to a new (to me) synagogue or service and I will be a little lost. I know generally where the service is going, but I may not know the tune that they “always” use at Synagogue Beit Yehudi, or I may not realize that they have a particular custom for a prayer. So I keep my eyes and ears open, and I learn. Occasionally I hope I will never encounter that tune again, but usually it’s nice to learn yet another way to sing Adon Olam.
Often students will come to me and say that they don’t go to services because they feel “stupid” in services. They don’t know the prayers or the tunes, and they are afraid everyone will know that they are new. Here are some thoughts about that:
No one is born knowing how to daven [pray] the service. NO ONE.
The only way to get better at services is to go to services.
It’s perfectly OK to sit quietly and listen.
It’s perfectly OK to hum along.
No one will pay attention to how you pray, unless you sing very loudly off key or cross yourself.
You have a right to be there, even if you never learn how to say anything in Hebrew.
You have a right to be there, period.
So next time you are feeling lost in a service, think about Rabbi Harvey’s cogent observation. He was in a crowd of dedicated Reform Jews, and a huge number of them were unsure of themselves for a moment. Maybe it was a new tune. Maybe it was an experimental way of saying the Mi Shebeirach for the Sick. I have no idea. But I am so, so glad that he tweeted about it, because I get to pass that golden tweet along to you!
For more about the synagogue service and how to get the most out of a service without understanding any Hebrew, check out these articles:
Busy day ahead! I am meeting other members of the Social Action Committee from my congregation to sort donations at the Alameda County Community Food Bank. I think we’ll do a little bit of good and have a nice time. Then meeting my son for lunch, then getting ready for Shabbat. I suspect this was my one chance at a blog post, so here I am.
I have learned a new trick – if you use Twitter, try searching for the name of the weekly Torah portion, which you can get at the Hebcal Jewish Calendar site. Go there, and look at the top of the page for the link to the weekly portion. (That link will take you to a directory of various ways to access the portion.) Now go back to Twitter, and search on the name of the portion, with or without a hashtag. Voilá: Links to many current posts about the portion!
Today my country is observing a solemn day, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma, Alabama. I remember that day. I remember it from the point of view of a white child who was nowhere near Selma, who was told that the communists were having a march down there in Alabama.
I grew up in a conservative white Catholic family in Tennessee. I mostly held conservative political views until I spent my early 20’s in a company town and realized there were an awful lot of questions I’d never thought to ask. Coming out as a lesbian in my 30’s raised more questions and gave me a taste, a small taste, of being Other in America.
Lately I’ve been working a private study project on Twitter. I’ve had a sneaking suspicion for a long time that I wasn’t as knowledgeable about race as I’d like to be, but I was not clear what to do about it. I felt stuck until I realized that on Twitter, I could just listen and learn from people who actually know something. People mostly welcome a “follow” as long as you don’t tweet stupid things to or about them.
I agreed with myself that I was going to be quiet and listen. When something interested me, I would back up and read for context and do some research. If I were truly, truly lost I could ask a question, but I wouldn’t argue and I wouldn’t defend. Mostly I just listened and followed links.
Holy cow, I have learned a lot from listening to conversations and following links! It helped that my little project coincided with the advent of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.
I thought my heart and my mind were open, but I was kidding myself. If, reading this, you are assuring yourself that you’re pretty knowledgable, I challenge you to follow some smart people and listen for a while. Follow their links. Follow the articles they write, their blog posts. Find some thought-leaders in their fields, and see where they lead your thoughts. You will know you have found the right ones to follow when it gets uncomfortable.
If you insist on a short cut, there’s an essay I can suggest. I found it challenging to read with an open mind, but well worth the effort. How to Steal Things, Exploit People, and Avoid All Responsibility by Ta-Nahisi Coates is an eye-opener, especially if you’ve wondered to yourself how a well-meaning 21st century white person can be held responsible for the legacy of slavery in the US. Put the shields down for a few minutes and read it – easier said than done. If that’s too raw for you, too much information and anger for you, I recommend the writing of Michael Twitty on his blog Afroculinaria. He is a gentle healer of a man, but what he has to teach is no less powerful.
If, as a rabbi, I were to say, “I know all I need to know about Torah,” I would be a fool. If, as a citizen of the USA, I were to say that I know all I need to know about an issue as big as race, I would be no less a fool. We learn by listening, by reading, and by asking an occasional question. If we only talk to people who agree with us, then what we think today is all we’ll ever know.
I am writing this because I think I’ve found a way for a good-hearted person to learn without being a pain-in-the-neck, demanding that on top of everything else people of color should educate me. Twitter is great; it comes in tiny bites. It links to articles available on the Internet. It lets me listen quietly and digest.
Anyway, I thought perhaps there might be a reader interested in my study project, who might have a project of their own for which Twitter is a great medium to learn without being a pest.
Maybe for you it’s some other category. How many LGBTQ people do you know? How many Muslims? How many people with mental illnesses? How many with disabilities? Just remember, when you find some good folks to follow, don’t defend, don’t explain. Listen and learn. Follow the links. Take it in.
Rabbi Nachman said, “All the world is a narrow bridge.” The next line is usually translated “the important thing is not to be afraid” which is not quite right. What the Hebrew really says is, “The important thing is not to panic.” I think that the marchers of 50 years ago would say that the important thing is not to give up, even if panic was all you could do the first time out. Let us not give up, not now, not ever, not on ourselves – and never on one another.
For the past couple of years, a group of us have celebrated Shavuot by “Tweeting #Torah to the Top.” We’re on Twitter (you can find me at @CoffeeShopRabbi) and in the hours before Shavuot, we tweet divrei Torah [words of Torah] to try to get to the top of the “trending” [most Tweeted] list. Every year, I’ve had fun, I’ve met some terrific Jews, and enjoyed a symbolic celebration of this least-celebrated festival.
If you are wondering how to do it, see what my esteemed colleague Rabbi Mark Hurwitz has to say:
——————– I have been exploring how to use Twitter and Facebook as tools for Jewish community organizing. We know that these social media were central to the revolution that overthrew the Mubarak regime in Egypt. How might we use them to raise consciousness among the Jewish people around the world?
Beginning in 2009 Reconstructionist rabbi Shai Gluskin organized an attempt to bring Torah to as many people as possible on the evening of Shavuot, using Twitter. As he expressed it then (on Twitter):
Are you in? A 49th day of omer prep for Shavuot #Torah fest. Goal: get many tweeting Torah and see #Torah trend in top 10 the whole day.
Each year, those who participated enjoyed a great day of learning, sharing, and meeting. Jews (and others) all over the world, from various walks of life and “flavors” of Jewish life, tweeted what they thought were valuable and important thoughts of Torah. Nonetheless, we have never been able to get “#Torah” to “trend”. Is it because, however broadly defined, “#Torah” is simply not of interest to the vast majority of Jewish tweeters?
What can we do to make #Torah go viral? Are there tools that those of us committed to this effort are missing? I open the question up to this forum for discussion and invite you all to join our project.