Ask The Rabbis | What Sins Should We Atone For In Our Use of Social Media?
O Master of the Universe! On this Yom Kippur, please forgive me…For the sin of neglecting the chulent pot and allowing it to boil over and become encrusted due to my obsessive checking and rechecking of Facebook. For the sin of not having heard my partner whisper “I love you” because I was listening to some rant on YouTube. For the sin of believing every libelous tirade posted on Instagram as if it had come down from Sinai. For the sin of spending hours hypnotically glommed onto Facebook Messenger while texting the person seated beside me. For the sin of not turning off my smartphone before going to sleep. For the sin of longing more desperately for an incoming text than for the touch of a lover. For the sin of not checking the content of my text prior to sending it, resulting in verbiage never intended. For the sin of awakening envy and disdain in others by sending photos and tweets about how absolutely wonderful my life is. For the sin of allowing social media to transform me into a mesmerized worshiper of screens illuminated by light-emitting diodes while I waste away in the back seat of my self-driving car.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Rancho Cucamonga, CA
Social media provides a crucial platform for many people. It helps the marginalized find and embrace each other. It enables the powerless to combine into powerful coalitions. And, of course, there are those pictures of the grandchildren. Yet like many new technologies, social media has created new opportunities for us to wrong one another. From the spread of falsehoods to anonymous bullying to the ease with which we make casual racist, homophobic, misogynistic and ableist statements, social media encourages some terrible behaviors.
Humanistic Jews are not shy about updating and adapting Jewish literature. But the traditional holiday confessional already seems to have anticipated social media. The wrongs we commit by means of the internet are not so very different from those that our tradition describes us committing “openly and in secret…with our speech…with foolish talk…by means of our evil inclination.” Social media extends the reach of all this lashon hara and other bad behavior. Yet its potential for good remains. Keeping this in mind, during this year’s confession let us resolve to use the internet to fight falsehoods, bullying and so many more ills of our society.
Rabbi Jeffrey Falick
Birmingham Temple Congregation for
Farmington Hills, MI
For the sin of being snarky—and reveling in it. It’s funny, it’s satisfying, and it’s probably not so good for our souls. Social media reminds me of the passage in Deuteronomy where Moses sets before the people both blessings and curses—except that with social media you get both, all the time. Like the Shehecheyanu blessing, social media encourages us to recognize and bless special moments. But the desire to share with others “out there” can take us away from that moment and from those who are “right here.” The moment is happening, but we turn away, trying to find the right words for a Facebook post. Or our kids are sitting next to us, receptive and eager to talk, but we’re absorbed in “liking” other people’s lives.
Or we miss the mark by letting envy join us as we scroll through other people’s celebrations, their beautiful families, their burgeoning careers and exciting travel and well-worded opinions. Can we instead help ourselves to see other folks as part of us, as being on the same team? How can we turn jealousy into what Rabbi Nehemia Polen calls “holy envy”—the kind of envy that lifts us up and connects us rather than separating us?
Rabbi Gilah Langner
Congregation Kol Ami
The double-acrostic Al Chet enumerates our sins, places where we’ve missed the mark. Many of its 44 sample shortcomings deal with speech, whether “utterance of lips,” “evil tongue” (lashon hara) or “false vows.” Amid today’s ubiquitous impersonal social media, the theme is amplified: thoughtless keyboard-clacking; 5 a.m. texts; forgetting the recipient’s humanity. For real teshuvah (turning/repentance), we must know just how we err, online:
We aim: weaponize words. We blame: single out someone for undue condemnation. We claim: advance unchecked assumptions, opinions or fake news as factual. We flame: fail to reassess, or check our anger or our basest instincts, before pressing “send.” We frame: cast innuendo without owning our actions and their implications. We maim: name-call, stereotype, use dehumanizing language. We shame: “Whoever publicly insults/shames another, whitening their face in embarrassment, spills blood” (Bava Metzia 58b). And one non-rhyming entry: misplaced priorities. How many posts about lunch or pets; how many about justice or sustainability?
Instead, let’s cultivate silence, “the best medicine of all” (Megillah 18a), by posting less. Let’s listen, reading carefully, assuming the best of others. Let’s cultivate lashon tov, positive, constructive speech, words that heal and build. And let’s avoid bitul z’man, the sin of wasting time: step away from the ^#%&* screen!
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
Each Yom Kippur we recite the Ashamnu prayer, an alphabet of sins we, as imperfect human beings, are inclined to commit. Reciting collectively rather than singularly, we take shared responsibility for keeping one another on the proper path. Consider this modern alphabetical Ashamnu:
For the sins of making assumptions, bullying, careless use of words and dishonesty in our posts, may we be forgiven. May we no longer engage in egotism, spreading falsehoods, gossip, hate speech or indecencies. May we no longer be tempted by jingoism, kneejerk responses, malevolence and name-calling. We should stand up against obsequiousness, public shaming, quarrels and resistance to hearing new ideas. May we let go of selfishness and no longer take time away from family for social media. May we call out unchecked sources, report violent threats, not whet our tongues with xenophobia nor yield to zealous divisiveness. For all these sins and more, we ask Your forgiveness. Amen.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Jewish tradition is fully aware of how frequently our words can be misused. The rabbis wisely understood the danger of cruel, disrespectful or dishonest words. They can divide a family, break a friendship and destroy a reputation. To atone, we must first ask ourselves the right questions.
Do we post more than we read what others have posted? Do we gossip? Do we repost stories about friends, family or colleagues that ought not be repeated? Do we believe everything we read? Do we post with the intention of hurting others? Do we waste time on social media? Do we post pictures that are hurtful? Or embarrassing? Or misleading? Do we repeat poorly sourced rumors? Are we mean-spirited or cruel because we are not talking face-to-face with another person?
If spoken words can be dangerous, the written word on social media can be exponentially more hurtful. Social media revives the old problem of the destructive effects of village gossip and extends it to the global village.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
There is nothing in using social media that is intrinsically sinful. Like all technology, it may be used for good or for evil. So if we have “spoken slander” or “framed lies,” if we have shown “contempt for parent and teacher” or “spoken with impure lips,” if we have “entrapped a neighbor” or “breached a trust” on social media, then we should confess under those rubrics in our general confession of sins. Then we need to win atonement by apology, restitution and seeking forgiveness from our victim. None of this is distinctive to social media.
Some people do act more sinfully on the internet than they would in interpersonal society. The anonymity of the act or lack of personal contact with the victim brings out particularly vicious behavior in some people. People who would never act this way in person may be guilty of bullying or cruel and cutting demolitions of others. They may spread “fake news,” total fabrications or groundless conspiracy theories. Especially damaging sins require extra effort to win atonement.
The method of teshuvah is the same for “new breed” sins as it is for traditional sinful behavior. One must feel/express regret, confess the sin before God, offer apology or restitution and seek forgiveness from the victim. Atonement is then completed with the observance of Yom Kippur. But be warned: The Talmud says that there are some sins so terrible that God does not grant atonement/forgiveness until the death of the sinner.
Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg
In the Torah portion Re’eh, we read, “See, I have given you today a blessing and a curse” (Deuteronomy 11:26). Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlap (1882-1951) was appalled by the notion that God can ever be described as “giving” a curse. So he argued that, really, God gives us only a blessing: Just as God creates things ex nihilo, he gives us some of that same creative capacity. What we do with that creativity can then turn into either a blessing or a curse. Unfortunately, social media, like so many other things that could have been a blessing, is something we have often turned into a curse. We have used it to create distance between people rather than bring them together. We have used it to shrink our personal universes rather than to expand them. We have used it to feed our egocentricity rather than our ability to give and share. And in the rare cases where none of the above apply, we have used social media to squander the ultimate non-renewable resource—time.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Los Angeles, CA
Social media sins! Where do I even start? Probably with Jeremiah 9:8, “Their tongue is a sharp arrow.” Gossip, calumny and libel are compared in the Bible to swords and poison, but the image of arrows best captures the dangerous power of our words, because once an arrow leaves the bow, there is no retrieving it. The best 21st-century weapon analogy for social media would be biological warfare—going “viral.”
Social media allows us to communicate with billions of users, which is wonderful, but words written in haste, in anger or for revenge can alter the lives of countless people. Even if it’s only one person, the damage in most cases is irreversible. How do I reach out to all the people who read my original post to tell them that I made a mistake? Another serious offense is exposing sensitive information about others. It is usually not deliberate, but one cannot escape responsibility. Then there is trolling, spamming, phishing and let’s not forget the friend who sends you a million WhatsApps and then scolds you for not replying. There’s gluism, the state of being glued to your phone and the primal need to document and post every minute of your life. The only atonement for the sins of social media is awareness as a preventive measure. Let us think twice (or more) before unleashing unretractable arrows.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia
The answer is rather simple: a lot. A classic Jewish story is told of a rabbi who was once maligned by a member of his community, who then regretted his actions and approached the rabbi asking to be forgiven. The rabbi asked the person for a pillow and went with him to a hilltop. He then sliced open the pillow as they both watched the feathers blow in every direction. The rabbi said, “I can forgive you when you collect every last feather and place it back in the pillow.”
The moral is obvious. When you post or share something on social media, you can’t really take it back, even if you delete it. It gets shared so quickly that sometimes things can literally be seen around the world by many millions, even billions. Chassidus explains that speech, or expression, is the process by which that which is yours alone becomes part of the world beyond you. This applies even to words spoken only to Alexa. G-d wanted to create a world. When He actually spoke the words, the world then came to be. That which had been His alone now existed for others as well.
We need to be mindful of what we post and share—and even what we choose to see. And when the High Holidays come, we should resolve to see and share only what helps make our lives more uplifting and the world better. That’s the core human mission. Let’s post good things and bring light to what has become all too dark all too often.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov
Executive Vice President, American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad)