Taming Social Media with the Help of Ancient Texts

Carmi Wisemon

Social media is a technological culmination of the deep-seated human desire to connect. This powerful medium brings with it both challenges and opportunities. There are countless stories of people who built their careers with social media, and horror stories of lives destroyed by it. How do we harness the power of this new medium while avoiding the pitfalls along the way?  Where should we look for guidance to navigate what is quickly becoming not merely another mode of communication, but a way of living?

For many throughout history the ancient source of wisdom, the Torah has functioned as a user manual for the world, optimizing the benefits and minimizing the hazards of new developments. Let’s look into this guide and try to determine some of the ways to live successfully with these latest technological breakthroughs.

We begin our look at a passage from the Book of Shemot (Exodus), which discusses the need to build a rampart to the altar, “Do not climb stairs to my altar…” (Exodus 20:2). A commentary on this verse (found in the Mekhilta, an ancient midrashic compendium) explains that one should not take wide steps in the Mishkan (Tabernacle).  The purpose of the ramp is to slow down the climb up to the altar, compared to stairs that can be ascended in a rush. The Mishkan is a place for contemplation, where one must walk slowly, carefully and thoughtfully. A basic principle of Jewish wisdom is to take the time to review and think through a situation and its ramifications before you pass judgment. Indeed, the very first teaching in Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of Our Fathers, a collection of maxims by Rabbis from the Talmud) teaches us to “be cautious in judgement.”

However, in our fast-paced digital world, is it possible to take the time to review and gather all the information necessary before judging a situation? I am amazed how quickly op-ed writers and bloggers produce an article describing the root cause – and even the future implications – of an unforeseeable event that occurred only a few hours ago.  Journalists and reporters often serve as judge, jury and executioner. Changes in technology and social media give each of us the power to assume similar roles through blogs, Facebook posts, tweets and talkbacks, especially when we instinctively rush to say something witty and clever, to get as many “likes” and “shares” as possible.

The opportunities provided by technological advances often create a polarizing effect on society, with so many of us rushing to judge the latest situation, or our friend’s statements.  What once may have been a lively discussion around a dinner table that perhaps ended with some newfound friendships, too often explodes into an international battle of soliloquies.  Technology will continue to speed up the pace with which we can post our opinions, but how do we mitigate its potentially polarizing effect?

I used to attend the same morning prayers as Rabbi Yitzchak Kulitz (Of Blessed Memory), the previous Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. Whenever I asked Rabbi Kulitz a non-urgent question pertaining to religious law, even if it was a simple question, he would tell me that he would answer the question the following morning. I learned from Rabbi Kulitz that even if a person has the ability to judge something immediately, he should accustom himself not to do so in order to slow down the process. Even if technology enables us to post or reply in an instant, it does not mean that we should do so. We can slow down the process and stop to think before we post or reply, gather all the information and take into consideration the feelings of our readers and the real people that exist behind the social media accounts.

The impersonal nature of social media makes it difficult to understand how others are affected by our comments. However, if we train ourselves to be cautious when posting and slow down the process of judging others, we will minimize the polarizing effect of social media ecosystems and make the world more pleasant for others and ourselves.

Edited and adapted by Sharon Schnee


© Rabbi Carmi Wisemon, 2018. All rights reserved.                                                                          Reprinted and adapted with the kind permission of the author.

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