Todd Berman
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Breaking the social media echo chamber

Aren't you tired of hearing the same old tropes? Making the same old arguments? What does it take to refresh, and hear those old sounds anew?
Illustrative. Shofar. (iStock)
Illustrative. Shofar. (iStock)

In the latest edition of the Jewish Review of Books, Rabbi Daniel Gordis of Shalem College in Jerusalem published a retrospective and critical analysis of American and Israeli Jewry.  In response, a well known American Jewish thinker posted on Facebook a lengthy critique of Gordis’s approach. Hundreds of people commented on Facebook. Most of the comments, not surprisingly, were both critical of Gordis and redundant. One after the other criticized Gordis for his take on the demise of American Jewish institutions and Jewish life. His praise of the State of Israel and criticism of non-Orthodox Jewish movements were also targets. He is worried for the future of the American Jews and attributes American Jewish disaffiliation because of assimilation. Among the crowd of critics, names I have seen permeating social media in similar contexts appeared again and again: particular Jewish Studies professors, American Jews who express intense frustration with the Jewish state, and rabbis who often seem to make the focus of their social criticisms Israel and America. Many brought ad hominem attacks on Gordis’s integrity. But to quote Yogi Berra, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” Both Gordis’s article and the deluge of criticism seem to crop up every six months or so.

While reading several of the comments, I realized that a similar phenomenon happens on the right as well. One of the more commonly known personalities on the left evoking excitement is Peter Beinart. Beinart, the former editor of the New Republic, like Gordis, writes controversial things about American Jews and Israel. In Beinart’s case, he usually criticizes Israel and worries for the future of the Jewish state and American Jewish disaffiliation because of Israel’s crimes. He writes, his writing gets shared, and a deluge of the same right-leaning voices attack. Just as in Gordis’s case, the names are often the same, and the comments create an enclosed echo-chamber.

These writings and posts appear almost like mirror images, and the controversy they stir becomes a publicity boon for the original writers. The same people post, and the same debates are rehashed over and over again. In the case of Gordis, left-leaning intellectuals and Jewish public figures criticize. For Beinart, it’s the right. But still, the same professors, rabbis, academics, and armchair Facebook warriors bring the same tired arguments. Echoes reverberate on both the left and right sides of the black holes of cyber-space.

Beinart and Gordis took their debates on the road to several synagogues and Jewish community centers. A quick Google search returns a large number of results. I imagine, like a rock concert, the debate played the same topics night after night. Perhaps they mixed up the order of topics a bit to keep the protagonists awake. One can watch several of these on YouTube. Like reruns of old television shows, they quickly become stale.

The most frustrating part stems not from the pundits, but from their critics. Reading either the right or the left, one can intuit what each personality will say. I know Professor A will comment X and Rabbi B will tweet Y. One imagines a computer algorithm could express more creativity than the repetitive commentators on social media.  How do we break the mold and truly analyze anew? It is as if people are walking around with index cards of talking points. These people are going to say x, y, and z in this order, and those will say a, b, and c.  Maybe the time has come to tear up the index card.

Thinking of the cyberspace echo chambers, I came to a fresh understanding of the shofar of Rosh Hashanah. In the Mishna, the rabbis teach,

One who blows into a pit or a cistern or a jug, if he heard the sound of the shofar, he has fulfilled his obligation, but if he hears the echo [also], he has not fulfilled his obligation. (RH 3:7)

The rabbis point out the problem of the echo-chamber. If one hears only an echo of the shofar blast but not the original sound, the mitzvah has not been performed. At face value, this refers to the need to hear the distinct voice of the shofar. But I think, at least from a metaphorical perspective, we can dive deeper.

Every year, Jews are commanded to hear the same blasts of the shofar. Maimonides suggests why:

Notwithstanding that the blowing of the ram’s horn trumpet on Rosh Hashanah is a Scriptural statute, its blast is symbolic, as if saying: “Ye that sleep, bestir yourselves from your sleep, and ye slumbering, emerge from your slumber, examine your conduct, turn in repentance, and remember your Creator! They that forget the truth because of the vanities of the times, who err all of their years by pursuing vanity and idleness, which are of neither benefit nor of salvation, care for your souls, improve your ways and your tendencies, let each one of you abandon his evil path and his thought which is not pure! (Laws of Repentance 3:4)

The shofar’s sound, argues Rambam, functions as an alarm clock. We walk the earth zombie-like stuck in ruts of our own making. The shofar blast breaks us free, reminding us to be mindful. But disruption is difficult, and hearing the same clock sound year after year can become stale. Unless the listener opens his or her heart, the repeated sound does nothing.

This is the problem of hearing an echo. The echo is not original, but a mere shade, a ghost. Stuck in echo chambers, unless we change the way we listen, we may never break free. The blast must be original not a repetition of the past. How can we turn the old sound into new music? By attuning one’s heart. That is why the same Mishna continues to discuss intent.

And also one who was passing behind a synagogue or if his house was next to the synagogue and he heard the sound of the shofar or of the megillah [being read], if he directed his heart (had intention), then he has fulfilled his obligation, but if not, he has not fulfilled his obligation.

Intent and orientation are required to change our minds and hearts.

Too often, it would appear, we are fixed in our views of the world. Two people view what is right and just in such opposing ways that bridging the gap seems impossible. The shofar teaches us that how we experience the world and how we respond to others depends on us. If we want to understand the world in a new light, we have to listen to others and evaluate anew.

We can live in an echo chamber hearing the same worn views as if screaming at a wall or we can listen to others and try to reevaluate. As the Mishna finishes, “Even though this one heard and this one heard, this one directed his heart, and this one did not.” The choice is ours.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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