E-mail and I-Thou

Wise words, from an ancient tradition:

לְעוֹלָם יְהֵא אָדָם יְרֵא שָׁמַֽיִם בְּסֵֽתֶר וּבַגָּלוּי
וּמוֹדֶה עַל הָאֱמֶת, וְדוֹבֵר אֱמֶת בִּלְבָבוֹ

One should always revere God… in private and in public,
admit/profess the truth, and speak truthfully to oneself.

Or, to put the matter another way: if your heart were hacked by a hostile power, or a political opponent, what would they find?

I have been thinking about this line from the liturgy a lot lately.  What do we share, and what do we hide?  What is the boundary between spin and fantasy?  And what does it mean to be honest with yourself?

It seems to me so many questions being asked about candidates, campaigns and committees are about sincerity, authenticity, integrity. Does anyone mean what they say — or is what they say simply mean? Some are drawn to the attraction of someone saying what is on their mind, even if what they think and say is odious and offensive and impolite. Others are drawn to the spectacle, and cannot look away.

Nuance plays poorly when we expect people to speak straight from the heart.  But should we?  What do we really expect in this regard from others?  More personally, more powerfully, more spiritually, what standard do we set for ourselves?

I actually do believe in a place for privacy. Do we really want it to be, always, that what is on the outside is the same as what is on the inside?  Is there an appropriate arena to talk gut reactions out, to think things through, to work out warts or test out ideas which are loony or loopy or outside of the box, before the full glare of light shines upon them?  Just because technology and 24-hour television alike make it possible, just because our world incentivizes constant publicity, still, does everyone always have to have access to everything?

And look, I’m sure you have witnessed, or I am sure you know people who give voice to the instinct of an instant, which they might not choose to repeat.  You first hear about a terrible terrorist attack, and your reaction is emotional, visceral, and fierce.  Or, sure, you’ve never done this, of course.  But maybe it is someone you love and care about and know to be a good person, who vents in frustration or anger a sentiment in private which they would never pronounce in public.  Not only does that not reflect the best of this person you know.  It also contradicts what morality, responsibility and a pragmatic sense of what will work lead that person to believe.

Fear and anger can coexist with hopes and dreams, even in the same person.  Ideas, like people, often make an excellent… second impression. Maybe we should make a safe space, a bubble in which we can talk fast, then think twice, then give the response that is worthy of who we really are.

And yet…  What a standard that simple prayer holds out.  Maybe we should always remember, and teach our children well – that the server could always be hacked, that Facebook is forever, that we should never, ever write an email or text message we would not want to see on the front page of the New York Times. 

Note how old that line from the prayerbook is.  It goes back centuries.  Indeed, our tradition teaches a spiritual lesson which predates modern technology.  This speaks not about new tools, but human nature.  For we should always remember… even in the middle of the night, that there is an Ultimate source of light.  We are never, our tradition says, totally alone.

Every move you make…  Remember…  Not the eye of Sauron or the bugs of Putin, but the One who is the source and support of all of life is somehow… always there.  We stand always, as Martin Buber might say, in an I-Thou relationship with an everpresent God.  Indeed, one of the blessings we are taught to recite, on seeing a large number of people, is to praise God as Chacham HaRazim.  The One who knows our secrets.  The One who is wise to our ways.

Indeed, however literally you take the idea of an ever watching, ever wakeful, omnipresent God…if we live this way the awareness will have its own award.  Discipline, character, a sense of being observed will make us observant, in the best sense of the word.

So we try, as best we can… to live in a way in which our inner feelings and our outer expression are in alignment.  We should be, in the early parlance of Windows computers, WYSIWG, “what you see is what you get.”

To be as one, between what is in our heart and what comes out of our mouth… in the highest sense, the holiest sense…  That is the humility, that is the integrity, and that is the kind of character and menschlikeit… that our tradition expects.

So may it be for all of us.  When our emails get hacked, when our comments are overheard, when our secrets spill we should know… we may all have moments of weakness, but may we all, in the end, live so that we have nothing horrible to hide.

About the Author
Michael L. Feshbach serves as Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands -- the second oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He also was, most recently, Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and had previously served congregations in Buffalo, New York, Erie, Pennsylvania and Boca Raton, Florida. While in Erie, Rabbi Feshbach taught at Allegheny College and served as the summer rabbi for the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua, New York. Rabbi Feshbach is the author of several articles and book chapters. Born in Silver Spring, Maryland, he attended Haverford College and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he was ordained in 1989. He is married to Julie Novick. They live in St. Thomas, and have three children: Benjamin, Daniel and Talia.