Jews, Facebook and Reflections on the Social Network

Back in 2010 the movie The Social Network about the world’s then youngest billionaire, Mark Zuckerberg, who created Facebook while an undergraduate at Harvard University, attracted a lot of attention. The film is about the revolutionary nature of Facebook and how it redefined social interaction. It is a mixture of fact and fiction but also a compelling story of greed, friendships, sex and  betrayal. It is also an uncomfortable illustration of the limits of a  Yiddishe kp, the  shortcomings of intellectual brilliance and the meaning of Jewish identity.

Since the movie came out, the reach of Facebook has increased  exponentially. Today, the company employs 17,000 people in 15 countries, boasts nearly a third of the world’s population as users of its service, and has invested heavily in a project to make the internet (and Facebook) accessible to everyone in the world.

I got to thinking about Facebook over the last few weeks with the news that the G7 is seeking to tax big tech companies and that Biden is seeking ways of holding internet platforms accountable, something Australia and our Treasurer have already been at the forefront of. With the spectacular news of Operation Ironside this week and how Australia dismantled a global crime ring through a brilliant online sting, it’s worth reflecting on the power of the internet to be both a constructive and destructive force in our lives.

Facebook has become one of the world’s most influential  institutions. It  has been attacked as  a business run  by  extremely rich people who have spent several years denying the responsibility their power gives them. Facebook is more than a social media network, it’s also where 44 percent of Americans and many across the world get the majority of their news. And the world as seen through Facebook looks completely different to different users, depending on what personal information they’ve historically fed the site’s  algorithm. These  are important issues about moral  responsibility, the  abuse of privacy,  the sinister, insidious  nature of a surveillance society and the exploitation of personal information.

Zuckerberg  recently  wrote a  new Facebook treatise  or  letter, a manifesto declaring that  his  technology  platform aims  to  empower people to build a global  community. It has been criticised as unscrupulous.  His epistle  could, however, be  interpreted as a way of taking responsibility for past mistakes  and  an  acknowledgement of the awesome power he does hold in his hands. There  is a  concept in Halacha of giving people the benefit of the doubt, also known as “dan le kaf zechut’’and  Mr.Zuckerberg  should  be entitled to it despite his wealth and  failings.

As Jews, there’s another question namely how comfortable are we with Mark’s Jewish identity? He  has, after all, been  on an uneven journey  from  a  Reform Star Wars themed  bar mitzvah  to  atheism, from  flirting with  Buddhism, to  marying a  non-Jew. More recently  he has reconnected to Judaism and posted  clips of  himself  blowing the  shofar and  celebrating  Shabbat. Some have suggested his embrace of faith is a cynical  political  ploy. Journalist Anshel Pfeffer  claims: “Mark  Zuckerberg’s carefully curated Jewish conscience is both shallow and evasive”. On the other hand, perhaps, we should celebrate when such a  high-profile  personality publicly proclaims his  Jewishness. He  is giving an important message to  the  many young Jews who have married out that they can still remain connected to our community and that we welcome them asserting their Jewishness. We should also defend him against the antisemitic slurs and conspiracy claims of yet another Jew trying to control the world. Oh, how powerful we are!!

Zuckerberg has acted in a very Jewish way by setting up a mega charitable  foundation. One group of projects of this foundation focuses on alleviating poverty and empowering traditionally underrepresented groups. Writes Zuckerberg: “Our  society must do this not only for justice or charity, but for the greatness of human  progress”. FB, it should be  noted,  claims  that “for every 10 people who gain internet access, about one person is lifted out of poverty and about one new job is created”. Now  that’ s  a fabulous expression of tzedakah or charity!

Facebook in its original form is a remarkable phenomenon attesting to the human need to connect and interact with others. When Joshua ben  Perachya  urged us to “get a friend for yourself” (Avot1:6), he could hardly have dreamed of the tens, hundreds if not thousands of wannabees  clamouring  to be our friends online. Facebook has changed the way that we communicate and the instantaneous and rapid capacity of the network is  decidedly  a testimony to sociability and the exchange of information and ideas.

The Rambam, who  recognised  the importance and viability of our sociability, would surely have approved. But would he have approved of its superficiality and potential harmfulness? Friendship is measured by the quality of our interactions and not the quantity of our connections. It’s about loyalty and recognition and about challenge and transformation. Abraham is called “the friend of God” not only because he is a loyal servant, but also because he has the courage to challenge the  Creator. American philosopher Emerson put it beautifully when he wrote: “Our friendships hurry to short and poor conclusions because we have made them a texture of wine and dreams, instead of the tough  fibre  of the human heart.” The friendship of David and Jonathan is an eloquent testimony to that tough  fibre.

Emerson has written elsewhere about the challenge it is to “endure the betrayal of false friends”.  In the film, Zuckerberg, who created this wonderful network of friendship, is ironically portrayed as betraying his friend and business manager Eduardo Saverin. It  is, the  movie  suggests, money  and greed and the exploitation of a false friend that supposedly leads Zuckerberg down this sad road.

It is in Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) again that we read of true and false friendship. For Rabbi Joshua (Avot 2:13), a “chaver tov”, one good friend, is the essential requirement for a good and meaningful life and Rabbi Gamliel, who walked the corridors of the powerful, warned: “Be careful of those who have power for they befriend someone only for their own benefit, they act friendly when it benefits them, but they don’t stand by a person in their hour of need” (Ibid2:3). Greed and the lust for power blind one to what it really important in life. Small wonder then that ben  Perachya  said that in addition to friendship you need leadership (“get yourself a rabbi/teacher”), someone you can look up to as a model of virtue and principle.

We are only as good as the values we live by and ultimately this movie is a reminder that being brainy doesn’t equate with being good. (Harvard attracts some of the best minds in the world and Zuckerberg is clearly one of them.) I would like to think that Mark Zuckerberg as a young father and world influencer has matured considerably since his student  days. And  that he is sincerely committed to spreading good in the  world. As  he said to Harvard students in 2017: “While  we  sit here …I’m reminded of a prayer, Mi Shebeirach, that I say whenever I face a big challenge, that I sing to my daughter thinking of her future when I tuck her in at night,” he said. “And it goes, ‘May the source of strength, who’s blessed the ones before us, help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.’ I hope you find the courage to make your life a blessing.”

As a people we are thankfully not short of brain-power and Australia is no exception to this with our brightest shining in all parts of this country. The movie and life of Mark Zuckerberg does, however, make you wonder how successful we are in transmitting those critical Jewish values of honesty, loyalty and empathy, integrity, justice and compassion. The great rabbi and social activist, Abraham Heschel, lamented towards the end of his life that while we are the quintessential people of the mind, we should never lose touch with our mission to be people of the heart and soul as well.

Facebook has changed the face of the  world. It  has the potential to help transform and reform our troubled  planet. May  Mark and FB fulfil the words of the  Torah, that  the great  Facemaker, God  Himself, turn  His face towards us and  give us all the  wisdom, integrity  and compassion we need…

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Ralph

About the Author
Rabbi Genende recently retired as the Senior Rabbi of Melbourne’s premier Caulfield Shule and took up the position of Senior Rabbi and Manager to Jewish Care Victoria, Melbourne’s largest Jewish organisation. He was a senior Reserve Chaplain in the South African Defence Force and is now Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Mulitifaith Advisory Group. He was President of JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim Association) and a long time executive member of the Rabbinical Association of Victoria. He also oversees Yad BeYad a premarital relationship program, is a member of Swinburne University’s Research Ethics Committee and of the DHHS ,Department of Health Ethics Committee and sits on the Glen Eira City Council’s Committee responsible for its Reconciliation Action Plan for recognition and integration of our first peoples. Ralph has a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. For him the purpose of religion is to create a better society for all people and to engage with the critical issues facing Australian society. The role of the rabbi is, in his words, to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged. In 2018 Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. Rabbi Genende is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. He is married to Caron, a psychologist, and they have three children and two grandchildren.
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