Abe Mezrich
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Only Tamar can save Twitter (or whatever’s next)

The very technologies we use to mask our imperfections and deflect outward can also enable us to dig deeper and connect more (Vayeshev)

King David’s ancestor showed what social broadcasting can really achieve. It’s time we start paying attention.

If you’re a Twitter user today, what are your plans for life under Elon Musk? Are you staying on for the ride, heading elsewhere (Mastodon, anyone?), or just logging off social media for a while? Whatever your answer, pause for a bit and consider the historical moment. After years of having our world shaped by one of the biggest social platforms, we’re collectively asking what we want our social media world to be.

Given the polarization and narcissism at scale that social media has given us thus far, I’d like to propose a specific model for the next wave of our social world. I propose that we follow the lead of one particular figure in this week’s Torah reading: Tamar.

But to understand why, first let’s jump back to Adam and Eve.

Tech in the Garden

It was Adam and Eve who developed the first social technology. Right after eating the Fruit, the two realized their nakedness and covered themselves by innovating clothes:

Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they perceived that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths (Genesis 3:7).

Importantly, Adam and Eve weren’t just covering up their nakedness. Just a few verses earlier (ibid 2:25), we’re told that though they were naked, they were unashamed. Once they realized they were naked – that they had shame to hide – they developed their new tool. It’s a move that is wholly familiar to our social media mindset today: they created a technology to project something else to look at besides whatever it was that they were deeply ashamed of.

But it was only a matter of time before they went from hiding shame – from projecting an illusion of perfection – to shifting blame. “The woman You put at my side” Adam told God the moment He called them out, “she gave me of the tree, and I ate.”

So from the days of Adam and Eve, technology has brought us to hide our own imperfections and cast blame for everything wrong onto others around us. Even if you’ve only taken a casual stroll through social media today, you’ll notice that not much has changed. We’re still using our social tech to hide our insecurities, broadcast our own perfection, and deflect blame on everyone else. Often, the results aren’t pretty.

The Social Veil

But if things haven’t changed, that’s not to say that change isn’t still possible. Which brings us to Tamar.

Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law. She was the hapless wife, then widow, of Judah’s two elder sons — each of whom God killed in succession for their wickedness. Per the familial law of yibum, Tamar was then to marry Judah’s third and young son, Shelah — but Judah, perhaps willfully ignorant of his older sons’ flaws, was wary of wedding Shelah to this woman who appeared to bring bad luck. And so Judah left Tamar unwed, and also did not set her free — a widow-in-waiting for good.

Finally, Tamar took the matter into her own hands. She dressed as a prostitute, donned a veil, and, so disguised, invited an unwitting Judah to hire her. Judah had no payment on hand, and so Tamar took his seal, his chord, and his staff as collateral.

All along, Judah treated Tamar — the mysterious woman — as a scapegoat for the misfortune of his wicked sons. But by covering herself up, Tamar removed herself from the picture, leaving Judah alone with his own actions. When Judah returned to the meeting-spot to pay his debt, he found that the mysterious prostitute had vanished. “There never was a prostitute here (Genesis 38:21)” the townspeople told a befuddled Judah, and Judah was all alone seeking answers.

Through this maneuver with her veil, Tamar also shifted the course that Adam began. Both Adam and Tamar used clothes and accessories to deflect blame. Adam used clothes to cover real guilt and keep blame at the surface level — and thus easily deflected onto others. Tamar used clothes to cover what was at the surface to let us focus on the guilt that lies below — and in the process lets us realize the closeness and responsibility we all bear.

If this was Tamar’s implicit message, it seems to have hit home. When words got out that Tamar was pregnant from harlotry — at the time a capital offence, at least for an unmarried widow-in-waiting — Judah, the family patriarch, sentenced her to death. But at this point, Tamar tipped her hand: she sent Judah back the seal, chord, and staff, along with a message.  “I am with child,” Tamar relayed to him, “from the one to whom these belong (Genesis 38:25).”

Judah, recognizing his possessions, and by extension his responsibility, rescinded the punishment. “She is more righteous than I,” Judah admitted, “since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah [to marry]” (ibid verse 26).

And from this revelation came royalty. Judah and Tamar were the parents of Peretz, ancestor of King David — and in rabbinic thought, also ancestor of the messiah, who will fix the world that has been troubled since Adam and Eve’s first sin.

Tamar 2.0

Clothing is a kind of technology used for projection. Tamar replaced its role as a fig leaf for imperfection and turned it into a way to convey connectedness and our deep responsibility for one another. It is a far cry from Adam and Eve pointing fingers, and also from the social media fracas of our era.

What would Tamar’s veil look like in today’s digital realm? While analogies are never perfect, three digital concepts come to mind:

Use tech to connect, not divide. While social media has us burrowed into our echo chambers, we can use similar systems to unite across even the deepest differences. Consider Meet Palestinians and Israelis, the Clubhouse room that brought together hundreds of thousands of Israelis, Palestinians, and concerned citizens for meaningful conversation in the depths of fighting during May of last year.

Convey what connects, not what disconnects. One example here is the recommendation of digital researcher Jevan Hutson and team to remove racial filters from dating apps. “Letting users search, sort and filter potential partners by race not only allows people to easily act on discriminatory preferences,” Hutson argues, “it stops them from connecting with partners they may not have realized they’d like.” Keep the digital covering that unites, discard whatever covers the wrong things or too much.

Be real. This year, Apple’s official selection for iPhone App of the Year is BeReal – an app that flips the showy social media ethos on its head. Rather than serving as a vehicle for Instagram-style influencership, BeReal asks its users to capture themselves unprepared in their most mundane moments — reading a book, talking to friends, doing homework. It is an example of one of the most overlooked aspects of what tech can showcase: our baseline shared (and often boring) humanity. We need more of it.

Yes, there are all types of social fabrics that technology is serving to unravel. And while we think the problem is new, it may be as old as humanity itself. What Tamar shows us is that the very technologies we use to deflect outward can also enable us to dig deeper and connect more. At this rare juncture when society is rethinking what social technologies it wants to adopt and how, we should follow Yehudah’s lead.  Let’s all read Tamar’s message and take it to heart.

About the Author
Abe Mezrich is a Jewish poet and tech marketer trying to make sense of his divided life in a more divided world. His writing has appeared in outlets including the Tanakh site 929 English, The Forward, Hevria, Tablet, The Lehrhaus, Tradition, Zeek, and elsewhere. His latest book is Words for a Dazzling Firmament, a collection of poems on the weekly Torah reading from Ben Yehuda Press.
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