"Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive…"
Sir Walter Scott could not have been more right, as my congressman, Anthony Weiner, discovered this past week. The problems inherent in the lewd pictures, incomprehensibly bad judgment, and arrogant assumption of invincibility were only exacerbated ten times over by the untruths that followed. The whole affair is a tawdry mess, and an embarrassment.
Though his wounds are entirely self-inflicted and there is no way to make them less offensive than they are, I am obliged to say that, more than feeling anger or betrayal as a constituent, I am heartbroken for the man who has ably and passionately represented my district, articulated my concerns, and been a friend to my synagogue and to me personally. There is no schadenfreude here, at least for me- no sense of "gotcha" that one often feels when a politician is brought low in a public way.
The Anthony Weiner that I have known through the years is a good man, but obviously a good man with serious issues. Whether or not he should remain in office is not for me to say; if public and private pressure does not combine to force him from office, his constituents might ultimately vote him out, and that is their right. As a rabbi and a friend, it would seem to me that he needs to sort out his priorities right now. There is much repair to be done- much tikkun- and I don’t know that holding on to his job is more important than holding on to his family. But he doesn’t need me to tell him that…
But beyond the very sad story of Congressman Weiner’s fall from grace is another story- a cautionary tale, if you will- about the power, allure and dangers inherent in social media.
Rabbis today- at least rabbis who are serving in pulpits- are taught that being comfortable with and conversant in the complexities of Facebook, Twitter and the like is an absolute must. Any parent of teens or young adults will know that if you’re not on Facebook, you are a Luddite, and a foolish one at that. People in their teens and twenties essentially live on Facebook, so if we want to reach them, we need to at least- pardon the extended metaphor- get an apartment on Facebook even if we don’t live there. If you want to market to those generations, to get a message out to them, to portray your synagogue or agency as "with it" and current, having a Facebook presence is an absolute must. I joined Facebook primarily to develop my synagogue’s presence there. Yes, since I joined, I’ve learned to like it, but e-mail still matters much more to me than Facebook does. Not so my kids.
As for Twitter, I am still resisting, but it is all around me. Those same consultants on social media who preach the preeminent importance of Facebook would say the same of Twitter. As recently as the latest convention of the Rabbinical Assembly just a month or two ago, I attended an eye-opening workshop with a professional on social media who dazzled us all with how we can integrate Facebook, Twitter, websites and e-mail to create a seamless web of communication within our synagogues that would really reach our younger target population.
Yes, I thought wistfully. When I have a full-time IT professional on my synagogue staff, I’ll do that.
I have no doubt that he’s right. All this technology shrinks the world, and creates new and previously unimaginable ways to reach people. True enough.
But, of course, creating new and previously unimaginable ways to reach people also opens up commensurately new ways to get into trouble, as my Congressman and countless others have discovered. We warn our children about predators lurking on the web, but the issue is obviously more complicated than that. The internet has created so many novel ways for people to play out their fantasies, erotic and other, that we are really in uncharted waters as regards boundaries of the permitted and forbidden.
When you factor in the assumption of invulnerability that too often accompanies being in a prominent and powerful position, well- you can do the math.
None of this is to excuse Congressman Weiner, or what he did. It is inexcusable. But neither does it make him an evil person. He’s a human being with some real issues- and he has also been a fine congressman. Altogether, his story is a very sad one- and a cautionary tale about the technology that entrapped him.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation, and vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. To read more "A Rabbi’s World" columns, click here