Yehuda Kurtzer

Time for a (social) ceasefire

The upcoming Jewish fast day is a time to stop gorging on toxic cyber discourse

As sad as the situation in Israel has been over the past month – the kidnapping and brutal murder of the three teenagers, the revenge lynching and subsequent rioting, the barrage of rockets from Gaza and the retaliatory bombing of Gaza – the climate that has emerged on social media has made the experience of living through all of these traumas substantially worse.

The political polarization that already exists in our community has been further entrenched by the cult of instant interpretation of the news in spite of the often-total absence of facts. The need to prevent a cognitive dissonance between our ideologies and the latest traumatic news has turned us against each other, resulting in vicious acts of demonization and de-legitimization against individuals who hold different views.

Statements that respond to the current anxiety by encouraging the use of force are reduced to accusations of fascism; statements encouraging moderation are mocked as naive self-hatred. And perhaps most perversely, many of those attempting to model something different on social media – prayer rallies, lofty interpretations, detached ethical proclamations – come across as preachy, paternalistic, and astonishingly self-aggrandizing. Encouraging people to pray may be the responsibility of a religious leader, but posting “selfies” of oneself praying is something quite different.

It is understandable why we look to these technologies for solace in moments like this. We have bought into the promises that these media permit us to bridge the gaps between us, hear competing viewpoints, and empathize with those far away that are suffering. Nobody mistakes Facebook friendships for actual friendships, but the technology assures us that a global conversation never before imagined is not only possible but also real. And needless to say, we should be grateful that these media allow us to check in with loved ones in these anxious times.

And yet, the failure of social media to improve public discourse in a moment of crisis should not be surprising. Though we pretend that social media encourage an open marketplace of ideas and provide a reasonable context for social discourse, in reality they are at best a pale substitute for real human contact – or worse, a masking or avoidance of it.

Our tradition encourages the values of productive disagreement and the responsibility to rebuke those we think are wrong, but those ideals and obligations stem from an understanding that all people are created in the image of God; more critically, they emerge from the assumption that we actually see one another when we attempt to engage in this thorny work. And democratic society needs healthy debate about political decision-making even, or especially, at the moments when the society is being tested.

But social media fail on both fronts. They provide an opportunity to rebuke without consequence, to impress our ideas on others without a real framework for meaningful response, and to present our lives, ethics, and choices as superior to others, without the mirror provided by others that should rightly make us self-conscious about how we present ourselves.

There is a long-standing critique of social media that many of us self-style our personal “brands” and images in ways that are far different (and look better) than the more complex realities of our lives; in crisis, and in moments of profound anxiety, this narcissism quickly transforms from being harmless to being destructive. Coupled with the built-in nature of the media – which reward speed and wit more than long-developed substance – the pitfalls of instant commentary and vitriolic response emerge easily, and the usefulness of the media for public discourse are undercut by their own limitations.

Perhaps the Jewish liturgical year offers us the opportunity for a moment of respite and reflection. Tuesday, July 15, is the fast day of 17 Tammuz, a unique day of mourning which commemorates not the destruction of the Temple itself but the breaching of the walls of the city that – in retrospect – signaled the inevitability of the cataclysm which ensued. It is therefore a day to mark the anticipation of destruction, to take stock of the behaviors and degradations that inevitably signal the breakdown of the social order. In our mythical-ethical narrative, which intertwines the collapse of Jewish sovereignty with the failures of social and communal behavior, this particular day of penitence and fasting is meant to be jarring: What looms on the horizon, and what awaits us in our failure to correct our wrongs?

So, I want to publicly propose an idea developed together with my colleague Rabbi Joanna Samuels: that as the deterioration of Jewish civil discourse is so visible in our social media, we use the day of 17 Tammuz for a widespread ta’anit dibur – a silent fast – in which we commit to keep quiet on these platforms, and strain ourselves to choose introspection over their corrosive capabilities.

As befitting a public fast, those who would pray, should pray – but should refrain from advertising their prayers. We should study, but we need not broadcast our ideas to others to convey how meritorious our own learning is. We should continue to follow the news – whether from the comfort of our living rooms or in the bleak fluorescence of our protected rooms – but we should mute the urge to interpret the news for others or judge the political opinions of those with whom we disagree.

One of the legacies of the prophets was their insistence that even when the people were actually being obedient to the tradition – such as offering up the right sacrifices at the right times – they were missing the point of the tradition itself, wrapping themselves in self-righteous cloaks of piety and self-pity, instead of fulfilling our mission of spreading justice and righteousness.

There could be no greater hypocrisy than a fast day in these dark times spent lamenting our fate in synagogue, while demonizing others on Twitter, or making claims of repentance via grandiose displays to others of the magnitude of our religiosity. On this upcoming fast day, there is so much on which we can quietly reflect: so much brokenness, sadness, and anxiety. In this moment, a little social silence – replacing those familiar buzzes with real human contact and conversation, real prayer and study, and restraint not just from food and drink but also from toxic (virtual) discourse – could do all of us some good.

About the Author
Yehuda Kurtzer is the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and host of the Identity/Crisis podcast.