Social media. Alongside the reports of the horrific act of cold-blooded murders in a synagogue in Pittsburgh this past week, was the story of how a man’s anger and hatred was fueled and perhaps transformed into action by his social media network (not that this diminishes from the appalling act). As with so much in this world, social media has potential to do good: to protest social issues and give voice to minorities, to connect with old friends and feel the birthday love on Facebook. But the dark side of social media is becoming increasingly clear: increased loneliness and reduced self-esteem especially among younger users, the spreading of false news, extreme “shaming” of others, and increased polarization of people in an already tense and divided society. What do ancient Jewish sources have anything to say about this uncertain, constantly developing, new frontier? What guidance can we find in Torah and halacha for how to foster a better form of social media?
Study of the book of Bereshit yields several thoughts on the power of speech. In the creation story, humankind is created with a higher purpose than the rest of creation. Both animals and humans are called nefesh chaya, a living being, but the commentaries point out the uniqueness of humankind. Targum Onkelos translates this as ruach m’malela, a speaking spirit and Rashi elaborates, that people are distinct because they possess the characteristics of knowledge and speech. Humankind is given the gift of thought and speech, without clear guidelines on how to use these gifts.
In the continuation of the Bereshit story, the Talmud (Pesachim 3a) derives the power of speaking positively from the story of Noah and the flood. When Noah is commanded to choose from the animals who are ritually pure and impure, the impure animals are referred to as “those that are not pure.” The Torah adds 8 Hebrew letters to emphasize the importance of speaking in a positive manner. So humankind is imbued with the power of speech, and is encouraged to use it positively.
But aren’t there times when one must speak up and criticize? The Torah also teaches that if an injustice is taking place, We “must not stand idly by.” Moreover, there is actually a mitzvah to rebuke others when they are engaging in bad behavior, as long as it does not lead to their shame and embarrassment (based on Vayikra 19:17). Jewish law treats these topics extensively, and attempts to provide guidelines and frameworks in which they can and should be applied. A lesson in when and how to rebuke is found in the book of Bereshit as well. The first instance of the mitzvah of tochecha (rebuke) occurs when Abraham critiques the king Avimelech because his servants had seized wells which did not belong to them. The midrash teaches that Abraham rebuked Avimelech with love, since proper rebuke should promote peace and love in the world.
The rabbis of the Talmud encouraged speaking positively, yet they also recognized that there is a time when one not only should, but must speak up and criticize others. They laid the groundwork for thinking about language and our responsibility to use it well and promote lovingkindness. Social media can be used as a tool to promote these wonderful values. Yet, when the dark corners of social media are used to promote hate and stir up racism and anti-semitism, it is clear that this is the opposite of what was intended in God’s creation of what Onkeles calls the “speaking spirit.” Jewish sources on the power of speech have incredible relevance today as the accelerated spread of hatred and violence on social media begins to be grasped. These ancient voices understood that speech is a gift and guidelines were needed so that people used language to make the physical world better. It is time now to think about how to make the virtual world better.