Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

Why Facebook’s faults are on our communal heads

In several substantive ways, the month of Elul, which begins this Sunday, marks the start of the High Holy Days season. In other words, this Sunday begins what I call Jewish Values Restoration Month. (This is not connected in any way to any organization using some or all of those words.)

If we truly want to observe the High Holy Days as they are intended to be observed, meaning if we truly want to analyze and improve our behavior as individuals and as a community, Sunday is when we must begin the rigorous work involved.

The most difficult task, of course, is on the communal front, because no vehicle exists for evaluating communal behavior, and besides, we are too fractured a community. Yet there should be such a vehicle. We are taught, after all, that “all Israel are the guarantors for one another” — kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh. If some of us fail to live up to the Torah’s standards of ethical and moral behavior, all of us are responsible, because we “had the ability to protest and did not.” (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Shevuot 39a.) To relieve this responsibility requires us to examine what within our Jewish world led anyone to believe such behavior is Jewishly acceptable, regardless of whether it is acceptable in the general world.

Sadly, there is a great lack of understanding of what the Torah’s standards of ethical and moral behavior are, or what their significance is to the practice of Judaism. This almost certainly is due to the decades-old failure of our communities, especially our clergy, to properly teach “the Jewish way” to our youth. We concentrate on the wrong things, while ignoring what is most important. What is most important is summed up in a debate between Rabbi Akiva and a scholar named Shimon Ben Azzai regarding what is the great principle in the Torah. While each man chose a different verse, they both agreed the Torah’s “prime directive” is to establish a moral and ethical society based on equality, justice, compassion, and a proactive concern for the welfare of everyone and everything. (See the Jerusalem Talmud tractate Nedarim 30b and Genesis Rabbah 24:7.)

Neither man focused on ritual observance as the great principle. On the other hand, we focus on ritual practice, as each stream defines that practice, but little else. We teach b’nai mitzvah, how to chant a few biblical verses and perhaps how to lead some prayers, but we do not spend much time explaining that being a bar or a bat mitzvah means being responsible for performing all the mitzvot — especially including the social, ethical, and moral ones Akiva and Ben Azzai and many others of our sages recognize as essential.

Too often, that failure comes back to haunt us when our children have grown into adulthood and set out into the world.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg comes quickly to mind.

As my readers know, there is an entire category of sin known as ona’at d’varim, verbal wrongs. About five percent of the Torah’s 613 commandments involve a form of ona’at d’varim. Better than nearly one out of every four sins in the Great Confessional recited on Yom Kippur involves this category. (For an illuminating discussion of what is meant by “verbal wrongs,” see BT Bava Metzia 58b-59a.) Under this heading there are subcategories, including lashon hara (“bad speech,” which involves the spreading of information about someone for derogatory purposes even though that information is true), and motzi shem ra (loosely translated, defamation of character, meaning the spreading of false information about someone in order to belittle him or her).

That is where Facebook founder Zuckerberg comes in. He obviously knows little or nothing about ona’at d’varim — and the fault for that is on our collective communal heads, not just his.

According to the Talmud, both “the one who spoke [and] the one who listened” are equally guilty, because the person who listens to bad speech facilitates it and, worse, often helps to spread it. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Arachin 15b.)

On Monday, buckling under months of pressure and outrage, Facebook removed several controversial pages, because, it said, the content violated its hate speech and bullying policies. The pages had been on Facebook for years, and included some truly disgusting claims. Perhaps the worst was that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax; the twenty 6- and 7-year-olds and the six adults who supposedly were shot dead actually are in hiding.

About a month ago, Zuckerberg acknowledged in an interview on Recode that these pages probably should come down. Before saying so, however, he defended allowing such disgusting content on Facebook in the first place. Said he to reporter Kara Swisher, “it gets down to this principle of giving people a voice.” Besides, he said, “there’s broad debate” about whether such content should be removed.

Saying “there’s broad debate” caused Swisher to cut in. “‘Sandy Hook didn’t happen’ is not a debate,” she said. “It is false. You can’t just take that down?” That was when Zuckerberg acknowledged that the content did not belong on Facebook, although it took another month to remove it.

Holocaust denials, however, are another story.

“I’m Jewish,” he told Swisher, adding that he finds Holocaust denial to be “deeply offensive.” Nevertheless, “I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong.”

He followed that with an amazing rationalization he later admitted even he did not believe. “I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong…,” he said. After all, “I get things wrong when I speak publicly. I’m sure you do…. I just don’t think that it is the right thing to say, ‘We’re going to take someone off the platform if they get things wrong, even multiple times.’”

Shortly after the interview, Zuckerberg said he “absolutely didn’t intend to defend the intent of people who deny” the Shoah.

From an ona’at d’varim perspective, there should be no debate about pernicious content on Facebook. From Day One, it never should have been allowed.

A story is told of a man who came to his rebbe one day and confessed to having verbally wronged another, thereby damaging the victim’s reputation. He asked what he could do to make things right. “Take a piece of paper and tear it into very tiny little bits,” said the rebbe, “then go to the nearby bridge and throw those little bits of paper over the side. Then come back to me.”

The man did as the rebbe asked. When he returned, the rebbe said, “Now go back to the bridge and gather all the bits of paper, and put the whole page back together.”

That is not possible, the man protested.

“Exactly,” said the rebbe. “Your words are like those pieces of paper. Once you toss them into the air, they can’t be brought back ever again.”

Zuckerberg is only one public example of this communal failure. We all are guilty of ona’at d’varim, if for no other reason than we “had the ability to protest and did not.” That is a communal sin for which we all need to atone. (And, yes, this week’s column probably does fall under the category of ona’at d’varim, as well.)

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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