A Torah Guide For The Digital Age
By Rabbi Gil Student
Technology is changing faster today than at any other time in history. These developments affect our lives in many wonderful, and sometimes not-so-wonderful, ways. As we try to enrich our lives both by using technology and by refraining from using it, as appropriate, we need to remember the Torah’s guidance as it applies to these new forms of communication. For too long, the Internet has been a lawless Wild West. Responsible people need to think carefully about how they behave online.
This article is not intended to encourage or discourage use of social media. The simple fact is that people are using these forms and will continue to use them. My goal is to encourage responsible use of social media by pointing out important concerns and offering recommendations for the best practices.
Some professional and religious organizations have created guidelines for the use of social media. After reviewing many of their policies, I have begun developing guidelines based on Torah principles. These are not new chumros, stringencies, but the result of an attempt to apply common sense and existing Torah concepts to new technologies.
These guidelines are a work in progress. I encourage you to consider these ideas and to offer your suggestions on improving them. Most importantly, I encourage you to adopt ethical guidelines in your use of technology that conform with the best practices and Torah rules.
I. Practice Privacy. The Internet is easily searchable. Anything you place anywhere on the Internet will likely be available for decades to come. Your parents, children, (future) spouse, neighbors, teachers, rabbi, and potential employers, as well as criminals, may find pictures or other information that you post. You must therefore use extreme caution in releasing personal information on the Internet. This responsibility is particularly difficult for children to understand, but everyone, including adults, must recognize this and act accordingly. Protect your privacy by using discretion. Protect your children’s privacy by refraining from divulging personal information about them. And explain to your children the importance of guarding their privacy in this age of the eternal digital archive.
II. Be Responsible. For a number of reasons, many Internet users prefer to protect their identities and remain anonymous. However, anonymity includes a lack of accountability. That removes an important barrier to dishonesty and lack of civility. Internet users need to understand that anonymity is usually not absolute, because methods exist to detect users’ identities. Additionally, even if other people do not know what you are doing online, G‑d does, and the Torah’s rules on proper speech and behavior apply even when you are anonymous. Those who choose to remain anonymous should create new barriers for themselves that discourage improper online behavior.
III. Be Transparent. Because of the ease with which people shift identities online, it is important to let people know what to expect. Are you promoting a product from which you benefit financially or are you criticizing a competitor’s product? Are you vehemently disagreeing with someone who once wronged you? You need to be transparent, even if you are anonymous. Everyone has biases and you are effectively lying if you fail to disclose those biases (“midvar sheker tirchak” and “vihyisem neki’im”). Transparency through disclaimers is crucial here. If you wish to maintain your anonymity, you have to either be creative in wording a disclaimer or avoid certain topics.
For example, suppose there are only two stores that sell a product in your community and you own one. You wish to describe a negative experience with your competitor while remaining anonymous. You probably should not do so, because of your clear bias. If you ask someone else to describe his negative experience, he should include a disclaimer stating that he has a connection to your store so readers understand his bias.
IV. Be Careful About Confidentiality. The Torah forbids revealing secrets (megaleh sod), except under extenuating circumstances. Breaking personal confidences may also involve violations of secular law. Therefore, individuals must take care not to reveal personal and confidential information about others. Additionally, the Torah forbids defaming people by telling negative stories about them, whether true or not (lashon ha’ra and hotza’as shem ra). You may not describe other people or organizations in an unflattering light, with only limited exceptions discussed later in this article. The damage we can cause online, where potentially thousands of people can read our words, is much greater than when we speak with a few friends.
V. Do Not Defame. You are not only forbidden to defame others but also to provoke defamation (avak lashon ha’ra). This means that you must avoid potentially explosive topics unless you have clear permission as determined by the laws of lashon ha’ra. These requirements include not only a societal benefit in revealing the information but also, among other conditions, a lack of bias. And when discussing neutral or even positive stories, beware of the potential to provoke criticism. Exaggerated praise about a person or organization will inevitably lead to someone disagreeing and presenting a story to the contrary. It is important to anticipate such fallout and write strategically to avoid it.
You are not permitted to enable other people to sin, including to defame (lifnei iveir and mesayei’a yedei ovrei aveirah). Even if other, less responsible venues for that defamation exist, you are still forbidden to provide a forum for defamation. The implications of this position in social media are significant. You may lose followers because of this strict stance, but your maintaining higher standards than tabloid journalism demonstrates not only fealty to basic halachah but also basic decency.
We cannot justify linking to or otherwise highlighting a damaging story by claiming that we did not reveal it ourselves. Our actions constitute publicizing it even if we only empower others to reveal it. Stories that affect a broader public can and should be told (to’eles). However, there are a number of necessary conditions before you may go about publicizing such a story. Most importantly, you must be certain the story is true (or includes appropriately worded caveats such as “these are unproven allegations”) and that you have no ulterior motives to report it. On such complex and potentially damaging issues, you should always consult with your rabbi.
VI. Ban Bullying. The Torah forbids causing emotional distress to others (ona’as devarim). This effectively prohibits insulting and bullying. Do not let the anonymity of the Internet lull you into more aggressive patterns of speech. Words hurt and often cause real damage beyond the computer screen. Wikipedia defines “cyberbullying” as “the use of the Internet and related technologies to harm other people, in a deliberate, repeated, and hostile manner.” This is the equivalent of verbally attacking and stalking someone.
But even one-time attacks are wrong. If someone expends a lot of time and effort to create something, your denigrating it or him is hurtful even if you are correct. You must find ways to express your strong feelings without insulting others.
VII. Keep Track of Time. Time is precious, even when you have no children clamoring for attention or work calling for completion. Beware of the Internet black hole. The Web can easily pull you away from the many tasks to which you must regularly attend, the many people in your life to whom you must give attention, and the many religious obligations you must perform. Even individuals who are not addicted to the Internet often waste their precious time (bitul Torah) or improperly use their employer’s time (gezel). They may also neglect their spousal and parenting duties (shalom bayis and chinuch) due to distraction.
VIII. Be Cautious About Copyright. The Internet makes theft as easy as the click of a button. However, the Torah forbids violating copyright laws, whether due to an inherent creator’s right or because of the binding nature of secular law (gezel and dina demalchusa dina). You may not steal someone else’s creative product, whether it is the written word, a photograph, a design, or some other electronic creation. Make sure to obtain permission before using someone else’s creation and take care to properly attribute your sources.
IX. Be Positive. The Internet is the public domain. You may not damage the Jewish community or the Torah itself by spreading misunderstandings or incorrect teachings (ziyuf haTorah and chillul Hashem). While the Torah needs no apologies, it often requires proper context. For example, outsiders can easily misunderstand insular trends of thought and practice within Judaism as racist or intolerant. The global nature of the Internet confers a responsibility to properly explain the Torah and the behavior of its adherents to avoid misunderstanding.
What you say about Torah and how you phrase it can impact people’s impressions of your specific community, the greater Jewish community, and the Torah. It is important, of course within the bounds of honesty, to always strive to create a positive image of Judaism (kiddush Hashem) and avoid the opposite (chillul Hashem). It is also important to avoid undermining other people’s religious convictions. There are always people undergoing religious crises who are teetering on the edge of spiritual collapse. You do not want to push them over by supporting whatever misunderstanding currently occupies their minds. Standards of what types of theological discussions are acceptable vary by community. However, everyone needs to be sensitive about this issue and consult with advisors, whether a rabbi or someone familiar with the specific medium, on how to proceed with caution.
X. Be Serious About Tz’niyus. Judaism demands modest behavior, a trait that is manifested in many ways. Among them are avoiding arrogance, excessive fraternizing with married members of the opposite gender, and looking at pictures of improperly dressed people. Standards vary by community, but they certainly exist. These standards are not always explicit, and both adults and teens would do well to discuss them and the tools available to help maintain them. Internet users need to be constantly mindful of the importance of tz’niyus and aware of the standards they strive to follow.
These guidelines represent an application of eternal Torah principles to new forms of communication. Because of the complexity of applying abstract ideas to new technologies, this cannot be said to be the authoritative word on the subject. More than anything, these guidelines are intended to raise issues for readers to discuss with their family, friends, and halachic authorities. The more we keep these concepts in our conversations and thoughts, the more likely we are to act like the responsible G‑d-fearing Jews that Hashem expects us to be. v
Rabbi Gil Student writes frequently on Jewish issues and blogs at TorahMusings.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Reprinted with permission from Jewish Action, Fall 2012.