It’s In Your Hands: Ethical Speech Online

 By Rabbi Jill Maderer  (Rosh Hashanah sermon delivered 9/19/09)

“What’s on your mind?” asks Facebook. “Share and discover what’s happening right now, anywhere in the world,” invites Twitter.  “Broadcast yourself,” challenges Youtube.  Or, as our own Rodeph Shalom blog requests, simply, “Comment”. 

We live in a time when almost everyone carries a smart-phone-organizer-computer-device, and a world of information is at our fingertips, right there, in our hands.  Some of the fastest-growing ways to share that information are the tools of social media or social-networking, that is, the online communications that create a public conversation through the use of interaction, or, comments. 

 Social media, combined with hand-held smart-phones such as blackberries or iphones, has influenced everything from job-searching to international affairs.  When, this June, Iranian citizens protested the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian government barred journalists from the demonstrations.  Yet, with the social networking tool twitter, people in the streets were able to report the protestors’ clashes with police.  One twitter post reported friends being held against their will at a university; another reported the location of medics who would treat injured citizens.  Twitter posts connected readers to videos of police violence against protesters.  Social media was such an effective tool against censorship, that the reelection in Iran was dubbed “The twitter revolution.” 

Of course, for most people the twitter revolution doesn’t describe a literal revolution.  Yet we are experiencing a new chapter in the information age.  Smartphones and social networking are 2 major contributions to our new levels of hyper-communication. 

With a blackberry in our palm, a fast-paced world of information and convenience is at our fingertips: the stock market, the school recital, or driving directions with a real-time traffic report.  Yet if we aren’t careful, our smartphones can make us sloppy in how we communicate.  When we type in a quick comment, so often at the same time as we’re sitting in a meeting, or having a conversation with someone else, or listening to a sermon…When communication doesn’t even require that we spell out a word, how easy it is, to be thoughtless with our words, even hurt someone’s feelings. 

Social media is also changing our lives as it increases the ways we express our voice.  How much do you want to reveal?  How much do you want to know?  It is common to post daily experiences online and invite the public, and often anonymous, responses of friends, strangers, and everyone in between.  In the forums of facebook and twitter, Youtube and blogs, the circle of people and information grows.  But these ongoing public discussions can also tempt us to say too much, or to break boundaries of ethical speech. 

More than ever, we desperately need to call our attention to the power of words.  Technology will always evolve, and of course we should participate.  But how will we use the technology?  What will be the impact of our fast-paced communications and our public conversations?  What messages will we put out into the world?  The answer is, literally, in our hands.

In our Torah’s Creation story, so beautifully chanted this morning by Stef Zeis, Lynn Dorman, Jerry Silverman, Ilana Hessing and Susan Newell, God speaks the whole world into being.  “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, God said, ‘let there be light.’ And there was light.”  “Vayomer Elohim yi-hi or, vayi-hi or.”  For 6 days, God spoke each creation into being.  All that surrounds us exists because of the power of words. 

Created in God’s image, we human beings too, can create worlds with our own speech.  And, in our friendships, relationships, marriages, we can also destroy worlds with our words.  Judaism cherishes human relationships, and understands that negative speech alienates us from one another, while ethical speech strengthens intimacy and relationships.   

The Psalm teaches:  “Guard your tongue from evil; your lips from deceit.”  So often today, we speak through the keyboard.  We could say “Guard your fingertips from evil.”  But the message remains: ethical speech requires caution. 

The advents of smart-phones and social-networking pose particular challenges to ethical speech.  On this Rosh Hashanah morning, as we celebrate God’s creation, let us turn to Jewish wisdom for profound guidance about how we can meet those challenges. For those of you who don’t carry a blackberry or participate in social networking, I assure you, Jewish wisdom can be applied to old-fashioned letter-writing, phone-talking, and face-to-face conversations.   This morning, we consider 2 challenges to our ethical speech: the nature of honest debate, and the temptation to gossip. 

Every time we open our mouths to speak, or we type on our keyboard, we have a potential forum for debate.  Understanding the power of words, what should be the tone of that discourse? 

Consider the current healthcare discussion.  Many of us who believe that healthcare should be a right, and that our nation’s broken system needs repair, also feel uncertain about the intricacies of proposed versions of legislation.  What is the best strategy in delivering quality healthcare?  How can an inclusive system become economically viable?  Legitimate questions create the need for an honest debate, so that our nation can reach the best possible solutions. 

Online communications have made it easy for dishonest debate to spread and to fuel hostility in town meetings across the country.  One high-profile leader wrote on her Facebook page: “people will have to stand in front of Obama’s death panel so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their level of productivity in society, whether they are worthy of health care.”  Non-partisan fact-checking groups have assured that there is no truth to this “death panel” argument.  In this case, social networking has served as a tool for uncivil discourse, and fast-paced communications have helped to facilitate the spread of lies.

Debate is not the problem. Social media and iphones, as tools for debate, are not the problem.  For us, the problem is that the discussion has not lived up to the Jewish standards of debate.   The Talmud, the collection of Jewish wisdom and law compiled by the sages, insists that respectful, healthy debate is an essential method for reaching the highest truths and the best conclusions.  In Talmudic debate, each scholar explores all the possible ideas, in his quest for the true answer. 

This ancient process, produced pairs of rivaling rabbis.  Take Hillel and Shammai.  Whose position was generally adopted?  Which one have you heard of—Hillel or Shammai?  …Hillel.  Yet Shammai’s dissenting opinions are also recorded, and respected, in the process.  Reflecting on the positions of Hillel and Shammai, the text concludes: “Both are the words of the living God, and the decision is in accordance with Hillel.”  In order to function as a community, the Talmud adopts one method or compromise; yet the dissent is still valued and preserved.  Mutual respect, and a constructive quest for truth, are the Jewish standards for debate.

 Online communications can make it easy to engage in healthy debate, if we exercise enough discipline to ensure that our words are civil and constructive.  Our tradition guides us to meet the challenges of ethical speech, by maintaining an honest approach, a productive purpose, and a respectful tone, in our online discourse.  With Jewish wisdom on our minds, this year we can guard our lips, and our fingertips, from evil.

Every time we open our mouths to speak or we type on our keyboard, we have a potential forum for gossip.  Understanding the power of words, what should our boundaries be when we share our lives online? 

 A famous midrash from our tradition:  A man shares some gossip with a friend.  Feeling a bit guilty the next day, the man meets with his rabbi.  “Rabbi,” he asks, “What can I do to take back the harm I have caused?”   The rabbi replies, “Take a pillow outside and shake out the feathers into the streets of the town.  When the pillow is finally empty, collect all of the feathers.  Take them all back.”  “But Rabbi,” the man laments, “I won’t be able to find every feather.  It’s impossible!”  “That’s right,” the rabbi responds, once words of gossip have left the mouth, one cannot take back all of the harm done.  It’s impossible to take it all back.”    

The laws of Lashon Hara, meaning, the evil tongue, forbid us to make any statement that lowers someone’s esteem– even if it’s true.  Some would define Lashaon Hara, not as gossip, but as “negative truths.”**  I am forbidden to say that, so-and-so rarely attends Shabbat services—even if it’s true!  

The Talmud teaches that Lashon Hara is so difficult to avoid, that every one of us does it—every one of us puts feathers out into the world—every single day.  Social media presents additional challenges in avoiding the spread of negative truths. 

First, much of the social networking world offers the option of anonymous posting.  You can author a blog, or comment on a blog, without disclosing your identity.  One anonymous blog author, recently used vulgar language to describe a certain Vogue model.  The name-calling led to a court order, for the blog host company to reveal the author’s name to the model.  And then led to a 15 million dollar lawsuit launched by the author, against the company, for revealing that name.   As the courts determine the legal implications of anonymous defamation of character online, we can determine the ethical implications. 

Anonymity makes it so easy to turn off our internal filters, and to express words in an insensitive or even nasty way—words we would never think to actually say to another person.  But that’s the problem with the anonymous voice: it can make us forget, that we are not simply venting Lashon Hara to a screen, we are communicating with real people, and we have a responsibility for our words.  Perhaps, avoiding anonymous online reading and writing—limiting ourselves to comments we would make to a real person, will help to discipline us against expressing negative truths, that we would not be able to take back.

Even if we avoid writing or reading anonymous comments, one particular law of Lashon Hara places added limits on our social networking conversations.   According to Jewish standards of ethical speech, not only are we expected to refrain from gossip, we are supposed to avoid making any statement that might solicit someone else’s negative comment!  We are actually expected to anticipate other people’s temptation to gossip! 

Modern scholar Rabbi Stephen Wylen suggests that we can strive to anticipate a negative comment, by considering the people involved and the circumstance at hand.   He demonstrates: Imagine if you were to make a comment in your cooking class: “Joe made a great chocolate cake this week!” Clearly, this is praise.  Yet, make the same comment at a Weight Watchers meeting, it sounds like gossip.*  In this case, the circumstance clearly defines the speech.  So how do we anticipate circumstance online?  

This issue of anticipation may be our greatest challenge in ethical speech online.  The abbreviated nature of typing into a blackberry makes it difficult to craft a careful message, and the public nature of most social networking blurs the lines of circumstance, making us more vulnerable to mistakes.  Think of how demanding it would be, if every time we put up a post on Facebook, twitter, or a blog, we tried to anticipate the comments—even the anonymous comments–people would make.  As difficult as it is, Jewish tradition demands that we try to keep our circumstances and our readers in mind, when we post online.     

These complexities of ethical speech are hard enough for adults, who have developed a sense of social discipline.  But I imagine the teens and tweens in our community are especially vulnerable to making mistakes online.  So the ethics of social networking will be explored in our Confirmation Academy, and also in the new Parenting Adolescents group that will meet periodically throughout the year.    

With Jewish wisdom on our minds, this year, we can guard our lips, and our fingertips, from evil. 

When we are mindful that there is always a human being on the other side of the screen, I believe that this age of hyper-communication can help to bring us closer together, especially as we build community here at Rodeph Shalom.  Although the RS rabbis have always enjoyed sharing articles and sermons in the Bulletin, we have also longed for a higher level of interaction.  With our new blog, your comments will deepen the exchange of ideas, and I hope they will also deepen your connection to the community.

God spoke the whole world into being.  “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, God said, ‘let there be light.’ And there was light.”  “Vayomer Elohim yi-hi or, vayi-hi or.”  For 6 days, God spoke each creation into being.  All that surrounds us exists because of the power of words. 

What will be the impact of our fast-paced communications and our public conversations?  Will we guard our lips, and our fingertips, from evil?  The answer is, literally, in our hands.  As we celebrate the power of God’s words, may we understand the power of our own.  Amen.



Study resources: Words That Hurt, Words That Heal, Joseph Telushkin; Gossip: The Power of the Word, Stephen Wylen; The Essential Talmud, Adin Steinsaltz.

“Guard your tongue from evil; your lips from deceit”  (Psalm 34:14)

* Wylen’s illustration

**Telushkin’s translation