Revelation in an Age of Self-Revelation

by Rabbi Jill Maderer
     How much do you want to reveal? How much do you want to know? A current debate about social networking gets to the heart about what relationships mean to us.
     The skeptics: Revealing our daily experiences on a newsfeed is self-centered. When we write on a Facebook wall, we are only thinking about what we want to express—we aren’t asking “how was your day?” True, the readers can respond with a comment. But, argue the skeptics, the moment of posting is a self-centered, one-way dialogue. Their second problem, they call “connection without cognition.” Social networks allow us to connect with many circles of friends in a short amount of time, but what is the nature of that connection? And is a relationship built on 140-character tweets, a friendship?
     The advocates: No, of course deep friendships are not built and sustained by twitter alone. However, friendly acquaintanceships might be. Advocates argue that social networking builds a group of people and ideas with whom we can be better acquainted. It also supplements our close relationships, giving us a way to distribute information quickly to a large group of friends. Our sense of personal privacy might be challenged in this culture of self-revelation, but that challenge is simply a call to realign our understanding of public and private. We can each have an impact on this realignment.
     The debate exists, but in many ways, it is irrelevant. Social networking, is here. I suspect that it’s not intrinsically good or intrinsically bad. It’s up to us to make social networking have a positive impact in our lives and our community. When we express ourselves online, we have the power to keep the reader in mind, and to not only focus on ourselves. When we connect to others online in ways that might seem superficial, we have the power to follow it up with an actual phone call. If we want to make the effort to deepen our relationships, our communication does not need to end at “connection without cognition.” New media does have the potential to bring harmful messages into our lives. Such technology demands, not abstention, but a return to our core values, so that those values are reflected in the ways we express ourselves.
     The Jewish community’s intense, annual return to our core values is upon us, as today we begin Elul, the Hebrew month that precedes and prepares us for the High Holy Days. On Yom Kippur we re-accept the Torah—the purpose of our people– that was revealed on Mount Sinai as we read: “You stand this day, all of you, before your Eternal God, to enter into the sworn covenant…it is not with You alone that I make this sworn covenant: I make it with those who are standing here with us today before our God, and equally with all who are not here with us today” (Deut. 29:9, 11, 13) Every generation is included in the covenant as if we, too, were standing there for revelation at Mount Sinai. Tradition teaches that every time we study Torah, the opinions we develop enter the canon of Torah commentary. Every generation’s commentary becomes part of the whole Torah. Some extend this vision and say that every word we express, throughout our entire lives, becomes a part of that commentary. The words of our lives are the Torah itself.
     There are those who might think this a bit of a stretch; when I express my request for a cup of coffee at the Dunkin Donuts drive-through, am I really adding to Torah? Perhaps, if I am careful to speak politely, I maintain a standard of respectful speech that is essential to tradition. Still, it may seem too much of an exaggeration that every human expression has a place in Torah. If so, step back, and consider the challenge: How much of what we put out into the world, can we include in the meta-Torah? How much of what we express has a positive purpose?
     At RS, we believe that the impact of technology is determined by us—it users. On this new blog, “BlogRS,” we hope you will share something of yourself and join in a conversation, one that we hope has a positive purpose!
     We have so many new ways to communicate what is important to us (and also to communicate a lot of trivial things that are not so important to us). With Elul upon us, let us consider revelation—that is, our purpose as a people. And let us carefully determine what messages we want to reveal. It is up to us to transform those opportunities of self-revelation into moments of revelation, as we put forth positive, meaningful ideas.