Rabbi Avi Shafran
There was a time, not terribly long ago, when disturbed individuals bent on broadcasting angry fantasies had only soapboxes in public parks from which to rant. And respectable people knew, if only from the ranters’ appearance, to keep well out of spittle’s range.
Today, though, the very means of mass communication that enables so much worthy information to reach such large numbers of people at the speed of light – the Internet – has also been harnessed to spread madness, hatred, lies and (not a word to be used lightly but here entirely appropriate) evil. And so, close on the heels of the swindlers and pornographers who have colonized so much of cyberspace, have come the gaggle of electronic soapboxes known as weblogs, or blogs.
The writer of a recent article in the Agudath Israel monthly The Jewish Observer expressed chagrin at discovering the nature of many Jewish blogs. Often anonymous as well as obnoxious, some of those personal opinion-diaries, he found, display utter disregard for essential Jewish ideals like the requirement to shun lashon hora or forbidden negative speech, and hotzo’at shem ra, or slander; to show honor for Torah and respect for Torah scholars. I would have added basic fairness to the list. And truth.There are, of course, responsible bloggers, in the Jewish realm as in others, writers who seek to share community news or ideas and observations with readers, and to post readers’ comments. Some explore concepts in Jewish thought and law, others focus on Jewish history and society.
But just as an unfiltered e-mail account quickly reveals that the bulk of electronic communications are from people we would really not wish to ever meet in person, so are responsible blogs, in the Jewish realm as in the general, decidedly in the minority.
And even many responsible blogs allow postings of comments from people with very different value systems. As one poster on a Jewish blog, “Joe,” noted: “The whole reason people gravitate to blogs with active comment sections is because of the gosip [sic] and back and forth jabs and insults… If thats [sic] not your thing, fine, but anyone who reads or posts on a blog cant [sic] seriously claim that lashon hara bothers them.”© 2007 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
No one knows exactly why the Internet appears to bring out the worst in people, but there is little doubt that it often does. And the cloak of anonymity seems to unleash truly dark, ugly alter egos. As a popular Jewish blog’s founder told the Forward in June, “There’s a lot of testosterone on the Internet, a lot of swagger… anything can happen.”
Like maliciousness and mayhem. Recently, for example, a 13-year-old Missouri girl who was targeted on a non-Jewish social-networking site for verbal abuse by classmates became so distraught that she hanged herself in her bedroom with a belt.
Another recent e-outrage, although with a happier ending, was perpetrated by a Milwaukee teacher who presented himself anonymously on a blog as a critic of the local teachers union. In an attempt to garner sympathy for union members, he wrote that the two youths who killed 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999 “knew how to deal with the overpaid teacher union thugs: One shot at a time.” Only because of the implicit threat of violence, and the resultant involvement of law enforcement, was the teacher’s ruse uncovered. Less prosecutable offenses, although malevolent, misleading and violative of the laws of civil discourse, are, needless to say, of no interest to the police.
And so, many blogs have become showcases for carefully concocted stews of truth and falsehood well stirred and generously seasoned with gall and spleen. The Jewish sites among them like to malign guilty and innocent people alike – extra points for Orthodox Jews and triple-score for rabbis.
On some sites, targets’ guilt is established purely by rumor, innuendo, anonymous accusations and alleged association with accused or confirmed wrongdoers. Innocent until proven guilty? Not in the blogosphere.
Indeed, if a Jewish blog were fully reflective of Jewish values, even those who are actually guilty would not be subject to “open season” maligning. Truth may be “an absolute defense” in American libel law, but not in Jewish law; true statements are precisely the focus of the prohibition of lashon hora. It might strike some as strange, but the Torah teaches us that the evil of such speech is inherent, not a function of falsehood.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the apparent gullibility of so many visitors to those blogs, who, from their own postings, seem ready to swallow any accusation or character assassination, as long as the charges are sufficiently salacious or forcefully asserted. Some of the many adulatory comments posted on offensive blogs may have been planted by the blogerrai-meisters themselves, but many certainly seem to be from other citizens anxious to join in the fun.
Responsible bloggers don’t deserve to be lumped together with the louts and understandably chafe at having their entire enterprise tarred with the sins of individuals. Unfortunately, though, those individuals and their sins comprise the bulk of the blogosphere. Those who counsel avoidance of blogs are no different from those who advise against frequenting dark, crime-ridden neighborhoods. There may be bargains to be had in such locales, maybe even a good library or pizzeria. But they are scuzzy places to spend time in.
The Internet in general is, pace the popular arbiters of societal propriety, not a healthy place to hang out in. That is why many Orthodox Jewish religious leaders have frowned upon its use altogether for recreational purposes. They feel that the windows it opens to every corner of the wider world allow in not only some sunlight but much pollution of the most pernicious sort.
But even if business or other life exigencies require individuals to utilize the Internet, there are dark corners of the Web that are filled with venomous spiders, that pose extraordinary risks and should be avoided at practically all costs. The blogosphere is a particular infested corner.
All Jews should be concerned with basic Jewish values like shunning forbidden speech, refusing to judge others, showing honor for Torah and Torah-scholars. And if we are, we are rightly warned against patronizing the untamed areas of Blogistan. Because, while larger society may hallow the idea of free speech, Judaism considers words to carry immense responsibility. Used properly, they can teach, inspire and elevate. But used wrongly, or recklessly, they can be virtual weapons of mass destruction.
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]