Rabbi Benjamin Blech: You Don’t Need to be Religious to Appreciate the Dangers of the Internet
Mark Zuckerberg had quite a week.
The 28-year-old founder of Facebook officially became a multi-billionaire and one of the wealthiest people in the world the day his company went public. Then, in a short few days, he watched his net worth diminished by several billion dollars when his company made history as one of the greatest IPO flops.
While large IPOs on average trade up by 20% on their first day, Facebook’s flat performance on day one, and nearly 11% decline on day two, set the stage for further declines in what remains an unfinished story about a stock whose future remains highly uncertain to Wall Street and the investment community. In the wake of the unfolding scandal, investors are suing and the entire IPO process is being called into question.
But Zuckerberg still had one more momentous event scheduled for his IPO week. On that Saturday he got married to his longtime sweetheart. From a traditional Jewish perspective, the fact that it was an intermarriage, effectively insuring that the Zuckerberg Jewish lineage would now come to an end, was far more tragic than the fate of a failed stock offering. While there are no fears about the couple’s future financial security, no matter how much Facebook stock continues to underperform, it is fascinating to speculate on their marriage’s chances for long-term bliss based on hubby’s impact on contemporary society’s mores.
Facebook and the future of marriage is an issue that finally is getting some much-needed attention. As Quentin Fottrell of Smart Money perceptively pointed out, more than a third of divorce filings last year contained the word “Facebook,” according to a U.K. survey by Divorce Online, a legal services firm. And over 80% of U.S. divorce attorneys say they’ve seen a rise in the number of cases using social networking, according to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
“I see Facebook issues breaking up marriages all the time,” says Gary Traystman, a divorce attorney in New London, Conn. Of the 15 cases he handles per year where computer history, texts and emails are admitted as evidence, 60% exclusively involve Facebook.
K. Jason Krafsky, who together with his wife Kelli authored the book Facebook and Your Marriage tells us “Affairs happen with a lightning speed on Facebook.” In the real world, he says, office romances and out-of-town trysts can take months or even years to develop. “On Facebook,” he says, “they happen in just a few clicks.”
Perhaps the most ironic aspect of Facebook relationships is that they lack the all-important aspect of face-to-face contact. In Jewish tradition the unique and intense connection between Moses and God is expressed with the Hebrew “panim el panim” – face to face. The word’s three-letter root, p’nim, means inner essence. Speaking “face to face” means to share who we really are, to transmit the very core of our being. That is how God spoke to Moses, demonstrating His great love and closeness for the leader of the Jewish people.
And that is precisely what’s missing in Facebook interactions. We do not see each other. We merely exchange words. We have no way of knowing whether they are true or not. We lack any clues we might learn from facial expressions. If Shakespeare was right and “eyes are the windows into the soul,” Facebook closes the blinds and leaves us literally blind to each other.
Facebook romances are often based on fantasy. That’s why they seem so much more appealing than our real-life connections. We are far quicker to give a thumbs-up “like” to someone we don’t really know, but create in our own ideal image, than to a flesh and blood person before us who comes with the mixture of the qualities as well as the flaws of a normal human being.
Affairs become not only far more appealing but also possible. Furtive meetings are only a “text” away. And the Internet continues to alter the landscape of sexual relationships.
Major attention to this phenomenon was initiated at a mass rally held at Citi Field in New York, attended by over 45,000 observant Jews. Billed as a protest against the dangers of the Internet, it is regrettable that the black-hatted sponsors were made to appear by the media as the equivalent of a brand of Jewish Amish opposed to technological innovation. What very few seemed willing to do was to acknowledge valid areas of concern for even the most open-minded of Internet users concerned with its impact on contemporary society.
To be outraged by the easy accessibility of pornography to our children doesn’t require extreme religious sensitivity. A simple acceptance of civilized norms should have prompted righteous anger from society’s secular leaders in almost the same measure as it motivated the rabbis who arranged for the mass rally of warning against the moral dangers of the Internet.
But it isn’t just porn that needs to be focused on as the sole area of concern.
No one could accuse Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, of religious fanaticism or exaggerated fear of harmful effects of Internet addiction. Yet, invited to receive an honorary degree and to deliver the keynote address to the graduating class of Boston University, the idea he felt most important to share with them was to challenge them to “take the radical step of tearing their eyes away from their smart phones and computer screens.”
While stressing that electronic tools can be very positive forces, he urged the students to “take one hour a day and turn that thing off.” To rousing applause from an audience who grew up relying on Google’s search engine, email, and other services, Schmidt begged his listeners: “Take your eyes off that screen and look into the eyes of the person you love. Have a conversation, a real conversation.”
His words resonate with very special meaning for Sabbath observant Jews. We have long come to recognize that for our lives to have meaning we must be the masters of our technology – and the only way to prove our mastery is by demonstrating our ability to control its power over us. When we can no longer call a halt to our creations we must admit we have formed Frankensteins that if left solely to their own devices can destroy us.
We go Schmidt one better. We don’t just “take an hour a day and turn that thing off,” but for a full day out of seven we substitute the human contact of the Sabbath table for texting, and family face-to-face conversations for Facebook.
And that doesn’t make us religious fanatics. It simply means we are realistic enough to realize that as wonderful as the Internet is, it must come with a label “handle with care.”
This article originally appeared on Aish.com. Rabbi Benjamin Blech is Professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and the Rabbi Emeritus of Young Israel of Oceanside. He is the author of 12 highly acclaimed books, includingUnderstanding Judaism: The basics of Deed and Creed, If God is Good, Why is the World So Bad? and the international best-seller, The Sistine Secrets. The opinions expressed above are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to Yeshiva University.