With e-mails flying in Jewish discussion groups recently over the current violence in the Middle East, tempers and emotions are running high. There are so many voices, passions, disputes. That's great, especially if, in the phrase of the Talmud, these debates are carried on "for the sake of heaven." But sometimes they spill over into anger and name-calling. This is bad netiquette and bad Torah.
On one Jewish list I am on, people started screaming at each other, the way we do online--SCREAMING!!! Insults began flying. Name-calling, too. And sarcasm, which can sometimes work in person, seems to produce more pain online--like a dull knife that cuts more jaggedly. Soon, people on both sides of the conflict were threatening to quit the list.
As Jews, we are called to a different standard, expressed for instance in that essential compendium of rabbinic wisdom, the Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), as well as in the Torah. Here are a few quick rules to improve internet discussion--not just for Jewish groups, of course, but for any group:
1. Judge every person with the scale weighted in that person's favor. (Pirke Avot)
2. Love your neighbor as yourself. (Torah)
3. Do not hold a grudge against your sister or brother. (Torah)
4. Every human being is created in the image of God. (Torah)
5. Anger is the equivalent of idolatry and should be avoided at all costs. (Maimonides, Talmud)
These rules could ideally guide all our interactions, but they are especially needed on the net, because internet writing has a peculiar immediacy that often leads to a lack of restraint. It is pitched somewhere between a personal note and a telephone call, and that's a problem: We will often write things that we would never say in person.
Before the net, I would sometimes write long letters to "get things off my chest"--then, thank God, I would tear them up. But now it is all too easy to go from thought to writing to pressing the "send" button.
What is the effect on the group when all this instant anger and instant reaction starts flying through cyberspace? Of course, if people write in anger, our first natural reaction is to shut down and be annoyed.
When Pirke Avot says, "Judge every person with the scale weighted in that person's favor," it means that we go out of our way to see the justice of the other person's position, and we should assume--unless absolutely proved otherwise--that the other person's motivations are good and coming from a good place.
I think if we mindfully examine our behavior in online discussions, then we can see it as an opportunity to practice a real renewal of Jewish spirituality in our own interactions. Because far too often, I see public Jewish discourse clouded by personal invective, anger, ego-wrangling--and what my friend Emily Toth calls peacocking. That's when a person stands up to talk with nothing to say. He fans out his colorful verbal feathers just to make a great display.
I'd like to suggest that the very way we do discussion with another person can be a spiritual practice and a teaching to one another.
The path is difficult. On the one hand, we should strive to express ourselves gently and reasonably. On the other hand, we should be patient with people who fail to do this. Why? Because the Torah teaches that we should not bear a grudge, so even if someone else starts off with name-calling and insults, we should strive not to respond in kind.
Through this practice, we can learn to value every precious voice--especially those we think are annoying, cranky, and challenging--and follow the advice in Pirke Avot to be like "the disciples of Aaron," the gentle priest, "loving peace and pursuing peace, one who loves [one's fellow] creatures and brings them close to the Torah."
That way, we can see our posting and responding as an attempt to live out how we would like our ideal Jewish community to function.