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The Social Network – My Friend has a Friend

October 25, 2010 – 7:17 pm6 Comments

By David Werdiger

In the weekly portion of the same name (Numbers/Bamidbar 22), Balak, the king of Moab, commissions the gentile prophet Balaam to curse the Jews who are travelling through his land on their way to Israel. While Balaam plays along (and is happy to accept Balak’s money), ultimately he is unable to disobey God and at every attempt, instead of cursing them, confers upon them some of the most beautiful and prophetic blessings in the Chumash. In his third and final attempt, while Balaam is looking down at the Jews’ encampment, he utters the classical phrase: “How lovely are your tents, Jacob; your dwelling places, Israel”.

Quite incredibly, the blessing of this evil man found its way into the daily morning prayers, as the opening verse of the prayer Mah Tovu (according to some nuscha’ot of prayer, the very first thing recited each morning). It is the only piece of liturgy attributed to a non-Jew (as an aside, in the prayer customarily recited by some congregations during the Priestly blessing (birchat Kohanim) on Festivals, we pray to God that any bad dreams be transformed to good ones, and invoke Balaam as the prototypical example of such a radical transformation from bad to good).

Rashi, in his commentary on the Chumash, wonders what exactly was so good about the Jews’ encampment in the eyes of Balaam. Observing them from atop a cliff, Balaam noticed that the tents were arranged so that the doors were not directly across from one another; it is appropriate that the Godly presence should rest upon them as they were following a code of modesty – “tzni’ut”. Their tents were positioned in a manner that would afford each family its privacy, and they did not, nor did they desire to, look into each other’s tents without permission.

The attribute of modesty is linked to God’s presence and protection, as alluded to in scripture: “… walk humbly (hatzneah lechet) with God” (Michah 6:8), and “… that He see no immodesty (ervat davar) amongst you, and turn away from you (Devarim 23:15). Indeed, after Balaam’s lack of success, they sent Moabite women to seduce the Jewish men, which resulted in a plague.

This came to me while thinking about the Jewish attitude toward social networking web sites like Facebook and Twitter, which have revolutionized the way we communicate with each other. These platforms encourage us to have friends (so many friends that I don’t know who my real friends are any more), and to share aspects of our life with them. But is sharing such a good thing? And how much is enough? Indeed, Twitter, where this is done using phrases limited to just 140 letters and often from a mobile phone (this is how it started in the US, and was because of the technical limit in the size of an SMS), came under fire in its early days as people would post the most banal minute-by-minute commentary on their lives: “had eggs for breakfast”, “train running late”.

The Torah well understood the power of the network, which is expressed so succinctly in the Talmudic principle: “your friend has a friend, and your friend’s friend has a friend” (as an aside, the “be discreet” appended in some quotations is incorrect). It is used in a handful of places (Tractates Ketubot, Bava Batra, Erchin) to convey the principle that once you have told something to three people, it is deemed to be public knowledge. Anyone who has had an e-mail forwarded without their knowledge or consent can certainly empathize with this.

In an article about Muslim censorship of social media, Liel Leibovitz argues that the so-called “Web 2.0” – internet-based applications that facilitate collaboration – is governed by a logic that is inherently Jewish. While this may hold for group or collaborative learning (for example, in hundreds of years of the development of the Talmud and its subsequent commentators), the notion of living our day-to-day lives in the public internet is an inherently un-Jewish concept.

Social networking is a powerful tool, yet it’s way too easy to over-share. This modern phenomenon conflicts with the principles of tzni’ut and privacy espoused by the Torah, and certainly dilutes the notion of friendship. The lesson of Mah Tovu is that we should ensure that our virtual tent doors are not directly across from those of all of our friends.

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  • Mark Symons says:

    …“How lovely are your tents, Jacob; your dwelling places, Israel…”:

    Rather than “How lovely are your booths” – thus supporting the view that the Sukkot that bnei yisrael lived in in the wilderness were the Clouds of Glory rather than actual booths.

    …Mah Tovu…is the only piece of liturgy attributed to a non-Jew…:

    There’s one more that I’m aware of – In the 5th of the special HaRachamans added to Birkat Hamazon after a Seudat Brit Mila, the Jewish people are referred to as “Am echad mefuzar umeforad bein ha-amim” (one nation spread amongst the nations) – a description originally uttered by none other than Haman

  • Mark Symons says:

    I meant to add: Scattered amongst the peoples, yet socially networking only with each other…

    And one more of Balaam’s blessings(Numbers 23:21) has found its way into Musaf for Rosh Hashana, as one of the 10 “Kingship” verses.

  • Eli says:

    Although I am loathe to mention anything written by Liel Leibovitz , since his more recent article on Tablet, titled Roadside Rage. The one you mentioned David, argues that it is no coincidence that Jews have been involved in some of the biggest changes to the way people exchange, collect and debate information. Google, Oracle, Wikipedia, and eBay just to mention a few.

    He says that “Judaism, of course, has been doing just that for millennia, seeing the creation of commentary and content as the highest—sometimes only—forms of religious and communal life.”

    And although applications such as Facebook have permeated many people’s lives where they feel the need to open “the virtual door” it has led to the Jewish community especially in the diaspora, learning, meeting, and engaging one another on level never known before.

    The privacy of our homes is certainly sacrosanct, but inviting others into our homes, just as Abraham, in the spirit of growing our understanding of one another and community coherence is worth some small inconvenience.

    Sometimes our over zealousness of adherence to a strict modesty, focuses too much on the potential ‘evils’ and creates communities that suppress and segregate. Perhaps what Balaam admired was the unity of Israel, in the dwelling places.

    Leibovitz was responding to Pakistan’s banning of websites that they felt were suspected of anti-Muslim agitation. In that Muslim country like many others that promote the very same adherence to a strict view on modesty, we should be careful not to confuse interaction and collaboration with sinfulness

  • frosh says:

    In the last month or so, I have heard several people discuss how they had just revised their privacy settings on Facebook, so that, for example, their photos or status updates etc can now only be seen by ‘friends’ rather than open to ‘friends of friends.’

    The amazing thing about Facebook is that we (people in my circles at least) went very quickly from having never used or even heard of Facebook (think back to 2006) to having our lives very much revolve around and be organised by it (2007). As an example, suddenly every social or community function one might be attending was there on Facebook with an (albeit unreliable) list of who would be attending, who would not be attending, and who may be would be attending. Prior to this, I don’t think it was the norm that someone would have a party and the invitation and attendee list would be known to everybody.

    This was a very rapid social change, and I think a lot of people (including me) are only just starting to take a step back to consider the possible negative consequences of the medium.

  • Harold Zwier says:

    Perhaps on some level David’s article invites navel gazing; reflecting on people who comment on articles published on blogs. Is the act of commenting under a blogname an act of modesty, fear, deception or maybe disinhibition?

    In pre internet times, was an equivalent act, starting a rumour by saying “I heard this juicy news….”, allowing the teller to make a comment without attribution?

  • frosh says:

    Hi Harold

    I think that people commenting under a pseudonym is ok provided they are not commenting about a person or an area of controversy that they are not remote from, or where it could be assumed that people could have a conflict of interest. This is particularly so when people are expressing strong opinions and even more so when they are claiming knowledge not publicly available of a controversial nature (e.g. “I have inside information that Rabbi [insert name] …”)

    Hence, on a topic such as the one we are discussing here, I do not see the harm in people using pseudonyms. Some people perhaps do feel comfortable in the public eye, even in a purely written forum.

    However, with regard to a local controversy (e.g. kashrut, or Lion FM), I think one should give little weight to comments from those who are not identifiable in the real world.

    It is easy to make claims when one does not have to be at all accountable for them.

    Those not wishing to disclose their identity ought to moderate their expression so as to not take advantage of their anonymity.

    The other issue with pseudonyms is that some people like to use multiple pseudonyms even within the same thread, and thus creating the false impression of a consensus or partial consensus – this is just blatantly dishonest.

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