The Dark Side of Social Media

There’s a definite downside to being good with social media. You get to see all the things you’re not supposed to see; the pictures of your friends having a laugh together, all those times they “forgot” to invite you, the beautiful women your ex “likes” photos of on Facebook, the women you compare yourself to on a daily basis without their- or his- knowledge, because you know what buttons to press, what keys to click, to trigger that magical formula and see the things you’re not supposed to see. Photos hidden from timelines. Photos someone liked in 2016. Photos from people who- with good reason- aren’t your friends.

Yes, I think it’s fair to say that social media is a little invasive.

Normally, when I conduct these sort of searches, I feel guilty. I feel guilty for invading someone else’s privacy- whether it’s that of an ex, a fake friend, a potential partner or some girl I’ve never even met. I sometimes think about the halachos of this sort of thing, and wonder if my social media searches are ‘kosher’, so to speak, or if I’m breaking laws about privacy and respect- things which are very important in halacha.

But today, I felt a different sort of guilty. I felt guilty for what I was doing to myself. I tell myself that I’d sooner know the truth about all those times my friends excluded me, saying I probably wouldn’t enjoy whatever they’d planned, and that there’s no harm in scrolling through the photos of other girls which he has liked on Facebook. It’s just some harmless fun, they’re none the wiser- who’s hurt by it? The answer is: I am. My hobby (or perhaps addiction) has become a way of hurting myself over and over again, presenting my consciousness with a series of images with no context, torturing myself with fictitious stories of how, why and when, and leaving me feeling emotionally battered and bruised, even more unpopular than I was before I started searching.

I’m not one of those people who thinks social media is totally evil. Actually, I quite like it, and before I learned how to unearth all those things I wasn’t supposed to see, I think it did good things for me. It’s a place for me to share articles, thoughts, divrei Torah, and photos. It’s a way to connect with old friends, meet new ones, and keep in touch with some of my favourite people on earth. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel thankful for the beautiful photos, inspiration and messages I receive from the select few who make the whole going online thing worthwhile.

But then I come back to the point I made earlier, about privacy and respect in Jewish tradition and law. One of the most famous Jewish prayers is called Ma Tovu, meaning “How good”. Many have the minhag to recite this prayer upon entering a Shul, and growing up, despite my lack of Jewish education, I remember learning how to sing the prayer in the tradition of many Liberal and Reform shuls. The text of Ma Tovu begins with a line from Parshas Balak, which reads “How good are your tents, oh Yaakov, your dwelling places, oh Israel!”, before continuing with quotations from Tehillim.

Quite often, this raises a question: what was so good about the tents and dwelling places of the Israelites?

The answer is pretty simple. The tents were positioned as to give their occupants privacy, carefully aligning the openings so that inquisitive neighbours- the Israelite equivalent, perhaps, of me sitting in front of the computer, conducting Facebook searches on people who’d really rather be left alone- couldn’t see in. This was admirable, as it gave a sense of privacy and dignity to the Chosen People, which is why we laud their tents with lavish praise.

But today, I started thinking about the flip side of this issue. I think curiosity is a part of the human nature; we all have that underlying desire to know what’s going on in other’s lives, starting with reading our sibling’s diaries, and gradually progressing to stalking our exes on Facebook and Instagram (unless that’s just me). And consequently, I think that the set-up of the Israelite tents, so that prying eyes were physically unable to see in, was really rather clever. It didn’t just protect those who were inside- it protected the outsiders, too, from seeing things they weren’t supposed to see.

In many ways, social media is the opposite. What seemed like a blessing- my ability to find anyone and anything on Facebook- actually turned out to be a curse, as there was very little in place to protect myself- let alone the other person- from what I was doing. I think that in the back of my mind, I’ve known this for a long time, but it only came to the forefront of my consciousness today, when I saw a post from a Rabbi I follow (I may or may not be adding this in to prove that I use social media for “good” things, too), entitled “The Grass is Greener & Social Media”. He spoke about how his neighbour’s grass seems much greener than his, and it stays that way all year round, for the simple reason that it’s artificial. It’s the shrubbery equivalent of the Instagram filters and Snapchat stickers we use to mask our realities- the filters which I can spot from a mile away and yet which still fool me.

A few moments before I read his article, I’d been conducting those addictive Facebook searches, only to find a picture which upset me deeply, showing several of my friends at an event I hadn’t been invited to. And I commented on the rabbi’s insightful, thoughtful piece that I’d just been thinking about exactly the same topic, not realising that mere hours later I’d be revealing my social media habits to the whole wide world. Simply put, I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe in hashgocho protis- Divine providence. I think that these events collided for a very good reason, sending me a signal too strong to ignore. Maybe I’ve seen enough. Maybe it’s time to stop. Maybe I’m at a point in my life where I don’t need to chase after things which will never be mine, because I’m only making myself sadder and lonelier, and tearing myself away from those who truly care.

If all those years of saying “Mah Tovu ohelacha Yaakov, mishkenosecha Yisroel,” taught me anything, it’s that sometimes, privacy can be a good thing. Not just for those who are shielded by it, but for those who go searching. Those who, like me, will inevitably see things that make them wish they hadn’t started looking in the first place.

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Parshas Yisro: Reading the Commandments

In this week’s Parsha, Yisro, we read about the Asares HaDibros, the Ten Commandments which make up perhaps the best known part of the entire Torah. These ten laws, inscribed upon the two tablets which Moshe Rabbenu brought down from Sinai, form basic moral guidelines which almost everyone is familiar with; even those who had no Jewish education. But the commandments aren’t quite as simple as that; when we look to the wisdom of the Chazal, we find out that the two tablets actually contain a little known secret.

To discover this secret, we simply read the two tablets horizontally, as opposed to looking at one tablet at a time. When we do this, we are left with five pairings of commandments, each providing us with both a mitzvah and a reason for it. If this doesn’t make much sense, we need only look at these five pairs to understand what the Midrash is trying to tell us.

The very first commandment- telling us that Hashem is the L-rd our G-d- is paired with the sixth commandment, prohibiting murder. The Chazal teach us that this is because each human being is created in G-d’s image, and is deserving of love and respect. If we are to murder another human being, we are essentially murdering G-d. Then we have the second pair, containing two negative commandments; the prohibitions against idolatry and adultery. This teaches us that marriage is a Holy union, and when we transgress its boundaries, our actions are akin to idolatry.

The third pair is very similar to the first- it contains the prohibitions against taking G-d’s name in vain and stealing. Just as murdering someone is an affront to G-d, as a murderer destroys one of His precious creations, stealing from someone shows a lack of respect and love, and we know that when we treat our fellow man this way, we hurt G-d too, as if we have used His name in vain. The fourth and ninth commandments are also paired together, telling us that keeping Shabbes is a testimony to the Creation story, and G-d’s soevreignty over the world. This is why we stand when we make Kiddush; we stand as witnesses before G-d, and his Creation of the seventh day, and by breaking Shabbes, we are essentially bearing false witness.

Finally, we are left with the fifth commandment- honouring parents- and the tenth, which tells us not to covet our neighbour’s belongings. The Midrash tells us that just as the reward for honouring parents is long life, the punishment for not doing so is to raise children who turn away from their parents and act jealously- coveting, as we are commanded not to do in the tenth commandment.

As we read about these pairings of the Commandments, one message is repeated time after time; in order to honour G-d, we must honour those around us, and treat them with the respect and kindness they deserve. After all, every human being is one of G-d’s creations, and we can never truly serve Him if we are hurting those around us.

The Lesson of the Manna

In Parshas Beshaloch, we read about the manna which descended from heaven and sustained the Israelites as they lived in the desert. For forty years, this manna fed them, without the need for them to do any work. Every man had the same alloted amount of manna, and no matter how much one man toiled, or how little another did, they all remained equal.

This system was designed to remind the Israelites that their sustenance always comes from Hashem, but- understandably- it’s difficult to keep this mindset in the present day, when inequality is rife and we have to work for what we eat. The Rebbe reminds us that even though things seem very different nowadays, they’re in fact exactly the same: no one receives any more of less than what is allotted by G-d.

The Rebbe reminds us that the mitzvah of Shabbes contains a similar lesson to that of the manna. Initially, keeping Shabbes seems like a bad business decision, and a way to lose one’s income, but in fact, keeping Shabbes is an exercise in recognising our true source of sustenance- Hashem. Even if we have to work for a living in this day and age, we must always remember the lesson which the manna taught us, about our one true provider.

Parshas Bo: The Secret of Success

People often ask me why so many successful and intelligent people are Jewish. They aren’t always quite so sensitive; indeed, I’m very aware of the accusations that we control the banks, media, government and education system. Needless to say, these myths are no more than age-old attempts to stir up anti-Semitism, but the stereotype of Jews as highly educated and intelligent remains, and the more I thought about it, the more I began to realise that perhaps there’s a grain of truth in this stereotype. Indeed, 22.5% of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish- that’s despite the fact that Jews make up 0.2% of the world’s population, giving us a 112.5% above average proportion of Nobel Prizes, and in-depth studies have been conducted by respectable publications in an attempt to work out exactly why Ashkenazi Jews have such a high average IQ. There’s no denying it; the statistics back up the hypothesis that Jews are proportionately more likely to be intelligent. But why?

I glanced briefly at the scientific attempts to explain this extraordinary phenomenon, before turning to something a little different; a kind of wisdom which, I believe, contains the answer to Jewish genius. It’s this week’s Parsha, Parshas Bo, in which we continue reading the story of the exodus from Mitzrayim. We learn about the plagues of locusts, darkness and the death of the Egyptian firstborns, and then we are given the commandments of consecrating the firstborn, wearing tefillin and commemorating the Exodus.

Alongside the mitzvos of removing all traces of leaven from our houses (the reason why we clean for Pesach) and eating unleavened bread named matzah, we are commanded to tell the Pesach story to our children. This isn’t the only time that the importance of education is emphasised in Jewish texts. The first paragraph of the Shema- arguably the most central Jewish prayer- reads “You shall teach them [the mitzvos] thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road”. It’s clear that Judaism doesn’t take education lightly. On the contrary, in the Shema, the importance of education comes before the mention of learning Torah at home and in the streets- something which is hugely important for the Jewish neshomo.

Parents aren’t just commanded to teach their children the exodus story, and the wisdom of the Torah. We are also required to teach our children how to swim. And I believe that the secret to Jewish wisdom and success lies in these laws, and our rich educational heritage. Metaphorically, the Jewish method of education is a lot like the swimming lessons we have to give our children. We present them with a pool of knowledge- the Torah, Talmud, Midrashim, and countless other texts- and teach them how to ‘swim’ in it- how to immerse themselves in the knowledge, how to work their way through it; how to live it.

When we read this week’s Parsha, and when we hear the rumour and hypotheses about Jewish intelligence, we need to remember our duty to our children. They are the future of this planet, and the Jewish mission is to leave the world in a better state than it was when we found it. This principle- Tikkun Olam- is one of the reasons why we must dedicate ourselves to the intellectual and emotional education of our children, something which has formed the backbone of Jewish life throughout history, and something which continues to make us a ‘light among the nations’ to this very day.

On Hair Covering and Hate Speech

There’s a disturbing picture doing the rounds on social media, showing a collage of women’s photos. These photos show frum Jewish women with beautiful shaytelach, along with a shocking caption calling these women sinners, and making some disgusting comparisons which I don’t intend to repeat. This collage shows real women, with real faces- not blurred or covered- whose images were used without their consent as part of a piece of propaganda which breaks every rule in the book.

It upset me deeply.

Not only did this person use horrible, stomach churning language, and steal women’s photos without their permission, but they completely forgot about the difficulty of the mitzvah which is hair covering. Simply put, it is hard. It makes your hair thinner and duller, it’s expensive (sometimes), and on a hot day it’s pretty much unbearable. And yet these women throw themselves into it, and buy beautiful wigs to make themselves and their husbands happy.

And then someone goes and calls them prostitutes.

After all the money spent, all the sacrifices made, all the frustration and doubt- they get slandered for their efforts and described using words which shouldn’t be applied to any women, never mind extremely modest ones such as these. Whoever created this photo should realise that they’re driving women away from a beautiful mitzvah; in fact, they’re driving women away, full stop.

There’s a saying that “he who is overly stringent on one mitzvah [in this case, tznius], forgets another mitzvah- that of Ahavos Yisroel”. It means that whenever we take halachos to the extreme, we risk hurting others. It’s perfectly fine for us to be extremely tzniusdik or keep kosher to a very strict level- but when we start imposing our guidelines on others- especially when we use disgusting language as used on this poster- we fail to fulfil the biggest mitzvah of all.

No mitzvah is so important that it overrides Ahavos Yisroel, and certainly no chumra. We need to remember this when we interact with others, especially when we consider ourselves “more observant” than them, because at the end of the day, our strictly kosher kitchens and bulletproof stockings aren’t going to distract G-d from the actions we take and the words we speak.

Converts and How We View Them

Everyone has certain issues which are especially close to their heart. It might be a particular area of halacha, or a social issue; perhaps you are an advocate for furthering women’s involvement in communal life, or for eliminating child abuse in the Jewish community. For me, the issue is the treatment of geirim (converts).

The Torah is very clear about how we should treat gerim. We are not only commanded to love every Jew, but there is an additional commandment to love converts. We’re forbidden to remind them of their past, and in fact, we aren’t even supposed to remind them that they are converts. Their Hebrew names, ‘child of Avrohom v’Soroh’ remind us that they, too, are the children of our ancestors, and they, too, where there when the exodus from Mitzrayim took place.

So why is the reality so different for many geirim?

A part of my life in the Jewish community involves meeting and working with geirim. Many of my closest friends were not, in fact, born Jewish, and a number of others whom I have met have spoken to me about the struggles they face. Those undergoing a reform conversion often feel pushed away by orthodoxy. “I wish I could be modern Orthodox,” one friend told me. “But they’d never accept me as I am. My Jewish status is never going to be accepted by everybody, now”. Reform conversions are not halachically accepted. Although reform converts can make aaliyah, they cannot get married in Israel, or marry orthodox Jews.

I spoke to reform converts about how they feel about this. “I would never want to move to Israel, anyway,” one told me. “Why would I want to go there if they aren’t going to treat me as a Jew?”. Another told me that the issue of their Jewish status plagued them every day, and a third began an orthodox conversion, even though she disagreed with some social elements of orthodoxy. “I wanted to do a ‘proper’ conversion,” she told me, but she ended up quitting the conversion due to the shul’s treatment of her.

It’s easy for me, as someone who was born into this religion, to say that they aren’t dedicated enough. This is an exclusive club, and if people aren’t even willing to sacrifice corporeal pleasures, why should we be expected to accept them? But is that the reality- or are we making conversion unnecessarily hard?

When we look at Megillas Rus, the story of Judaism’s most famous convert, and the commentaries surrounding it, we find that conversion was probably a lot simpler ‘back then’. By today’s standards, it is unlikely that Rus would be accepted as a Jew! Understandably, things are different nowadays, and conversion requires a lot of dedication. This means years spent studying, shul attendance, and, of course, keeping the mitzvos. We also know that it’s forbidden to encourage conversion, and that it’s customary to discourage converts- but do we go too far in discouraging them?

The orthodox converts whom I have met largely agree. One told me that they are anxious every time they have a meeting or receive an email from the Beis Din, as they ‘just know’ that they will be rejected. I happen to know that they are extremely dedicated, but the fear remains. Another has been offered next to no support from their sponsoring rabbi, who seems to take discouraging conversion to an entirely new level. They shared their fears about what will happen after conversion, as well; “People have refused to accept me as a Jew, even though I converted Orthodox,” one told me. “I’ll never get married,” another wrote. “Who would want to marry a convert?”.

I think about some of the converts I know. Not only are they close friends, but many are, in fact, role models. They have endured not only the gruelling conversion process, but the ups and downs of difficult lives- and they have remained faithful throughout. They inspire me, but they also make me wonder if I could ever endure the prejudice they have faced. The most recent generation of converts, and those in the conversion process, seem worried about their future. They feel that people are not only making conversion as hard as possible- something they can almost understand- but they completely forget the mitzvah of never reminding a convert of their past, and allow prejudice to seep into their interactions with converts. Almost all of the people I have spoken to faced discrimination at some point, and others reported physical attacks in supposedly ‘frum’ areas.

So what exactly should we do?

I’m not asking for us to start encouraging people to convert. That would be forbidden. But I am asking us to look critically at the conversion process and ask ourselves, and our dayanim, if it is really necessary to make it so gruelling and drawn out, and so filled with discouragement and difficulty. Is this really what G-d would want us to do, when the potential convert already has a Jewish neshomo?

But above all, I’m asking us to look at the way we treat converts. If you’re reading this article right now, it’s unlikely that you contribute greatly to the issue, but the problem of discrimination against converts is very real, very widespread, and very ossur. Converts already have challenges. Many spend festivals alone, without families to go to; others lose their jobs for taking time off. Lots of them face anti-Semitism from family and old friends, and throughout, many feel that they lack a support system. We need to be that support system. Not just because it’s a mitzvah, but because the prejudice is real, and if we want to be good Jews, we need to recognise that, and counter it with true ahavos Yisroel.

Gut Yontiff!

As soon as Yom Kippur finished, many of us began preparing for Sukkos, by building (and in some cases, decorating) the Sukkah, purchasing the four species, and, of course, cooking special meals for the yontiff. Sukkos is an extremely joyous holiday, and after the solemnity of Yom Kippur (and to an extent, Rosh Hashono), the happiness of the festival is especially welcome.

The first and last two days of Sukkos are like Shabbes, on which we may not perform any work. The two exceptions are cooking and carrying, which are permitted if they are necessary. On the intermediate days- chol hamoyed- necessary work is permissible, but generally avoided in favour of taking pleasurable trips.

In London, candles can be lit tonight at 6:13 PM, and after 7:18 PM tomorrow evening. Shabbes starts at 6:09 PM on Friday, and ends at 7:14 PM on Saturday night. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Shmuel Yosef ben Soroh Malka, Moshe ben Hadasa, Moshe ben Genya, Chashachana bas Bryna, Chana bas Mushka and Rivka Miriam bas Tsivia Bina. Thank you, and gut yontiff!