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How goodly is your Facebook page, oh Jacob!

By ReligionJuly, 2014January 19th, 20245 min read

I recently attended a panel session at Limmud Oz in Australia entitled “Is Facebook good for the Jews?” The panel – all experienced media professionals – spoke adoringly of the way Facebook has helped them share ideas with an ever-expanding network, and broaden their thinking horizons. It was akin to the ancient Talmud, they suggested, where a scholar would make a statement, and it would trigger a flood of discussion and banter.

I’m a very regular Facebook user, and especially enjoy the way Facebook has allowed me to share and discuss ideas with a diverse group of people, and to disseminate my own writing to a wide readership. While the panel’s observations are correct and resonated with me, these sophisticated Facebook users have missed the point.

Consider the scale and reach of Facebook: every month, more than 1.2 billion people use Facebook, and of those, some 60% of them use it daily (addicts like me). That’s 17% of the world’s population! The effective penetration rate is even higher if we exclude the countries of the world that either don’t have good Internet or block it.

A panel of elite thinkers lauding Facebook as an idea-sharing platform in the spirit of the Talmud is a bit like passengers on the Titanic admiring that part of an iceberg that is above the water level. When considering a Jewish approach to the impact of Facebook on society, we actually have to look much deeper than how it impacts the intellectual ‘one percenters.’

The place to look is this week’s Torah reading, which relates the story of the Moabite king Balak, who hires the corrupt gentile prophet Bilaam to curse the Jews. Things don’t quite go to plan, and time and again Bilaam continues to bless the Jews instead. The story culminates with the two protagonists ascending a mountain to get a view of the entire Jewish encampment, and Bilaam saves his best blessings for last, as he utters the famous words: “How goodly are your tents, oh Jacob” (Numbers 24:5). The biblical commentator Rashi explains that Bilaam saw that the tents were arranged in a staggered pattern so the opening of any tent was not directly across from the opening of any other tent.

These words of Bilaam were considered so significant that they have made their way into the daily prayers – the paragraph known as Mah Tovu – recited and sung by Jews worldwide every day at the very beginning of the morning service. It’s quite astounding that the Rabbis and scholars who composed the form of daily prayers would include the unintended blessing of such a wicked man. Indeed, this is the only prayer used in Jewish services written by a non-Jew.

What is so special about these words and who said them, and what do they have to do with Facebook and digital social media?

If someone told you ten years ago that one day a tool would emerge that allowed you to share the most banal aspects of your life with thousands of people, in a way that formed a permanent and undeletable record, your instinctive reaction would surely have been: “why would anyone want to do that?” Yet today, the ‘ninety-nine percenters’ – the vast majority of Facebook users – do exactly that on a regular basis.

The electronic word processing revolution that gave people access to hundreds of different fonts led to a collapse in typographic standards – people mix and match ugly fonts on the same page with no regard for aesthetics. In much the same way, the ability to publicly share things about our lives has led to a collapse in personal boundaries.

The Jewish ethical response to this was already in place nearly 3,300 years ago. When Bilaam stood on the mountaintop, he had an unprecedented perspective on the entire Jewish nation. And what stood out for him most of all? The Jewish attitude for personal privacy. The entire camp was laid out so that one could not look out the door of one’s tent into the tent of one’s neighbour.

We have an innate desire to know what our friends are doing, and indeed, to benchmark our lives against others. Facebook and other digital social media allow us to do this more efficiently than ever, but just because we can, should we?

By arranging their tents in a particular way, the Jews in the desert made a statement about the Jewish way to live: that they respect each other’s privacy, and choose not to live in a fishbowl, that they each aspire to be the best they can be without looking over their shoulders and judging themselves by what others are doing. This aspirational statement is reflected in the daily Mah Tovu, and what better way to start each day. And it took someone from outside the camp – Bilaam on the mountaintop – to recognize the big picture that we often miss ourselves.

David Werdiger looks to the weekly Torah reading and the famous words of the gentile prophet Bilaam for a deeper understanding of what Judaism says about the dangers of Facebook and digital social media.

This was also posted at [Algemeiner].

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