Monday, December 17, 2007

Frum Blogs

Frum Blogger – Hayelchu Yachdav?

by Rabbi Asher Meir

Gil brought my attention to a recent article by Zvi Frankel in the Jewish Observer warning about the dangers of blogs, and asked if I could make some comments (Zvi Frankel, "Blogs: Transgressing a Major Sin 'In the Name of Heaven': Possibly a Lack of Chinuch?" available online [with permission] here [PDF]). I think the author made a number of valid points, which I hope to use as a starting point for discussion of some of the unique dangers as well as benefits of blogging.

The main concern mentioned in the article is lashon hara. Also prominently featured is disregard for Torah scholars and community leaders. These are obviously valid concerns. Based on the Chafetz Chaim, the basic criteria for permitting any kind of derogatory speech is as follows:

  • The disclosure must be necessary for achieving some constructive purpose;
  • The intention must also be constructive;
  • The constructive aim must not be at the expense of undeserved harm to the subject of the disclosure (or anyone else).
The criteria for Torah leaders are not necessarily different, but in practice they will be fulfilled less often for two reasons:Click here to read more
  • While we are commanded to judge every member of our people favorably, this mitzvah applies with greater force to Torah scholars and leaders. So information which might be considered damning to an ordinary person may justify a more charitable interpretation to these individuals.
  • The damage done to the individual and the community is greater when leaders are scorned. So when we weigh the constructive purpose against the potential for harm, the equation will come out a bit differently.
Another important point is that even information which is true and in itself beneficial will not bring any benefit if it is not credible. If I make totally unsubstantiated allegations against someone, even if they are true and people should know about them, this doesn't qualify because no one is allowed to believe this kind of accusation and no rational person should. The gemara in Gittin 88b and 89a concludes that in general no credibility is granted to hearsay and rumors.

The "credibility criterion" (mentioned in Chafetz Chaim) is dramatized by a scenario recounted on Pesachim 113b. A man named Zigod witnessed an instance of ervah by someone named Tuvia. Zigod informed the Beit Din what he had seen; in response he was given lashes! The reason is that a single witness is not given credence in such a situation, and so no benefit is obtained from the report. It is no more than simple lashon hara. (This is nothing like the recent case in Saudi Arabia where the crime had a victim and it was the victim who reported the crime – and who was disgracefully punished for defending her rights.)

However, this very scenario points out a seeming exception to the usual rules of lashon hara. Zigod was not a litigant. A litigant is never punished for bringing a case. No matter how outrageous the claim and how categorical the acquittal, no litigant has even been lashed for his accusations in court. I suggest that the reason that accusations in court are not considered lashon hara is the strict procedural regulations surrounding these accusations. The following apply to any accusation made in Beit Din:
  1. All claims and testimony must be made in the presence of the opposing party;
  2. The opposing party has the opportunity to rebut any claims made;
  3. Only substantiated claims are acted on by the court.
The "blogosphere" shares certain of these characteristics. While it is possible to spread a rumor secretly, it is impossible to denigrate someone on a blog secretly. Transparency and universal availability are the defining characteristics of blogs. Any responsible blog, like any medium of communication, must give a right of response to anyone whose reputation may be damaged by its content. But the truth is that due to the large number of blogs, even someone who is denied "equal time" on a blog which attacked him (or her) has ready access to equally public forums to present his/her side of the story.

So while blogs are an ideal medium to spread lashon hara, they are an even more ideal medium to refute lashon hara. When rumors are spread furtively they have tendency to be vague, rapidly exaggerated, difficult to track down and nearly impossible to refute. But when they can be precisely tracked down to a public blog post, there is a full opportunity to make a proper refutation.

I think that we can all think of instances where blogs, including Hirhuim, have been instrumental in publicizing pertinent and reliable information defending people against hurtful and unfounded accusations.

Another important point is that blogs are not only a vehicle for discussing people. They are at least important as a forum to discuss ideas. The unique transparency of a blog makes it an ideal medium to discuss controversial topics. When controversies arise, it is both impossible and also unhealthy to suppress discussion on the appropriate position and direction for the community. We are not gifted with prophecy, but chacham adif minavi (a sage is preferable to a prophet) and nowadays we arrive at the truth by the method of the beit midrash – open and learned discussion within the limits of our beliefs. Many will promote positions that the community, and perhaps even the individual himself, may later conclude are mistaken. But there is a very broad opportunity to make one's thoughts and objections known.

I know for example that turning my columns into books was a weighty responsibility. In my columns, I could put in things when I was 99% sure, with the knowledge that first of all any factual or ideological mistakes would be uncovered by my many readers, and second of all that any mistakes discovered could be promptly disseminated to virtually the same individuals who saw the first, problematic version. I don't view this as a trap but rather a blessing. With the excessive caution which is absolutely justified in writing a book, many ideas would never see light.

One point made by Mr. Frankel which does not make sense to me is the claim that treif blogs somehow disqualifty kosher ones. I don't criticize the Jewish Observer for giving a hechsher to the National Enquirer, which is also a periodical. Any intelligent person can tell the difference.

So I agree with Mr. Frankel that many blogs are an irresponsible forum for spreading slander or plain old nonsense. It's a classic case of batala mevia liyedei zima/shiamum (Mishnah, Ketubot 59b) – idleness leads to license and mishegas. I think he is also correct to particularly warn about anonymous blogs. In response to a recent query on this topic, I told someone that anonymous blogs are fine if all of the content on them is also anonymous. Make up fictitious names for your friends and neighbors, make some composite characters for good measure, and tell the story of your neighborhood. But an anonymous or fictitious blogger peopling his blog with real people is a cowardly and forbidden mixture. The false identity serves as a shield against standing behind your statements. (I plan to dilate on this topic in a forthcoming column.)

However, I also acknowledge that blogs have unique advantages. They provide an easy tool to spread rumors, but also an unprecedented tool to respond to them in detail. The rumors are no longer in the control of the professional rumor-mongers. Controversial topics can be discussed openly and responsibly. Finally, the very legitimate problem of treif blogs raised by Mr. Frankel does not in my opinion reflect in any way on the many kosher ones.

Our Sages tell us that "falsehood has no stability" (hasheker ein lo raglaim). More precisely, falsehood has only one leg, and its standing is easily toppled, whereas truth has two legs and is hard to displace. (The source is a midrash of the letters shin-kof-reish versus the letters alef-mem-tav.) If we really believe this statement, then we should welcome any forum that gives equal time to falsehood and truth. Shadowy rumors are the home court of falsehood; truth cannot easily compete on its turf. But blog posts give full opportunity to clarify all sides of an issue, and this gives the greatest possible opportunity for truth to prevail.

Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir is Research Director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. Rabbi Dr. Meir received his PhD in Economics from MIT, and previously studied at Harvard. He subsequently studied at various Israeli yeshivot, and received his ordination from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Prior to moving to Israel, he worked at the Council of Economic Advisers in the Reagan administration. Rabbi Dr. Meir is also a Senior Lecturer in Economics at the Jerusalem College of Technology and has published several articles on the subjects of modern business and economics and Jewish law.

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