The Ten Commandments of the Internet (Parshat Tazria – Metsora)

By Rabbi Pauline Bebe, Communauté Juive Libérale in Paris, France

Jewish Tradition, by a play on words, associates metsora to motsi shem ra [slandering] (TB, Ar. 15b); the one who is affected by the disease of tsoraat– a disease that no one is able to identify, since it affects people, houses and clothing – to one who utters literally “a bad name,” who slanders. This association also comes from the biblical story (Numbers 12: 1) when Miriam, Moses’ sister, says something bad about Moses’ wife. We are not told what she says but Miriam is subsequently stricken with this same strange sickness. This disease is not something we might easily relate to today, especially the fact that a particular behavior would cause the immediate intervention of God, but what we can indeed easily relate to is gossiping or misusing our language. The Jewish tradition has always insisted on the correct use of language;  works, such as the Havets Hayyim’s Shemirat Halashon (1873; in “Sefer Shemirat Halashon“, Israel Meir Hacohen), is but an example of the extensive literature in this domain.

What always strikes me as amazing is that we live in a world of “mega” communication. Human beings have never communicated so fast, so efficiently, and over such great distances as with the Internet. The mere example of this phenomena is this drasha that I am writing on a TGV speed train, going from Paris to Tours, and by tomorrow these words will be sent all over the world to the different constituents of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Yes, we are communicating through text-messages, phones, blackberries, computers, facebook (I watch my children talking with 25 different people at the same time, sending sms, listening to music and  – they assure me – doing their homework), but on the other hand, we are not spending any extra time paying attention to the most basic tool of language: words, devarim.

Yet words have exactly the same power today as at the time of the Bible: they can soothe, they can hurt, they can bring hope or despair, joy or anguish. Because communication is so immediate, we often do not think of the power of words, especially when writing emails.

Therefore I would like to suggest 10 guidelines, based on our tradition, which could lead us to a more ethical use of the Internet:

1. You shall always reread a message before sending it. Hillel said: “Do not express in unintelligible words with the hope of being understood later” (Pirkei Avoth 2: 4). This might be, by the way, the real meaning of peroshim / pharisees [rabbinical interpretations] that we are the spiritual heirs of, i.e., “not the ones who are separated but the ones who are explicit!”

2. You shall wait before responding to a message that upsets you; never answer immediately. Ben Zoma says “hakovesh eth yitsro“: who is the true hero, the one who conquers one’s passion (Pirkei Avoth 4:2).

3. Never talk about a third person in an email except for tachles matters (Lashon Shelishith TB, Ar. 15b)

4. Do not judge someone without first being in his or her place (Pirkei Avoth 2:5, in the name of Hillel)

5. Do not transfer an email without the author’s permission. (When someone says something to one’s friend, the latter may not repeat it unless the first gave permission [TB Yoma 4b]).

6. Do not circulate information without having first checked its veracity (the seal of the Eternel is truth, emeth). (TB, shb.55a; Yom.69b ; Sanh.64a)

7. Do not disclose private information (Megaleh Sod TB, Sanh. 31a)

8. Do not openly show images or information that should be kept private about yourself. Bilam is said to have admired the tents of Israel because their windows were not facing each other, thus guarding each other’s privacy.

9. Do not defame (lashon hara) (TB, BM 58b)

10. Do not be a talebearer (rekhilout) (Lev. 19:16). Rabbi Nehemiah taught: “do not be like the peddler who transports the words of one to the other and the words of the other to the one” (TJ. Pe 1:1, 16a).

We often think that e-mails or text messages are like oral conversation; that once the words are pronounced they disappear, but it is not the case. They stay in the minds of people that have been hurt, and the pain is difficult to erase. A little click can cause a great shock: let us take our time, zeman nakat, let us hurry slowly so that we be motsi shem tov – uttering good words, words of good.