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“Like”- Hate Relationships? Torah Perspectives on Social Media Use

by | Mar 10, 2019 | Can We Talk? Spring 2019 | 0 comments

Unless you live in an extreme community which shuns technology, most likely you, your children, or your students are active social media users. Through social media people are spending more time in conversation with “online friends” than they are with face-to-face friends and family. How does this new kind of relationship impact our human need for social fulfillment? How does the language we use on Facebook or Instagram differ from the way we speak in interpersonal conversations? How are these changing models of engagement affecting ourselves and our communities?

Of course, new social technologies have the potential to do good: to reconnect with old friends, raise awareness of social injustice or call out antisemitism. Yet, a few recent studies have revealed that online relationships and conversations can’t replace real-life interactions, and that the more time people spend on online correspondence the lonelier and angrier they become. As Jewish educators, what wisdom can we draw on from Jewish sources to offer our students guidance on how to navigate this challenging new world?

Friendship, Positive Speech and Torah Values

It is a Jewish value to be social and interact with others and to nurture quality friendship. The mishna in Avot (1:6) instructs one to “acquire for yourself a friend,” implying that friendship is important enough to require investment. The Talmud (Berakhot 31a) compares parting with a friend to the way one should approach God in tefilla, emphasizing that both should be done thoughtfully and with care. What is the state of friendship today? Studies have shown that the average number of friends Americans have is shrinking, having gone from 3.2 friends on average 27 years ago to 1.8 friends today, due in part to the increasing amount of time people spend online. Other studies have shown that teenagers are safer physically today because they are spending less time going out with friends and more time in front of a screen. However, this is having a negative impact on their happiness levels and mental health.

Another side effect of the increase in online socializing, is that people are becoming more polarized in their own beliefs and spending more time speaking negatively and criticizing others. Something about the virtual world allows people to feel freer to lash out at each other, in a way they would not do when face-to-face. As the New York Times columnist David Brooks explains, “In the age of social media, virtue is not defined by how compassionately you act. Virtue is defined by how vehemently you react to that which you find offensive. Virtue involves the self-display of a certain indignant sensibility, and anybody who doesn’t display that sensibility is morally suspect.” It seems that people are losing their ability to engage in respectful debate and that more and more people are choosing to listen only to ideas which reinforce what they already believe. Both of these phenomena, the angry speech and the loss of our ability to differ respectfully on contentious subjects, conflict with Jewish values.

The ability to communicate is the defining character of humankind. In Bereishit, Targum Onkelos translates nefesh haya (referring to humans) as ruah memallela, a speaking spirit. Rashi elaborates on this and states that people are distinct because they possess the characteristics of knowledge and speech. Speech is a gift, but it is from God and has a spiritual aspect to it. The Talmud (Pesahim 3a) teaches the importance of speaking positively from the story of Noah and the flood. When Noah is commanded to choose from the animals who are ritually pure and impure, the impure animals are called “those that are not pure,” (rather than impure) a lengthier and indirect description, to avoid using a negative term and to emphasize the importance of speaking in a positive manner. Humankind is imbued with the power of speech and is encouraged to use it positively.

Regarding the loss of the art of respectful debate, Hillel and Shammai, are held up as the model par excellence of mahloket “for the sake of heaven.” These two schools of thought argued about one halakha for three years, until a heavenly voice decreed that “both are the words of the living God, yet, the halakha is in accordance with Beit Hillel.” The Talmud suggests  that the reason Beit Hillel was preferred is because they were respectful and always taught the dissenting view of Beit Shammai before they presented their own teachings (Eruvin 13b). Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai provide a model for respectful dialogue which is being lost today as a result of increased social media use and its negative side effects.

This is not to say that all beliefs are acceptable and worthy of respectful debate. Racism, hate-speech, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism all need to be called out for what they truly are and fought against. There is a need to redefine which subjects are worthy of vehement debate and at the same time, which personalities are not worthy of respectful dialogue (take holocaust deniers, for example). With this background, how can Jewish educators open up conversations and use the classroom as a lab for creating positive, healthy respectful dialogue skills among students?

Practical Suggestions

Before we attempt to teach our students about the importance of friendship and the pitfalls of overuse of social media, and before we provide skills for introspection for how we speak online and how to increase our ability to listen to those we disagree with, we need to take a moment to think about our own behavior. How many of us speak regularly with a friend with whom we don’t see eye to eye on significant issues? How do we balance the friendship so that we talk about what we have in common at least as much as subjects on which we differ? Let’s take a look at our own relationship with technology. How much time do we spend on Facebook, Whatsapp, and Instagram, and how does that compare to the amount of time we spend with friends and family in a “notification-free” environment?

Now, the students. The sources and articles provided here are a good springboard for conversation about smartphones, friendship, happiness and healthy dialogue. Students themselves may have ideas and suggestions from their own experience relating to this topic. Additional suggestions include:

  • Students log their social time/phone use for a week or a month, to establish awareness of their own behavior.
  • Research shows that designated “technology-free” time can balance out some of the negative side effects of social media time. Families can be brought into this project, and goals can be suggested such as: no phones at meal time, no Internet after __ time at night, etc. Moreover, this is an opportunity to teach about the beauty of Shabbat, a built-in day every week where we turn off the phone, for our benefit.
  • Engaging in healthy, respectful debate on Israel, politics, and other subjects in the classroom and developing good practices for respectful debate.
  • “Gratitude journaling/sharing” a concept developed by positive psychologists, where students write down 3 things they are grateful for each day, a practice known to have a direct benefit on people’s happiness levels. Or, beginning the day with students saying something positive about another student, a practice which enhances relationships and positivity.


A friend of mine recently shared with me that when she has family get-togethers she tries to avoid talking about a number of subjects she feels passionately about because other family members strongly disagree with her beliefs and neither side can understand the perspective of the other. This is representative of a greater breakdown in our society, where people are losing the ability to talk to anyone who does not see eye to eye with them. People are living in their own echo chambers, reinforced by virtual relationships, which are not strong enough to satisfy the natural human need for true, deep friendship. By creating and modeling good practices in the classroom, Jewish educators can play our part in imporving the lives and happiness of our students, who can in turn each have their own positive impact on the world

Karen Miller Jackson

Karen Miller Jackson

Karen Miller Jackson is a Jewish educator, who recently completed Matan HaSharon’s Morot l’Halakha program for women’s advanced halakha learning. She develops educational content for Lookstein Virtual and also directs Kivun l’Sherut, a guidance program for religious high school girls before army and national service.

See all the previous issues of Jewish Educational Leadership

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