Digital Atonement

A public apology for Yom Kippur on Facebook.

Coming from a non-observant family of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union to Israel, a country where many people tend to lead secular lifestyles to begin with, I wasn’t raised in a particularly religious environment. In fact, I can count on fewer than five fingers the times that I stepped foot in a synagogue during my childhood.

But one aspect of the Jewish faith that has always appealed to me, and likely appeals to many other Jews, is its introspective morality. Every fall season, we look back on the past year in advance of Yom Kippur, determine whom we have wronged, and try to atone for our interpersonal sins with sincere apologies.

Around the time of Yom Kippur last year, I felt that I had unintentionally offended an old friend of mine. I then decided to make an apology. Belief in God or prayer aside, this felt to me like the decent thing to do.

Without too much thought about the medium, I made the apology through a Facebook message. Although the apology was accepted, I later questioned whether I had handled this the right way.

In the fast-paced world we live in today, in which many social interactions are already conducted online, can apologizing on social media be considered true atonement? JNS.org surveyed Jewish religious leaders across denominations on the subject.

Popular Jewish blogger and social media expert Rabbi Jason Miller strongly argues against technology-facilitated atonement.

“I’m a fan of face-to-face communication or, when not possible, a phone call. It’s important for people to hear your voice when you apologize. Sending an email, text message or Facebook message is a good start, but it’s not sufficient for the performance of teshuvah (atonement),” Miller said.

Miller maintains that face-to-face communication should remain the preferred mode of teshuvah, because it is much more difficult to ask for repentance in person.

In fact, according to Rabbi Joshua Rabin, director of kehillah enrichment (organizational development) at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, people often tend to apologize via social media “because sometimes it’s just easier to type a message to somebody than to look them in the eye.”

But there’s one exception, Rabin argued: “if the wrong you committed was actually through social media.”

“If you were to write a really nasty tweet about somebody … I think that any teshuvah process should involve you actually apologizing through that medium to begin the process, because that’s where the wrong was committed,” he said.

Rabbi Roni Handler, who has served as director of community learning for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and executive editor of Ritualwell.org — a website committed to blending Jewish tradition with innovation — also believes that if the sin being atoned for is directly connected to social media, “there’s actually something really powerful about stating that [apology] online.”

“But it shouldn’t be that we just state it and then go back to our regular behavior,” she added. “That, in fact, is not doing teshuvah according to any Jewish scholar.”

Handler believes there is a difference between posting a public apology on social media and sending a direct social media message to an individual. Posting a public apology has its place and value, though in many cases it should be just the first step on the way to teshuvah, Handler said. Regarding direct messages on social media, their suitability for atonement “depends on the relationship itself,” she said.

Rabbi Esther Lederman, director of communities of practice at the Union for Reform Judaism, also cautions against making a mass apology on social media because forgiveness in the Jewish tradition must be sought “directly from the person you have hurt” and is “also about repairing the relationship, which can’t be done anonymously.”

Additionally, when it comes to apologizing to someone directly via social media, Lederman believes that the medium is less significant than the intention of the apology.

“I’ve had very meaningful exchanges by chat and email, although I am also someone who prefers to communicate with a person by voice,” she said.

Lederman said she fears a world in which “technology will replace the real human-to-human contact that is necessary for sacred engagement.” If this occurs, she said, “What is the point in gathering together as a community at an appointed time? I believe there is a sacred purpose to that, and I don’t want email, Facebook or Twitter to ever replace this.”

The social media editor of Chabad.org, Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone, emphasized that the most important aspect of atoning for interpersonal transgressions is understanding that forgiveness in Judaism centers on how the aggrieved person receives the apology. If that person feels they were apologized to in the right way, then whatever the medium is becomes less significant.

“When we wish to truly convey the emotional impact of our words, we must make sure we truly understand how they will appear,” Lightstone said.

That appearance, in turn, will differ depending on whoever is receiving the apology.

“To some, nothing short of a phone call before Yom Kippur would be considered a serious and honest form of asking forgiveness,” Lightstone said. “To others, the very thought of a phone call would be considered unnecessary and even socially awkward. It takes a true understanding of who your friends are to really know the best way to reach out.”

Lightstone, therefore, is unlikely to consider my aforementioned decision to apologize to my friend via Facebook as invariably wrong, as long as the apology was truly accepted.

“If I’m able to truly convey my heartfelt remorse with an emoji and a short message, and I know that the person receiving it will be fully comforted or even prefer that text [over a phone call or face-to-face apology], then I’m happy to do so,” he said. JN

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