Sunday, August 7, 2011

Should Rabbis be on Facebook? Part 2 (of 2)

Continued from this post.

Last week, I took part in a rabbinic discussion surrounding rabbis, Facebook and the Internet, and described some of my thoughts on what Facebook is good for (chatting, quick discussions, and sharing links and pictures) and what it's not good for (substantive discussions). That being said, do rabbis belong on Facebook, or should they stay away?
Interestingly, at the Tzohar Symposium which brought together rabbis from Israel and the Diaspora it was taken as a given, though, that Facebook (or some similar social networking site) would become increasingly native to the experience of the Internet, and that there really wasn't any way around social networking completely. Still, every one of the Diaspora rabbis sitting around the circle said that he was connected to Facebook, and every one of the Israeli rabbis was not.
The moderator of the discussion also raised another seemingly unrelated question. In Israel, websites which allow you to anonymously ask halachic questions have become very popular. Additionally, thousands of people send text-message shailot to numerous rabbanim, which you can read in the various weekly parshah sheets that litter the shuls each month. Yet, in the Diaspora this phenomenon is almost unheard of. Why do Israelis ask their shailot from rabbanim they don't know, while Americans do not?
Some of the answer might have to do with recognizable poskim in the Israeli world, and their availability over email. Here, everyone has heard of Rav Aviner, and they're comfortable asking him their questions, even over SMS. In America, who would you text your shailah to - who would actually get your text and answer you back? Still, one could suggest that if there was enough demand, rabbis would find a way to make themselves available. Is it really that hard to get Rav Belsky a phone with texting capabilities? (Those phones are only treif in the States. In America, I'm pretty sure that they're still kosher.)
Sitting at the conference, I got a strong sense that the different digital practices of rabbis from Israel and the United States stemmed primarily from our different sense of what it means to be a communal rabbi.
From my training and experience in the United States, the heart of what it meant to be a rabbi was to serve, help and know the members of my shul. Sure, I taught them, and I gave nice speeches. But the most critical aspect of my job was knowing what was going on in their lives; being there for them in times of need - be they sick or depressed or just lonely - and shepherding them, quite literally, through the most challenging times in the their lives, be in the loss of a loved one, or the tricky navigation of a simcha (which can be incredibly daunting). I knew - and they expected me to know - which one of their children was having trouble in school, and how they were doing in college. I couldn't always solve the problems. Often there was nothing that I could do. But a rabbi can and must serve as both a spiritual guide, and a sort of anchor, giving his "flock" a sense of balance and stability as they navigate the world.
In truth, this model is a uniquely "American" notion of the rabbinate, as it's really a form of servicing the spiritual needs of individuals. You're a social worker but also a sort of guru; a mentor, a spiritual model, sometimes a guide, and at others a teacher. It's all of the above. But you're never really separated from the people that you lead. You're not the same as them - not their friends really, but also not so distinct from them as to be distanced from their lives.
And that's exactly how I think Israeli rabbis perceive their rabbinic positions. They're available to answer questions, to teach and to guide. But they feel that it's not their business (or perhaps their role) to inquire into peoples' personal lives. It would be intrusive and out of place. Many seem to see their responsibilities primarily as that of teacher, speaker and posek. And if someone could get a p'sak from a source on the internet, why not? Why waste time answering someone's question when he can send a text-message to a gadol?
In fact, that was exactly the comment of one of the Israeli rabbis during our discussion. He said (and I'm paraphrasing), "I love when my members send the rabbanim text messages. It saves me time and energy. But I can't stand when they ask shul related questions, and then ask me why I say we should do things differently."
I was extremely surprised by his comment.
First and foremost, I really don't think that text messages are a good medium for halachic questions. Almost always the issue requires greater clarification, and cannot and should not be answered perfunctorily. More importantly, halachah is often very, very subjective. Any posek will tell you that in order to properly answer a question, he must know not only who is asking, but the background of the question. But that's another post.
I was most surprised by his comment because as a former shul rabbi rabbi, I wanted my members to feel that they could and should come to me with their questions. Shailot provided yet another path towards nurturing relationships with the members of the shul. Sometimes their questions were not personal: is the pot still pareve, and whether they could light candles early. But it's surprising just how personal seemingly innocuous questions can be - whether they were related to hilchot Niddah or Aveilut or Shabbat - they often revolved around very personal and individual considerations that were of great importance to the person asking the question. And, no matter what the answer, they knew that the rabbi understood what they were dealing with and the issues that they struggled with at any given time.
So, should rabbis be on Facebook? Yes, and no.
Yes, because when their member is stuck in a hospital today, with no one to reach out to, the rabbi is now aware that his member needs help.
Yes, because today it's an amazing tool to organize and plan events, especially for young people today. Instead of making phone calls and sending out email blasts, Facebook is a one-stop shop for effective and efficient program planning.
But then again, no. People share far too much on Facebook, and often its not the tone or content that's rabbinically appropriate. You wouldn't tell all of your dirty jokes to your rabbi, nor should you. And that goes for many of the posts and pictures people share on Facebook as well.
Which is why, at the meeting, I suggested a happy medium: the rebbetzin should be on Facebook. She could forward him the information he needs, without exposing him to the things he should not and hopefully doesn't want to see.
And yet, I think that my comments were totally lost on my Israeli colleagues. Because they come from such a different perspective on what it means to be a rabbi, they simply could not comprehend why they'd want or need Facebook. And if, as Tzohar says that it does, it wants to build a community rabbinate in Israel from the ground up, they're first going to have to do the most difficult thing of all: teach Israelis to rethink what it means to be a rabbi.