Facebook And Abraham’s Tent

by Erica Schacter Schwartz
Special To The Jewish Week

My Facebook profile is rather meager compared to most. I posted a few pictures of my husband and children and included some minimal information about myself — where I went to school, that I live in New York, that I am married, nothing too personal. I did not mention my favorite books or movies, my political leanings, nor my religion (I thought that between Schacter and Schwartz it was fairly obvious) although apparently, and unknowingly, I did join a Facebook group called “One Day Chag.”
In other words, I am not one of those people (at least not yet) who is constantly posting new tidbits about myself, my family or my friends. I do not have photo albums of trips to Florida or what my kids wore for Purim. Nor do I post my daily thoughts about Obama’s stimulus package, Netanyahu, how many pounds I gained over Pesach, or how late I slept on Sunday. (These are just some of the musings that infiltrate the Facebook pages of so many). But that said, I only joined Facebook a few weeks ago, so who knows what my “wall” will look like six months from now. 

Of course what engages me most about Facebook is my growing number of Facebook friends. For those of you who might never have seen a Facebook account, this means other Facebook members who have requested, or agreed to my request, to become their “friend,” a designation that grants us access to each other’s profiles and information. (Making Facebook friends is much quicker and easier than forming friendships offline.) And what fascinates me in particular about this rapidly expanding list is the religious cross-section of these Facebook users. Some are completely unaffiliated, some not Jewish, some are ultra-Orthodox. Facebook somehow transcends levels of religious observance. 

Which is surprising. Facebook is essentially cyber-voyeurism at its best. It is about checking people out, about poking our heads in other people’s business, hardly something that resonates with a religious ethic. And some people’s include profane messages and obscene pictures. Some member’s photos are more graphic than many R-rated movies (although in full disclosure, I too posted a nude picture, but it was of my 1-year-old). The point I am making is that it is certainly difficult to say that Facebook is consistent with the messages of tzniut — modesty, privacy of body and behavior. So what makes it popular even in more observant circles?

I think there is another side to Facebook. As its opening page says, “Facebook helps you connect and share with people in your life.” And that’s true. It allows people who know each other to make an additional level of connection. It allows people who do not live near each other to keep up with each other’s lives. It allows us to reconnect, albeit a little superficially, with old friends or acquaintances, like the nice person who lived down the hall from us freshman year of college. In other words, it reminds us of all the “networks” we were and are a part of, and how connected we really are to countless neighborhoods, schools and organizations. Facebook in this sense is about the importance of creating and maintaining personal connections, about remaining tied to our various communities. And this is a very Jewish idea.

In an ironic sense, I see Facebook as an online version of Abraham’s positioning of himself by the door way of his tent, looking for guests to invite into his home. Used appropriately, with the proper screening controls (a big hypothetical, no doubt) Facebook is Internet hospitality, hachnasat orchim, a doorway of sorts that allows us to see many people flash before our eye and literally click on them, asking them to become our friends and welcoming them into our lives. Granted, a Facebook friendship does not entail the same effort and preparation that Abraham and Sarah provided their guests, but it is a start.

Like Abraham, Facebook encourages us to actively search for people. It places before our eyes someone who has suffered a loss or an illness and reminds us to reach out to them. It puts in front of us those who are single and reminds us to think of someone we know for them. It tells us if someone was recently engaged or had a baby and reminds us to wish them a mazel tov. It allows us to introduce ourselves to someone in one of our networks — school, neighborhood, camp — we have not met. Facebook offers a constantly evolving database of everyone in our many communities, and gives us the opportunity to acquire, as the Mishnah tells us, a “friend.” n