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Your Talmudic advice column

Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck has worked as professor of Jewish studies, religious studies, advanced Talmud, halacha, Jewish law codes, and Jewish liturgy, at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He has published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish life. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to www.tzvee.com for details.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I am on Facebook a lot and have many friends there. Recently, one of those people, whom I have known for many years, started replying negatively on every post that I made and on every comment that I put on Facebook. These were not just critical replies. They were snarky at first, and then became nasty and highly personal in nature.

I unfriended this person. But somehow, he still manages to find and comment on all my posts. What should I do to stop this?

Besieged in Bergenfield

Dear Besieged,

Facebook has mechanisms for actively blocking content from specific individuals. You can and should poke around the platform until you find them, and then invoke the harshest level of blocking against this offending person. Be persistent. Since Facebook thrives on content proliferation, your postings make money for them, and thus it deliberately makes the blocking process possible, but neither easy nor intuitive.

I know about this because I was attacked a few weeks ago on Facebook by a person, someone I knew for many years, who suddenly turned hostile to everything I put up there.

I felt vulnerable and threatened by his constant assaults. I felt like I was being stalked. It was quite an awful sensation.

Persistent hounding like this is a type of the lashon harah — the derogatory speech or defamation — that Judaism forbids. It causes emotional hurt and harms a person’s reputation. Some people might try to reason with a stalker and appeal to their religious side and ask them to cease the lashon harah.

As for me, I blocked the perpetrator, and Facebook does not allow him to view my content and it does not show me any of his posts anymore. The mechanics are there in the online platform to protect you. Find them. Use them. Be rid of your menace.

And if you find all of this too frustrating and not worth the bother, you may want to go to the next level. You can take a break from Facebook for a few weeks, or even go to the more drastic nuclear option and delete your Facebook account.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I just discovered that my neighbors have a WhatsApp group for our block, and I was not invited to be on it. I felt miffed by this and imagined that it was a deliberate slight.

Should I say how I feel to the person who told me about this?

Miffed in New Milford

Dear Miffed,

Yes, in a nice way you ought to say how you feel and perhaps ask the person in charge to put you in the group.

In the spirit of v’ahavta lirayacha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself, give him or her the benefit of the doubt.

Keep in mind that there are many petty and some nasty people out there, and a few of them may live on your block. You can go through life remonstrating against such petty folk, or you can ignore them and be a bigger person, happy in your own skin.

You can imagine malevolent motives, or just chalk it up to an oversight on his or her behalf. It’s sometimes best to judge a person positively.

If it works to talk it out with your neighbor, congratulations! But if you are unsuccessful in getting into the group, you will be just fine. Try not to be fixated on this. Life is too short.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

My friends say that virtual religious rituals are not valid. They insist that they are less effective than face-to-face experiences. Given the exigencies of our lives, my patience for such opinions is growing shorter. How can I justify my necessary reliance on technology in this time of crisis?

Edgy in Englewood

Your friend is mostly wrong, and you can tell him or her that I said so. But don’t expect to change their mind.

Technology is a boon. From my home in Teaneck, I attended two weddings this month over Zoom. One in Riverdale — my niece. And One in Israel — my cousin’s son. Both were superb experiences — it was great to be part of them — mazal tov.

And I attended a Yizkor service before Shavuot via Zoom. That memorial service is scheduled normally for the synagogue Shavuot morning. But since the synagogues are closed, and Zoom is forbidden on the festivals in the Orthodox communities, we participated in an early Orthodox Yizkor service, again, from home.

Of course, I do feel the limitations of remote events; obviously, they aren’t the same as in-person experiences. And yet I value the advantages of such events — they provide at least a limited sense of presence that can alleviate by telecommunication the isolation and powerlessness of our present situations.

I do feel frustration over those Orthodox spokesmen who continue to forbid Zoom participation for rituals on Sabbaths and festivals and in general insist that yes, you can say Yizkor on Zoom, but no, you cannot form a valid minyan to say Kaddish at any time via remote electronic means.

For all Jews of every generation, public prayer with a quorum defines an ad hoc sacred space anywhere it is conducted, in or out of a synagogue. Denying that this can be accomplished via electronic means is arbitrary at best. And for those unable to congregate in person, the limitation seems quite narrow-minded and even mean-spirited.

Thus, in the liberal branches of Judaism video-conferencing technology has been warmly and successfully embraced for remote seders and for all sorts of services on weekdays, holidays, and Sabbaths.

But Orthodox religious leaders will have none of this. As of now, such remote prayer services are routinely and roundly rejected as inappropriate by most Orthodox rabbis. They appear to shoot directly from the hip on these issues, making intuitive personal claims and inventing taboos on the fly, based on subjective notions pulled from the deep recesses of their psyches.

I have opined before about the incredible imagined metaphoric extensions of rabbinic rules to forbid electronics to back this up post hoc — after the fact. The rabbis say, for example, that you can’t build a house with a hammer on the Sabbath and conclude on that basis that you can’t use Zoom. But even a 4-year-old preschooler could see through that allegorical thinking as an inexplicable fallacy.

And just recently, an educated Orthodox professor wrote in Tablet Magazine opposing the use of technology on Sabbath with a reiteration of such thought processes, with no substantive Jewish sources to support the conclusion he draws. He says that this is a valued goal — to forbid the use of Zoom, “…to keep Sabbaths and holidays from being overrun by the technology that inevitably infiltrates our lives.”

Okay then. Should we then turn off our electricity and pray by candlelight?

The great majority of us constantly are uplifted — not infiltrated — by technologies that enable advances and improvements in every hour and minute of our lives.

I do not accept or even fathom such obvious emotional bias against technology, painting it as an evil sinister force that disrupts and corrupts “overruns” and “infiltrates” the serene and beautiful world of Jewish ritual life of our Sabbaths and festivals. It is premised on the fallacious notion that for forming a religious community at any time, especially on Sabbaths and festivals, all technology is universally bad.

Perhaps we could grant that some Jews see technology as anathema to the sacred day of rest. But how then do we explain the psychological aversion of religious leaders to the notion of an electronic quorum on any ordinary weekday?

Young and old alike, people are just mystified by such mystical gut-level objections from religious spokesmen. These inexplicable aversions to modern inventions for religious uses make little sense. The notion that by practicing such avoidances we create “sanctity” in the world defies logic.

But we do live in a democratic society, where everyone is free to express his or her emotions and notions and fantasies and free associations in private or in public. And others may rally behind them cheering — or not. Time will tell.


The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on talmudic analysis and wisdom. It aspires to be open and meaningful to all Jews. You can find this column in the Jewish Standard. Please email your questions to the rabbi at zahavy@gmail.com

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