The Wild and Dangerous Jungle of Religious Blogging

In all my days I have never had to look behind me before saying anything.

-Shabbos 118b

Lashon hara (gossip or slander) is not necessarily untruthful. The Torah forbids saying something derogatory about a person even if it is completely true.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
from “Growing Each Day” for Shevat 30

The primary reason I was compelled to close comments on this blog was the startling amount and frequency of (sometimes) true but disturbing, harassing, and occasionally derogatory comments being made by others.

whisperIn reading Rabbi Twerski’s commentary on Lashon Hara, I was reminded of those times many years ago when my wife would say something truthful about me that nonetheless was painful to hear. On occasion, she’d make these statements in front of others, which was certainly embarrassing, and when I would complain about this, she’d say, “Well, it’s true, isn’t it?”

According to Rabbi Twerski and the Talmud, it doesn’t matter if the statement is true or not if it also causes pain.

Derek Leman, who describes himself as “a rabbi, and speaker at the intersection of Judaism and Christianity,” recently wrote a blog post called The Infamous Incident at Antioch. While I generally agree with Derek’s “take” on the topic at hand, a large number of the 80 plus (as I write this) comments different people have composed in response to Derek’s blog (and to the other people commenting) are disturbing.

Yes, each person is telling the “truth” from their point of view, but the debate for some has gotten quite personal. It seems in this case, as in many or most other cases in the religious blogosphere, that “truth” always trumps kindness.

More’s the pity, for we are also commanded to love one another:

I am giving you a new mitzvah: that you love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. With this all will know that you are my disciples: if love dwells among you.

John 13:34-35 (Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels)

From many of these blog commentaries, it would be very difficult for an outside observer to determine who the disciples of Messiah are based on this commandment.

Of course, at least one person commenting on the aforementioned article is Jewish and not Messianic, so I suppose this commandment does not apply to him, but to the degree that Shabbos 118b does apply to Jewish people, what does that say?

bullyingI should mention that the litmus test for Lashon Hara is whether or not you’d make such a statement in public. Since all these dialogs are incredibly public and available to anyone with an Internet connection, does that mean anything we’re willing to write on a person’s blog, regardless of the lack of kindness, cannot be considered gossip, slander, or hurtful just because we dare to press the “Post Comment” button? I hope the answer is abundantly apparent, but just in case it isn’t, the answer is “no”.

Targum Yonoson states that the center crossbar was made with wood that came from the trees that Avraham planted. I heard Rabbi Mordechai Mann of Bnai Brak comment on this that these trees were planted by Avraham for the purpose of doing kindness for travelers. The center crossbar was placed right in the middle of the tabernacle to remind us that even when we are devoting ourselves to serving the Almighty we should never forget to have compassion for our fellow men, who are created in the image of the Almighty.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Even when serving the Almighty remember to do acts of kindness for people,” pp 207-8
Commentary on Torah Portion Terumah
Growth Through Torah

I don’t doubt that each and every person commenting on Derek’s blog, or who have made problematic comments on mine in the past, sincerely believes they are serving God in what they say, trying to straighten me and many others out, so to speak, correcting the “error” of our ways.

However, in (from their points of view) serving God, they are forgetting that some of what they say and write is not kind at all nor acknowledging that the objects of their criticism are indeed made in the image of God.

Some are even a little smug about it:

You could be 90 years old, standing right in front of me and I’d still tell you to your face that you need to be more mature in your online interactions. It’s the truth.

“It’s the truth.” As if that is sufficient moral justification for tearing down another human being.

But I suppose this could also make me guilty of Lashon Hara for I’m also trying to tell the truth at the cost of the dignity of other people.

If I am guilty of this, I ask forgiveness, but it would have been even better had I never written and published this missive.

So what’s my point?

If you want to serve God, is the best way to go about it to charge into battle or to do kindness and show compassion?

This concept of the Chinuch is a basic one for becoming a better person. Even if you are not able to have elevated thoughts at first, force yourself to behave in the way in which you hope to eventually become. If you want to become a giving person, even though you are inwardly very selfish you will eventually succeed if you continue to behave in a giving manner.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“You create yourself by your behavior. This allows you to become the person you wish to be,” p.168
Commentary on Torah Portion Bo
Growth Through Torah

closedI suspect if this principle were applied to becoming kinder human beings while in the service of the Almighty, the comments made on various religious blogs would be quite a bit more gentle, or maybe these comment sections would become astonishingly quiet.

Since it is unlikely that such a principle will ever become a reality among many religious people who comment on blogs (see my rants on this topic here, here, and here), and given that there is a significant overlap between Derek’s readership and mine, I’m convinced I’m doing the right thing by continuing my “closed comments” policy.

Addendum: Sunday Morning I’ve gotten a number of encouraging emails this morning and also a link to the definition of Insult at Jewish Virtual Library. That definition re-enforces the idea that even if you feel responsible to rebuke someone, you are required to do so in a manner that causes no embarrassment or other emotional discomfort. That’s pretty rare in the religious blogosphere. I’ve also been reminded that in 170 comments on this blog post of mine, no one tried to turn it into the “wild west shootout” that has recently occurred on Derek’s aforementioned blog article. So I’ll try a little experiment and temporarily reverse my decision by opening up comments on this one blog post and “take the temperature,” so to speak, of this matter. Can we be civil and non-exploitive in dialog?

36 thoughts on “The Wild and Dangerous Jungle of Religious Blogging”

  1. First of all, I would like to thank you, James, for opening up comments on this blog post.

    James, you said: “But I suppose this could also make me guilty of Lashon Hara for I’m also trying to tell the truth at the cost of the dignity of other people.”

    I agree with you that you could be guilty of it, possibly. Even though you don’t name names, however you provide the link to Derek’s blog post and then quote a comment and call the person being smug. Anybody can figure out easily who you are talking about. It’s me.

    I apologize to you or anyone else if I’ve made the mistake of stepping out of line in my comments. I have been actually (and was in this case) trying to defend others from “lashon hara” that being spoken against them. In doing so, I may have crossed the boundary myself. I asked myself before I commented on those posts, “Would I say this to the person if they were in my living room?” I don’t try to hide behind a keyboard. I have seen non-stop mean-spirited comments against a certain person from the same person for awhile now (across many blogs and social media sites). I was bullied in school. I don’t like it and since I’ve gotten older now, I stand up for others because I don’t like that feeling. In the past, I chewed out a co-worker because I thought he was being unfair to one of the new-hires. Sometimes I lose my cool when a subject like this hits real close to home for me. Being able to dial it in has been a learning process and I am better than I was a year ago and I hope to get even better at it. But I will not be anyone’s doormat and I will not stand idly by while someone else is taking it on the cheek. I will find a balance in pushing back and being respect at the same time.

    James, you also said: “If I am guilty of this, I ask forgiveness, but it would have been even better had I never written and published this missive.”

    I forgive you because your words about me have hurt me. I’m not just saying that to try and pull a guilt trip on you. I honestly was hurt by your words and what felt like a blog post directed at me. I had mixed feelings about leaving a comment for a number of reasons, but I bit the bullet and here I am commenting.

    I really was trying to do good and stand up for others. I thought I was tough, but fair. There was some private conversations going on prior to Derek’s post between myself and a certain individual (not Gene) that lead me to believe I was helping this person out.

    But then I read your post this morning.

    It just hurt me.

  2. Good topic. If folks could remember to leave a little room for humbleness in expressing their view of truth it would be a lot better. As knowledgeable as any one of us may be on any given topic we are still humans with imperfect knowledge. Being humble is not being weak or timid.

  3. I’ve been pretty silent for a couple of reasons: first time; second because of negative comments that seem to attack personally. What is so painful is all of us (or most of us) call ourselves followers of the Messiah.
    With the ability to stop and review a comment before posting, I would hope that followers of Messiah would read their comment aloud and ask themselves, “Is this something Yeshua/Jesus would say and how He would say it?”
    I’m more guilty than most when it comes to this but God…
    But God loves me too much to leave me as I am – if i am willing.
    I pray we would all be willing to cry out, “Lord, change me!”

  4. @Keith: I admit I crossed the line when I made the “smug” comment and therefore, I apologize and hope you’ll be able to forgive me. I also admit that we both, at times, can say things while blogging or commenting on the blogs of others, that either accidentally or purposefully cause emotional injury to others. Let’s work toward both of us better considering our words before we make them public.

    @Eric: I think part of the problem is the illusion of anonymity. Even when our real name and a photo of us appears beside our comments, because we aren’t face-to-face with the people we’re addressing, somehow we find ourselves saying things in a way that is a little more “blunt” than how we’d do so otherwise. I think the solution, for people of good conscience, is to imagine that these message we type, are really being spoken directly to the people we’re talking to, as if they are right in front of us. That requires some conscious effort and people, being who we are, sometimes furiously type a message and click “Post Comment” before we make that effort.

    @Ro: Yes, our online behavior is something I think we all need to repent of, including me, from time to time.

      1. As it says in Pirkei Avot 2:1:

        Keep your eye on three things, and you will not come into the grip of sin: Know what is above you: An Eye that sees, And an Ear that hears, And all your deeds are written in a book.

  5. We have a biblical solution to these sorts of issues, but it rarely works in our time, due to a lot of circumstances. The answer would be honest, unbiased,inclusive and unbought Bet Din. There is little in the way of this, and when it does exist, it is not trustworthy, and I can’t think of any I would go to.

    Perhaps it is due to my background in journalism, perhaps just natural proclivity that I believe it is appropriate to insist on documentation, validation and the right to cross-examine when someone makes a public claim or teaches/speaks/writes publically. I understand the religious world plays by different rules, that one doesn’t challenge self and otherwise appointed teachers/leaders in one’s own camp, although you are usually free to trash those in other camps or outside the camp. There is also the typical absence of one law for all people despite position, popularity or politics.

    In respect to @James’ request, I will not name names, but frequently, those who teach/promote a certain type of behavior don’t practice that themselves, and they are protected because it is considered sinful to point this out. Not only does the religious world not have its own version of Consumer Reports, it doesn’t want it. Did you ever hear of investigative journalism within the religious world? That comes from outside. Well, perhaps only those who have been so damaged and seen no opportunity for justice would welcome this. An individual, who is in a different camp than the relevant ones so you likely wouldn’t know, wrote a book about humility, while people who have had dealings with him know he is anything but. There was a thankfully short-lived radio program in our area by a pastor and wife couple dedicated to teaching how to have a great marriage, and I knew personally that this couple wasn’t qualified to be doing this. Then it would be lashon hara to mention these things? With the idea of not causing hurt to someone, who is being protected? The perpetrator(s) are enscounced not only within their own camp guarding system, but by twisted biblical admonition.

    This is sort of like what my son said about current issues of police brutality, that there in reality only a few very bad apples, but the system protects them.

  6. Additionally, relevant persons would never provide me with an intelligent, rational reply to what I have said. Just waiting for the, “You must be bitter. I pray you are healed from your hurts, blah, blah, blah.” More shoot the messenger/beat the donkey.

    Interesting, that within the Christian world there are a few of these organizations that claim to provide mediation, to keep complaints out of the secular court system and out of the media. However, in order to properly act as mediators, I think most would agree that the mediator cannot have a bias or a pony in the race. While these all claim to not have a pony in the race, the do. Their pony is that they want to avoid blackening the face of Christianity, and while they would deny it, a big shot is more valuable in their eyes than a peon. So, they would act in favor of protecting the golden egg laying goose’s image and would act to sweep sin under the rug and keeping the dirty laundry in the closet.

  7. We don’t live in a perfect world, Chaya. Therefore, no individual person or human organization is perfect and certainly none are without bias. Some people and organizations have bad intent but many others simply have their perspectives limited by their biases and truly believe they really are objective. I think we’re all like that to one degree or another. Even Paul said no one is righteous, not even one (though the Bible also says certain people were righteous in their generation).

    If we want to find fault with anyone, anyone at all, since no one is perfect, it should be easy to do. But then all we do is find fault and either have to continually combat the world or attempt to withdraw from it. Sometimes, I just get tired of all the fighting among those of us who claim to be disciples of the Master. How ironic that Yeshua’s one new commandment was that we love one another.

    1. I agree that we don’t live in a perfect world, and that is why we were given a blueprint for dealing with such a world. Judgement and exile was the divine retribution of the failure and corruption among those who were tasked with justice, truth etc. The cycle keeps repeating and still no one gets it. We are told we get the leadership we deserve, and perhaps we get the religion we deserve too. However, I am speaking as an outsider.

      1. A lot of people didn’t get it throughout the Biblical narrative, and a lot more haven’t gotten it in post-Biblical history. I suspect that will be an enduring characteristic of the human condition until the return of Messiah, and then he will rule with a rod of iron.

  8. I’ve missed the comments section, particularly those of PL, from whom I’ve learned a lot.

    Your comments on this blog remind me of what I learned from the book, “Rebbe.” The way this man handled philosophic & theologic differences with others is a template for all of us to follow. Though we may disagree with on another, we must remember that everyone is stamped with the image of Ha-Shem and must, accordingly, be treated as an image bearer, with respect.

  9. Thank you James for sharing your thoughts here. The recent conversation on Derek’s blog almost made me throw in the towel on blogging altogether. I have only recently (this past month, I believe) engaged on Derek’s blog and previous to this it has only been on Rosh Pina Project. (I do however engage often on the Isaiah 53 Forum countering anti-missionaries.) But I had never before experienced such anger towards me. And, yes, it was hurtful. Maybe I was deserving of it and nobody had ever said anything to me about it. When I looked back at my comments to Gene, I could see how someone from the outside might think I was being the “b” word (which it seems Keith certainly did). So again, I do apologize to him or anyone else offended or hurt by my comments. It seems I may have slipped into assuming an overly defensive posture with Gene. My desire however was NOT to cause dissension among brethren, not in the least! And my desire was in NO way to personally hurt Gene. My desire was to defend the faith. And perhaps I was overly zealous in doing so. I do passionately feel the need to counter those who would like to destroy the faith of others, especially when they come on opposing blogs to do so, thereby sidetracking and/or subverting the in-house discussion. But you are right, sometimes the WAY we come across can do more harm than good. I’m learning just like everyone else…
    In Messiah,

    1. Defending the faith without hurting other people can be a fine line to walk, Merrill. I believe we can have those conversations, but it’s far too easy to be swept up by emotions, become defensive, and to defend the faith by defending our doctrine and ultimately, our personal feelings. That’s one of the reasons I try to stop short (I don’t always succeed) of such “defense arguments.” Another reason is that once I feel hurt by someone (whether they intended to cause emotional harm or not), I will be less likely be able to craft an appropriate response. Closing the comments in my blog (I’m still only opening that option up on a blog post by blog post basis) is an extreme reaction to that conundrum.

      1. Very true, James. It’s those pesky emotions (especially the ones linked with pride) that can ruin a productive/healthy conversation.
        You might just have to end up moderating which comments to allow and which to disallow if you keep the comments section open.
        Either way, kudos to you for having the tender heart of Yeshua.

    2. @Merrill, often our opponents, even if they don’t have good intentions toward us, reveal things about us that we should pay attention to. I believe when individuals and organizations fail to examine themselves, this is the spiritual result. He who hides his sin does not prosper; he who confesses and forsakes his sin finds mercy. Those who help hide the sin also assist in the “not prospering,” process, even if their intentions are for good, at least in their eyes.

      @James, you mentioned that you process things by writing. I realized that I do also. In addition, reflecting and responding to the thoughts of another spurs me to think and examine on my own and perhaps propels me in directions that I wouldn’t have sought otherwise.

      1. Chaya, I think in one of my recent blog posts, I quoted a Jewish source as saying more or less what you just did. Even when someone opposes us, it can help reveal things about us that need correction. Even our enemies can help us to improve.

      2. In that sense, perhaps our enemies are not really our enemies, whatever their intention. Hasatan is only a prosecuting attorney, allowed into the courtroom because we refuse to come clean before the judge.

      3. If what you say is true, then maybe we should spend less time and ire at being upset at religious “big shots” and more time being concerned with the head “prosecuting attorney”.

      4. I believe the courtroom belongs to the judge, and the prosecuting attorney, as well as the witnesses and others are only allowed at the judge’s behest. I think you are right about this. Remember that suggestive commercial, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvin Kleins?” Well, nothing comes between idolators and their favored idols, nothing. It is a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship, kind of like the cleaner fish, small fish that eat dead skin and parasites off large, predatory fish that would otherwise eat smaller fish. Perhaps that one isn’t such a good example, as the peons don’t clean the big shots, but support them financially and emotionally. You’ve heard the saying, “Hirelings don’t kill the sheep because they wouldn’t be able to keep shearing them.”

  10. @Merrill, I read the blog comments and my feelings were you were just debating and I didn’t feel you were practicing lashon hara. Chaya, If I understand you correctly, I agree that the lashon hara accusation is used to prevent exposure of those that ‘make merchandise of holy things’. How can ‘iron sharpen iron’ if we can’t share our various understandings?

    1. @Cynthia, in addition, the big shots are given a pass to speak lashon hara, as long as it is directed to peons. Not much different than, “touch not mine anointed.”

  11. Thank you Cynthia. I appreciate your saying so. It helps to have more than one perspective. The phrase “lashon hara” is thrown around a little bit too hastily, I think.

    Chaya, I agree with you that there is not good oversight. There needs to be more mutual accountability, not only on the pew level but also on the pulpit level. I think the Scriptures have given us methods of governance (which includes mutual accountability for laity as well as leadership). The problem is sometimes our leadership does not take the initiative to “fix” the problems that come up. They don’t exercise their authority at times when exercise is badly needed. Some in leadership prefer just to stay in denial as if all is well. Then the little ones who don’t have their valid grievances addressed are left in the lurch. This causes bitterness and disillusionment to develop. I think this problem exists in part because sometimes the leadership (on the local congregational level) can be hesitant to take the initiative to actually ADDRESS grievances when expressed, and then once addressed ASSIST in the healing. Fortunately, most churches/MJ congregations in my experience have been fairly decent at dealing with issues that come up. But even so, they can definitely improve. We need to stay vigilant so that the devil isn’t allowed to get his foot in the door. It only takes a little willful ignorance to give an opening for bitterness to develop, and he knows this.

  12. I just read something that I thought applied to this conversation:

    Some people feel that they can accomplish only by being aggressive. But wisdom combined with love and compassion is much more powerful and effective.

    (For a series of probing questions on this topic, see Rabbi Pliskin’s “Gateway to Self Knowledge,”pp.106)

    Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

  13. James, Usually you are on par or one step ahead of me. But in this I think I have preceeded your steps by many years. Back in 12′ I was led to study the acts of ‘contending’ vs. ‘defending’ because of the religious bickering and open attacks at my person by other “Messianics”. I would like to offer them to you. It helped me understand the battle more. **I’m not trying to rudly promote my blog so you don’t have to post this openly if you don’t care to. Just thought I’d share with you when I was going through this issue myself. And I’m still learning to cope with it.




      1. @James — “… [and] the weapons of our warfare are …” a well-aimed quote? [{:)}; viz.:2Cor.10:4] I suppose it must be so, though I really prefer thoughtful lively discussion over antagonistic debate and the trading of barbs or “the slings and arrows of outrageous …” argumentation. Is the atmosphere of a blog like the weather, about which everyone has an opinion but no one does anything? Must it be a wild, untamable jungle of a place; or can we make of it a community with a Hobbsian social contract that prevents life within it from becoming “nasty, brutish, and short”? In other words, even though we are all merely guests who visit from time to time (perhaps often), can we agree to enter into it under a covenant of peace? Of course, even if most folks are well-behaved, there is always a question of how to deal with the varmints who ride into town lookin’ fer trouble, and wantin’ to shoot up the saloon. We’ve probably all seen enough classic ol’ westerns to know the options which can address *that* metaphor.

  14. Wow. Your entire comment is a study in mixed metaphors (I don’t mean that in a bad way) or just mixed imagery, from the Bard to the wild, wild west. 😀

    1. @James — Well, you might just consider it an exercise in free association, though I suppose shifting through a wide range of images in close proximity makes for a bit of a wild ride. Then again, when you start out an essay invoking the metaphor of a jungle, perhaps you shouldn’t be surprised what sorts of critters you might encounter with each new step. [:)]

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