Facebook and Football, Do Rabbis and Shuls Belong?

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Just a few weeks ago, at an “Ask the Rabbi” class, one of our members posed the following question to me: “Rabbi, I notice you are active on social media, including Facebook and Twitter.  What is your thinking?  What are you trying to accomplish?”  Even more recently, in response to the promotion of our BRS Super Bowl Party this coming Sunday night, I was asked, “Why would a Shul host a Super Bowl Party? Does football really belong in a Shul?”


For me, the answer to both questions is articulated well in an observation shared by David Brooks this week in an op-ed in the New York Times.  In his article entitled, “Alone, Yet Not Alone,” Brooks writes:


“There is a strong vein of hostility against orthodox religious believers in America today, especially among the young. When secular or mostly secular people are asked by researchers to give their impression of the devoutly faithful, whether Jewish, Christian or other, the words that come up commonly include “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “old-fashioned” and “out of touch.””


The question I received at the “Ask the Rabbi” wasn’t one that I anticipated, but my answer was simple.  I explained to the questioner that my goal as a Rabbi is to reach people and generate inspiration, provoke thinking, challenge growth, and to simply connect in a way that I can not only contribute positively to others, but gain from them as well.  I can accomplish this with many people in person at classes, some through email and others on the phone.  However, there exists a population of people, members of our Shul and others, who for the most part don’t engage through traditional avenues, and instead, communicate and connect almost exclusively online.


There is no question that incredible amounts of time are wasted on social media, much of it by individuals who are convinced that every post, comment and “like” has cosmic implications and that the absence of their presence on social media would create a tragic vacuum and catastrophic loss.  If we were honest, we would admit and recognize that much of the time spent on social media is in fact not productive, constructive or fruitful, but rather voyeuristic, narcissistic, mindless, and an escape.  For those in denial of just how much time they waste, Time Magazine created an online app this week that allows you to calculate just how many days of your life have been lost to Facebook and how much time you have wasted since being born into the online social world.


“Why are you active on social media?” my congregant asked.  I explained that as a Rabbi seeking to connect, I can observe the Facebook and Twitter phenomenon and be “judgmental,” “old-fashioned,” and “out of touch.”  I can criticize, dismiss and ignore the vehicle through which many connect today.  Or I can join them, engage them, and be relevant to them and have their opinions and ideas be relevant and informative to me.  I choose to participate, but I am acutely aware of and sensitive to the danger of insufficient self-regulation and the formidable temptation of unfettered engagement.   Therefore, I try to only use social media to share articles, ask thought-provoking questions, link to classes I have given, promote and take pride in the programs in our shul, celebrate the accomplishments and achievements of our members, and distribute articles that I have written.


Why would a Shul host a Super Bowl Party?  Sunday night, the big game will be broadcast to 198 countries in more than 25 languages.  It is anticipated that over 100 million people will watch. Is watching grown men plough into one another, tackle one another, try to rip the ball from one another a good use of our time?  Would we not be better off learning another blatt Gemara, volunteering a few more hours of chesed, catching up with an old friend or even reading a good book?  And what about the commercials?  Most are shamelessly immodest, uncomfortably crude, or grossly inappropriate.


Nevertheless, the reality is that among the 100 million spectators Sunday night will be individuals from every segment of Orthodox Judaism including Chassidim, Litvishe and Modern Orthodox.  We can be “judgmental,” “old-fashioned” and “out of touch.”  We can judge, castigate, scold and even ridicule those that will be watching.  Or, we can acknowledge the value of friends enjoying one another’s company, ensure Mincha and Ma’ariv will be davened, replace the provocative half time show with a thought-provoking Dvar Torah, attempt to censor commercials and provide a venue (not in the Sanctuary) for those who are not invited to any Super Bowl gathering and would otherwise be watching alone.


When Hagar and Yishmael are expelled from Avraham’s home, they find themselves in the desert with nothing to sustain them.  Hagar walks away not wanting to witness her son’s death.  God calls out to Hagar and says, “Don’t fear, Hashem has heard the voice of the na’ar, the young man, ba’asher hu sham, from where he is.”  Later, in Devarim, the Torah tells us, “u’vikashtem misham es Hashem Elokecha u’matzasa, and you will seek from there Hashem, and you will find Him.”  Asks Rav Nachman of Breslov, seek from “sham,” from there - where is there?  He answers, ba’asher hu sham, from wherever you find yourself.


There is no obligation to participate in social media and there is certainly no requirement to attend a Shul Super Bowl party.   Some will see my arguments as simply an exercise in apologetics and take a pass on Facebook and Twitter or  watching the game.  Others will see my explanations as wholly unnecessary and say Facebook and football need no defense or justification.  While clear to others, to be honest, these questions are not so simple to me.


One thing I know is if a community and its Rabbi want to be relevant, compelling and in-touch, they must relate and speak to people ba’asher hu sham, where they are, and help them u’vikashtem misham es Hashem Elokecha, find Hashem from wherever they may be, including on social media or watching the Super Bowl, despite the risks and challenges involved.