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Emailing as a Moral Challenge

How did our ancestors regard the spoken word? What does the Torah say about the word and its power as well as its possibilities?

Biblical writers regarded the Divine Word as a cosmic force reverberating throughout the created order. According to Psalms 33:6, the Word of God animates the cosmos: בִּדְבַר יְהוָה שָׁמַיִם נַעֲשׂוּ “By the Word of the LORD the heavens were made.” To the Hebraic (as well as the Semitic) imagination, words are powerful—it is the stuff reality is made of. In Biblical Hebrew, among its various nuances, דָּבַר(dabhar) connotes a “thing” (Exod. 35:1); or a “promise” (Deut. 15:6); and a “decree” (Jer. 51:12) or “affair” or “history” (1 Kgs. 14:12). [1] In each of these examples, the term connotes something substantive and real. Everything that exists in the world is viewed as a manifestation of the Word of God that animates it.

The intuitions of primal cultures never cease to fascinate and intrigue me. The spoken word was often used as a supernatural weapon; the curse of a soothsayer was believed to be powerful enough to invoke the forces of death itself.  One of the most well known biblical stories found, the book of Numbers relates how King Balak of Moab, hires the mighty soothsayer Balaam to curse the approaching Israelite people (Num. 22:6). From a modern perspective, one could describe Balaam as a motivational speaker; he is skilled in the art of inflaming the masses. Anti-Semites in the Middle East perform television documentaries on how Jews use Muslim and Christian blood to make their Passover matzas (see Memri.org for hundreds of examples).

Despite our modernity, in many ways we fail to appreciate the impact that words have on our lives, as well as on the lives of others. As a result, the word in contemporary society tends to be devalued, yet their impact on peoples’ lives has not diminished to the least. There are many practical reasons for this phenomenon. Since the invention of the printing press, the world has become more literate than at any other time of recorded history. Along with the proliferation of literacy, the word has become increasingly more secularized due to advances made in human technology. The telegraph, telephone, television, radio, email, the Internet, and other forms of electronic digital media and telecommunication devices have inundated modern humans with a continuous stream of words—wherever they go—twenty-four hours a day.

Since words tend to be all the more diminished in light of the Internet, people will often rush through their written communications without giving much attention to what they are saying, or for that matter, how they are saying something. The imagination, when left unchecked, can often take two people or more to a unexpected places that create anger, resentment, not to mention—humiliation especially if the email has been sent to multiple receivers, many of whom the original writers do not even know. A reputation of a person can be destroyed with a single keystroke. With complete unanimity, an angry or spiteful posting can be effortlessly circulated for countless of other lurkers to read.

I recall a story about a certain missionary who was once being honored for spreading the Gospel to a tribe of cannibals. When asked, “Just how successful were you in spreading the Word of God to those cannibals?” The missionary replied, “Well before I arrived, the natives used to eat with their hands; after I taught them the Word of God, they learned to eat with forks and knives instead!” But they were, and still remained cannibals–but at least they were “cultured cannibals.” Civility is only skin deep; there lurks a shadow side of our personalities that we seldom take ownership of.  Just because we have the creature comforts of the 21st century, doesn’t mean that we are still “civilized.” Taming the wild savage from within is a life long challenge we dare not ignore. We can kill just as effectively with keystrokes as the ancient did with their knives and spears. The Golden Rule does not just exist in the pages of the Bible, it has to be a binding reality in our lives as well—especially whenever we communicate with others about other people and their behavior. Here is an important list composed by Ron Dinitz that I really like:

Rules for email communication:

1. Respect your neighbor — especially when you disagree.

2. Don’t beat a dead horse.

When you’ve said everything that needs to be said _once_, stop.

3. Getting the last word means nothing.

It’s better to make sure that all your words are worth reading.

4. Qualify your opinions, and your facts too.

Don’t bluff or bluster; your peers are too smart for that.

5. Eschew hyperbole, over-generalization and sarcasm.

6. Never embarrass anyone in public.

Halbanat panim [whitening the face of another] is a sin.

7. When reading a post that seems to demand a response,

read it twice before composing a reply.

Before sending that reply, read it yet again.

8. Never send anything while feeling angry or indignant.

It really _can_ wait.

And in the meantime you might change your mind.

9. Review and edit posts carefully before sending.

Make each contribution as good as you can.

10. Limit the number of posts you send.

(For most people, two per day is a good maximum.)

Multiple exchanges on a single topic between the same people

usually exhausts most of the topic’s value.  Quit after three

or four exchanges, and agree to disagree.

11. Don’t respond when others act like jerks.

Everyone else can discern the jerks without your help.

Responding only encourages them to further embarrass themselves.

12. When you make a mistake, apologize.

When you make a big mistake, apologize big-time.

Always apologize sincerely.  Do it promptly.

Don’t use your apology as an excuse to defend yourself.

13. Remember that every post you send is archived for posterity.

14. Don’t send anything you wouldn’t want your mother, your

grandmother, or your Senate confirmation committee to read.

15. You don’t have a monopoly on Truth.

You have a unique and valuable perspective.

So does everyone else.

16. Remember that nobody has to read what you post.

Unless you write intelligently and politely,

others can and will delete your posts unread.

17. All the other members are human beings too.

They have faces.

They have feelings.

18. The other members of this community are your friends.

Make peace.[2]

Email is a very poor venue for solving issues that are sensitive in nature.  Often in our electronic exchanges with one another, we create more heat than light–especially when using boldfaced lettering to make ourselves feel as though we are being “heard.”  But in reality, there is no tonality, no personal presence, but only a cipher and a faint electronic “trace” (to use a term from Levinas) of the Other person writing. Please do not take my word for it, look at your own experiences. How many times have we written an email correspondence only to have it completely misinterpreted by the Other, despite our very best intentions? The answer is only too obvious, yet if we can recognize the human limitations of this form of communication, we can better avoid making certain embarrassing remarks that will leave an emotional scar on the Other person, or write something that we will ultimately regret saying, for once said, the words written in cyberspace cannot be easily revoked.

I think that a face to face encounter in the spirit of the Martin Buber’s I and Thou is the only way we can effectively solve a conflict. When the other person looks into our eyes, that individual will discover the humanity of the Other. The human face commands respect in a way that email can never possibly accomplish.

Yet, before looking at the Other, we need first to look inwardly at ourselves and ask ourselves what have we done or said to cause a breakdown in communication, as the Sufi mystic Hazarat Inayat Khan offers some practical advice on preparing a face to face encounter: “Man’s pride and satisfaction in what he knows limits the scope of his vision. Man must first create peace in himself if he desires to see peace in the world; for lacking peace within, no effort of his can bring any result” (Book of Saki 7:2-3).


[1] For other meanings of דָּבַר, see BDB: 182:1; HALOT: 209;Gesenius 185-188.

[2] http://www.tor-ch.org/rules.html