A Biblical Guide To Internet Behavior
Like all tools, particularly the most powerful, the Internet can be used for tremendous good – as well as the opposite. Torah wisdom can provide guidance on proper usage of this new technology. When explained homiletically, Tehillim 34 offers profound insight into some of the key attitudes necessary to responsibly use the Internet. Recited every Shabbos morning, this chapter consists of meditations on attaining the truly good life.
Avoid Bad and Do Good
A key principle of achieving a good life is avoiding bad, sur me’ra (v. 15). Regarding the Internet, this means utilizing strategies to avoid improper websites. It requires using filters and image- and ad-blockers as necessary. It also means making responsible choices about which types of websites to visit.
After avoiding bad, King David tells us to do good (aseh tov). First you must install your filter and other similar tools. Only after that are you ready to use the Internet for positive purposes. And that is what you must do. Make the Internet a tool for your personal growth. Choose a Torah website as your home page; assign a religiously themed picture as your background. The more you use your Internet devices for holy purposes, the harder it will be for you to misuse them.
No Gossip and Judge Favorably
Perhaps the most famous verse in this psalm is King David’s admonition to avoid defamatory speech (netzor leshoncha me’ra, v. 14). On the Internet you must studiously avoid spreading or consuming lashon hara. This is no easy task, just as it is difficult in conversation with friends. But the laws of lashon hara apply to all media, particularly in the public arena of the Internet. Think before you post. Any form of transmitting damaging information falls under this rule.
We know but often neglect the obligation to judge others favorably. When interacting with other people, whether online or off, always strive to see the positive (bakesh shalom, v. 15). Read news stories and other reports critically, trying to justify the subject’s actions. Fight against the cynicism that tries to dominate our community, particularly online. Remember that you rarely get the full story, even years after the fact.
Be Yourself and Live Life
King David calls out: Mi ha’ish, who is the person? (v. 13) Don’t let people online ask that about you. Anonymity is a key behavior that reduces inhibitions online, allowing for multiple types of unruly activity. Many wrongly think that they do not have to answer for their behavior if they can hide their identity. Avoid this temptation by using your real name or at least maintaining a consistent pseudonym. Commit to behaving online solely in ways that do not embarrass you.
The Internet is a wonderful tool for life but it is a pale substitute. You have to want real life (he’chafetz chaim), thriving relationships with friends, family and your spouse (v. 13). You have to love the good in life (ohev yamim liros tov). If you disappear all day and night into your screen, you will neglect your loved ones who will in turn abandon you. As with other good things in life, you must use the Internet in moderation. If you have trouble cutting back on your screen time, you must speak with a therapist about how to reduce your dependency on technology.
Don’t Give Up
The psalm compares God’s treatment of the righteous and those who sin. “They cried and the Lord heard…” (v. 18). Unlike Rashi, Ibn Ezra and R. Donash ben Livrat explain that the sinners of the prior verse (those who do bad – “oseh ra”) are the ones who call out to God. The psalm earlier taught that God answers the prayers of the righteous. Our verse tells us something more radical: God cares deeply about those who do wrong. When they call out to Him, when they are ready to change their ways, God is waiting to help them return. He will save them.
If you have stumbled in your Internet use and have visited improper sites, all is not lost. God will answer your call. You must stop, install a strong filter and commit to not bypassing it. Adopt other precautions as well, strategies that will help keep you on the right path. Talk to a therapist if you cannot cut back. You must stop because the potential addiction can destroy your life.
Seven Biblical Principles
We’ve discussed seven principles: 1) utilize strategies – filters and more – to avoid improper websites (sur me’ra), 2) turn the Internet into a religious tool (aseh tov), 3) refrain from posting or reading defamation (netzor leshoncha me’ra), 4) judge charitably (bakesh shalom), 5) avoid total anonymity (mi ha’ish), 6) experience life offline (he’chafetz chaim), 7) change your ways (tza’aku v’Hashem shameia). While more principles can be added, these serve as a base for responsible Internet usage.
Rabbi Gil Student blogs at TorahMusings.com and maintains a website dedicated to responsible frum Internet usage ,InternetInJewishHome.com.