Q. Would you agree that with the invention of email, we have not only gained a servant but also a master?
A. Email and all the other advances in communications technology are proving a great blessing. The facility they afford for this and other subscription Torah lists to reach countless people across the globe is nothing less than exciting.
However, there are aspects of email that frighten me as well as you. For it is not only positive, constructive information and education that email carries around the world.
It can also carry abroad nastiness and negativism that would have been better left unsaid: people often feel that the impersonal and ephemeral nature of email allows them to utilise it as a medium for things they would otherwise never say or write. In particular, discussion-based electronic mailing lists have occasionally become hotbeds of scurrilous attacks (especially on other subscribers) which would never be published in a newspaper for reasons of slander and intemperate language.
One is reminded of the story of the person who said, “I am no sinner! You will never catch me committing murder or anything serious like that. All I do is so minor that it is quite harmless”. The sage who heard this told the person concerned, “Take a handful of feathers and throw them into the wind!”
This having been done, the sage said, “Now go and collect all the feathers again!” “Collect them all again? Impossible!” was the reply; “they’ve blown everywhere!” “Exactly,” said the sage; “that’s why small sins are far from being of no consequence. You don’t remember what you’ve done or what has happened to it, and there is no way you can make amends”. Things sent out on the wind by means of e-mail are like the feathers. You never know where they have gone and what harm they may have done.
Hence an ethic of email is desperately urgent. It must begin with the principle in Pirkei Avot, “Wise people, be careful with your words” (Avot 1:11). It must include the Talmudic advice, “If speech is worth a sela, silence is worth two” (Meg. 18a). The verse from Psalms, “Love and truth have met” (Ps. 85:11) must also be remembered, since it suggests that even speaking the truth must be tempered with love.
And since email statements meant for internal Jewish consumption may be seen and exploited elsewhere, remember, too, the recommendation, ein m’gallin ella litzna’in – “Some things should be revealed only to the discreet”.