FB & G+ (Halachot)

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The Halachas of Facebook and Google: A Rabbi and a Web Marketer Discuss” by Naomi Elbinger

I have a confession to make… I am a Web marketer.

I spend most of my working day up to my eyeballs in Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. And Yes, I know what the rabbis are saying about this… I live in Jerusalem, after all. I’ve seen those pashkevelim (street notices).

Since I write this blog, my fellow religious Jews regularly approach me with questions like “Is it mutar for me to have a Facebook page for my business?” or “Can I have my photo on my Twitter account?” I consider myself expert in all these shaylas since I always give the same answer: “ask your rabbi!” That’s what I did last week, when my husband and I went for a meeting with our posek, to discuss halachic issues related to my business.

Let me start by saying that our Rav, like most mainstream chareidi/yeshivish rabbis, maintains that using the Internet is assur. He will, however, grant a heter on a case-by-case basis for people who need to use the Web in order to earn their parnasa. In this day and age, that’s pretty much everybody in the work force, but it’s still a shayla that should be asked.

As a Jewish woman who works on the Web, I find myself with many involved questions about my Internet usage. Every now and then I feel my conscience starting to bother me and I know it’s time to talk to a posek again and clarify the boundaries of my activities, from a halachic perspective. In the past I’ve asked him about operating my websites on Shabbos, speaking to Jews about web business (like I do on this blog) and using my photo online (BTW he said it was OK, but I still don’t do it for personal reasons). I also sometimes run my blog posts past him before I publish them (including this one). But for last week’s meeting, my questions focused mainly on social media use and marketing to a frum audience online.

But really these questions are one and the same because the Website I run targets frum women, and they are online and they are on social media and I need to reach them there. In case there is anyone reading this who still believes that frum Jews don’t use the Internet, it’s time to drop this misconception. The adoption of web technologies and development of online communities has lagged a bit behind the general market, but by now it is clear: Frum Jews Are Online!

A good illustration of this is RabbiKaganoff.com, the website that I created with my husband for the Torah writings of Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff shlita, a Jerusalem-based Rabbi who writes wonderful halacha articles. Although the Rabbi does not use the Internet and has never seen the site, he was very positive when we suggested the idea of creating the site as a resource for people around the world. The site now gets around 1,300 visits a month exclusively from search engines, despite the fact that not one drop of SEO effort has ever been invested in the site. The reality is that thousands of frum Jews are going to Google and asking sophisticated questions like “is my nectarine tree orlah?” or “can the father be sandek at a bris?”

I also once asked Rabbi Google a shayla. Right before Shabbos my husband presented me with a gift of a very pretty butane lighter engraved with the words “Lekavod Shabbos Kodesh.” As I was thanking him it suddenly occurred to us that we didn’t know if it was permissible to use a butane lighter for Shabbos candles. Since it was three minutes before candle-lighting we figured that we’d ask Rabbi Google rather than calling a flesh-and-blood ordained rabbi. And where did Google send us for our answer? About.com!

I think that most religious Jews would agree that it’s better that we should get halachic guidance and news from a Jewish source, rather than The New York Times (which owns About.com). And I guess that’s the rationale behind the increasing number of news and community sites targeting frum Jews. Orthodox Jews are already on the Web looking for information, social interaction and entertainment. Isn’t it better that they should find their online home on a Jewish site that caters to their unique needs and concerns, and abides by the laws of tznius and lashon hora?

My own site, MavenMall, is part of this phenomenon. It is the first online magazine and modest mall targeting frum women, but in reality it is just riding a wave that has been gathering momentum in the last 2-3 years. Sites like Yeshiva World News and VosIsNeis have grown hugely in that period and are now massivel popular.  Imamother.com is a very frum forum that has a huge and very active community. Sites that target particular frum communities (e.g. Chabad) or interests (e.g. kosher recipes, frum deal sites) have also taken off in a big way. There are also many frum blogs that are popular and provide valuable information.

Despite this growing trend, I still had a question that irked me: Why is it permissible for me to run a site like MavenMall for frum women if it might be assur for some of these women to be online? Our Rav answered that since they are already online and I did not encourage them to go there, this is not a problem. I am providing them with the information and entertainment that they are already seeking online. They find MavenMall via Google and Facebook, and it is by their own choice that they haunt Google and Facebook. This is the reality of our society.

The rabbi also did not object to us displaying photos of women, even though this is a huge no-no in the frum publishing world nowadays (a recent development). Since we are clearly a site for women and any Jewish man wishing to look at women in an improper way has much better opportunities elsewhere on the Web, he did not see a halachic problem.

Regarding Social Media, he said that he thought that Facebook was more problematic than LinkedIn or Twitter because of the ads on Facebook (which, we have all got to admit, can be offensive).  I asked him how much he really knows about Facebook and he said that he felt that he understood it quite well, despite never having seen it. He said that he recently answered a question from a rabbi doing campus kiruv in the US regarding whether it was permissible to notify his students about the upcoming bris of his son by creating a Facebook Event, since this would cause them to receive an “invitation” yet we are not supposed to invite people to a bris.

This question seems kinda cute but the reality is that religious Jews encounter all sorts of problems on Facebook, especially lashon hara and lack of tznius (not to mention intense time-wasting). And yet the fact remains that Facebook is incredible as a marketing tool and I want to use it to its maximum to gain exposure for the quality content on my site. Is it OK that I use it to communicate with my fans and potential fans? But again the answer was the same. MavenMall did not lure frum women onto Facebook, they were already there long before we even launched. Therefore communicating with them via Facebook is not a halachic problem.

Clarifying all of these points was very helpful for me, and I hope that you also find this information useful. Beyond the practical benefit of our meeting, I also enjoyed an the intense feeling of relief after talking out these questions with a rabbi, even if though his message was hard for me to hear at times. There is peace in knowledge, while uncertainty is a very uncomfortable place to be. It’s not always easy being the only Mommy at the cheder PTA meeting who works as a Web Marketer. Sometimes I wonder what will happen when my kids reach the age of  Shidduchim!

At least I will always be able to say that I asked my rabbi and he said that it was kosher!

So if you are in doubt about any issue relating to your business, not just issues related to the Internet, don’t struggle to negotiate this minefield alone, ask a rabbi!

In the meantime – let’s discuss the dilemmas of working on the Web for frum Jews. Please share your thoughts with us!

 

(This article first appeared on the My Parnasa blog – Web Business… with a Soul by Naomi Elbinger)

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