Friday, April 4, 2008

Masechet Cyberspace

This new, interactive feature of the Shabbat-O-Gram ( and this blog explores the new ethical frontier that is the Internet. As I’ve explored recently in articles, sermons and a panel discussion, cyberculture presents a long list new challenges to our timeless values of privacy and sacred communication. What I would like to do here is to begin to compile a new Talmudic tractate of sorts (the Talmudic word for tractate, masechet, is also the word for “web”), a guide to how one should behave online – Jewishly. This guide will remain a work in progress because new situations are constantly arising. So please send me your questions, ethical dilemmas or suggestions, and I’ll display them here.

One question that constantly arises is, when is it appropriate to forward a third party e-mail without the permission of the original sender?

In the 11th century, Rabbenu Gershom issued a ban of excommunication to those who opened other people’s mail. (see By extension, one would assume that in all cases it would be forbidden to open an e-mail addressed to another.

But what if the e-mail was addressed to you – is it now your property? Do you now have the right to do with it what you want? If not, under what circumstances do you have that right? One would assume that if the intent is simply to embarrass the original sender or to use it against him, that would not be appropriate. But if the sender was intending to cause harm to another, is it then OK to warn the other? Maybe so, but must that warning require the forwarding of the original e-mail?

The situation is complicated even more when the posting is not in an e-mail, but on, say a Facebook wall, or other arena that may not be completely public (restricted to friends of the poster), but is certainly not in the category of unopened private mail.

The question, then, is “What would Gershom say?” More to the point, what would the Torah say? And, what is the right way to behave?

Your comments are most welcome...

No comments: