When — and how —should we be sharing?
an we talk about privacy vs. sharing? asked a letter that came to Family First’s inbox. Living in such an open world, the boundaries of privacy have been blurred. What’s acceptable and what’s not?
When we followed up with a request for more details, we received a flood of ideas, queries, and scenarios, all so contemporary and real.
The story is told about the kid who came into the kitchen and asked his mother for ice cream. A neighbor’s voice called from the right porch, “He’s fleishig — you served burgers for lunch.” The neighbor from the left called out, “Check the time, it’s six hours already.” And the neighbor upstairs put the matter to rest with “No issues, it was a veggie burger anyway.”
It’s time to assess the overall trend toward keeping the windows of our lives collectively open to exposure and comments from virtual neighbors all around. What are the results of our publicity and constant sharing? Are our marriages stronger, friendships more secure, children more resilient? When — and how —should we be sharing?
The more I share my struggles, the more understood and validated I feel. At first, I had a small voice in my head that protested my sharing. But as I’ve continued to open up, that voice has been fading. I’ve experienced tremendous liberation that came directly from the validation I’ve received, yet I’ll admit that I’ve become desensitized to discussing certain topics. How to know if I’ve gone too far? How do I rebound if I have?
I once asked Rav Noach Weinberg ztz”l, “How can I explain the Jewish sense of privacy to the uninitiated?” He said, “Tell them, the more you experience it, the more you understand it.”
The world messages us to never feel uncomfortable. If you feel compromised, just throw back your head, laugh, and keep going. Stay cool, it’s all good. But there’s a built-in feeling of discomfort post Adam and Chava, and it clues us in to important boundaries.
Being physically or emotionally exposed makes us feel uncomfortable. That’s a healthy trigger Hashem created to say: “Danger ahead, this is getting too personal.” But what happens when we feel uncomfortable, dismiss the feeling, and keep going? We move that crucial boundary over and become less sensitive to the signals.
Why is it that as we share, we become more comfortable sharing? Sometimes it’s because we were too closed to begin with and needed to loosen up. More commonly, though, it’s because we plowed through boundaries, ignored those internal feelings of discomfort, and lost them. (Of course, if you’re feeling embarrassed at the doctor, or when discussing a real issue with a mentor, ignore the bashfulness and carry on.)
The three character traits that mark a Jew are kindness, mercy, and bashfulness (Yevamos 79a). I always wondered about that: Bashfulness? Seriously?
The Maharshah notes that in reality, Jews are not naturally low-key or meek; the Gemara even accuses us of being the most shameless and audacious of the nations (“az b’umos”). He explains that our natural tendency is to be in-your-face and too forward, but the merit of accepting the Torah at Sinai weakens that famous Jewish chutzpah and gives us the strength to fight it.
While society at large celebrates openness, it conflicts with Jewish values, while simultaneously playing into a Jewish personality challenge. But even if sensitivity has been lost, we can regain ground by setting personal boundaries. They may feel artificial at first, but eventually, they’ll become yours.
Like so many frum women, I’m part of several virtual communities and I follow the social media accounts of various frum women — mothers, entrepreneurs, and teachers who share about their lives and post motivating, inspirational texts. I’ve gotten so much support and validation from my online life. I’m torn: I’ve seen so much good come from sharing and openness, but is it appropriate in public venues?
We often hear of people who suffer in silence, causing themselves unnecessary pain and heartache when they could have been helped and their predicament alleviated by reaching out. How tragic the price of misplaced, misguided discretion.
We’re grateful for opportunities within our community to connect people who have similar challenges — just about any kind of suffering can be lightened through networking and camaraderie. “Trouble shared by many brings comfort” (Sefer Hachinuch 331). A vetted support group can be a lifesaver, sometimes literally.
Sharing has always been a part of who we are. Rivkah (Bereishis 24:28, Rashi) ran to tell her mother about the jewelry she received from Eliezer, and we learn that Rachel didn’t have a mother when she tells her father of her encounter with Yaakov (Bereishis 29:12, Rashi). Female confidences are innate.
But stretching that to endorse completely open venues is a jump. It’s really hard — and rare — for people who get their support and validation online to stick to frum groups exclusively, and even frum groups can have their interesting variety of standards or lack thereof.
As you point out, there’s a lot of inspiration being passed around, but guess what? There’s a lot of de-inspiration as well. Blogs and unscreened forums can, and do, wreak havoc. We all have our nasty examples.
So is there value in sharing and openness? It depends. In a healthy venue, sharing’s good; in a forum that’s indiscriminate or public, it’s often not.
One who says, “What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is yours” is an am-ha’aretz, an ignoramus (Pirkei Avos 5:10). The unsophisticated start with a good idea, but apply it without thought or discrimination (Derech Chaim, Bartenura, ibid). Erasing boundaries between my life and yours denotes a lack of common sense. Sharing feels good in the immediate but doesn’t always help your situation in the long run.
If there’s worry in your heart, we’re told, “Yasichena” (Mishlei 12:25). There are two conflicting explanations for this word. One is that it’s from the word hesech, distract yourself. The other shares a root with sachach, conversation (Yoma 75a).
Discernment is crucial because you may lose more than you gain from talking. “There is a time to be silent and a time to speak (Koheles 3:7).”
Some people don’t trust their own sense; they then seek help unnecessarily, from an inappropriate address, or turn to too many cooks, spoiling their broth with conflicting and confusing input. All of this often aggravates what had originally been a manageable problem. A bit of patience and privacy can stave off crisis.
Will You Be My Influencer?
I’m torn about social media because I feel like there’s no way of knowing who I’m connecting with out there. But my sister always tells me that it’s an opportunity to reach out across community and religious divides. She thinks it’s great to share and exchange ideas, learning from each other’s differences while simultaneously working to stay strong in who we are.
When we need to find out which route to take, what hotel is well priced, or how two medications interact, it doesn’t matter much where the information comes from. But receiving friendship, advice, and emotional support is different. That creates bonds and needs to be treated with caution.
I’ve often heard the claim that if someone is strong enough, then attending a secular campus, reading classical philosophy, working in a non-Jewish office, etc., won’t matter, and what in the world were you doing for 12 years in yeshivah, if this weakens you.
Jewish sources disagree: The way of humanity is that one is drawn in his ideas and actions after his friends and peers… Therefore, a person must befriend those who do mitzvos and always live among wise people… He should stay far from those who do wrong… so that he should not learn from their behavior. (Rambam, Hilchos Deos 6:1)
It’s unavoidable. Even if someone is strong and educated, whom we share with and whom we take from affects us deeply.
Online forums expose issues that have been avoided or covered up, like mental health, addiction, abuse, troubled marriages, and unhealthy relationships. I guess there’s a certain amount of lost privacy, but isn’t breaking stigma a priority?
The word stigma is thrown around very freely. It’s a vague way of referring to social discomfort in a dismissive way.
If stigmatizing a subject means we don’t confide in a friend or seek necessary support, that’s unfortunate. But caution is advised before baring topics traditionally kept quiet. Our forebears were smart and knew what they were doing by keeping their lives under wraps. Much inappropriate sharing is justified by hiding behind the idol-smashing of breaking stigmas.
Take mental illness. Awareness and help are blessed developments. However, it’s understandable if someone doesn’t want to chat about her medication at PTA, and for most people, it’s awkward if the woman they just met does so. Obviously, this isn’t because she’s done something wrong, but because differentiating what belongs in a private realm rather than public, is a sign of self-respect.
Sometimes the issue is dignity, and sometimes it’s actual halachah. You mention marriage and relationships. We’re obligated to keep private aspects of marriage and relationships discreet. “As a result of the transgression of speaking publicly about aspects of relationships meant to stay private, harsh decrees are renewed... and a sealed judgement of 70 years of good is switched to bad” (Shabbos 33a). Serious stuff.
Rebbetzin Zehava Braunstein a”h was known to say that most marriage crises are caused by talking too much — even about benign details. If you have something nice to say about your husband, she’d say, there are three people who should be told about it: your husband, his mother, and your mother. Sharing with anyone else is a breach of boundaries and harmful.
Halachah disallows marital oversharing of all varieties (a plea here for filtering some of those posted wedding and anniversary pictures, see Rema Even Haezer 21:5). Sharing of past misdeeds with others (“Tastes a bit like shellfish, reminds me of the old days,” see Hilchos Teshuvah 2:5), telling secrets not yours, (kids’ shidduchim, ADHD meds, see Chofetz Chaim Issurei Rechilus 8:65), and talking about your plans for your family (“You can borrow the Snugli until the summer at least,” see Igros Moshe Even Haezer Vol 1:163) are all halachically out of bounds.
Of course, with a rav, doctor, shadchan, therapist, or other appropriate party, talking is the right thing to do.
Pooh Pooh Pooh
My friends and I love sharing how cute our kids are, new things we get, and cool things we accomplish. Should I be concerned about ayin hara? Can I decide to just not care about it?
What ayin hara actually means is jealousy. How does it work?
When we show people what we have, they notice it. What comes next are dissatisfaction and envy.
Some see the glitter of someone else’s successful life and think, “My life is imperfect, painful, and messy, but hey, good for them!”
It’s also common, however, for people to feel bad and wonder why their own life is lacking. They may pine for the type of marriage, house, or perfectly braided six strand challah that’s being shown off — honestly or dishonestly.
It’s uncomfortable to break it down so baldly, but when someone looks at your life and is jealous, the underlying truth is that they’d be a lot happier if you didn’t have that car, kitchen, chassan, or fill in the blank. Their begrudging eye awakens a discussion in Shamayim. If one Jew feels that another Jew shouldn’t have something, maybe he shouldn’t; he’s then put through a rigorous Heavenly examination few can pass.
We usually think that ayin hara hurts the recipient of the ayin hara, but the initiator of an ayin hara puts himself in danger as well. Chazal tell of someone who looked enviously at a friend and his own life was shortened (Avos D’Rabi Nosson 16:1).
What does it mean when they say that if you don’t care about ayin hara, it doesn’t care about you? The source for this is obscure but perhaps it has to do with how intensely you’re playing the ayin hara game and where you fall on the jealousy, competition, and showing-off scale.
If someone honestly isn’t paying attention to how they measure up against everyone else, and is genuinely happy for what others have, that’s a defense against drawing the damage of ayin hara. But if your favorite hobby is sending streams of brag photos into cyber-world, then a plethora of red strings or hanging fish eyes in funny places isn’t going to help.
Keep Me Posted, Okay?
I’m the only one in my extended family who doesn’t use social media. It’s where everyone shares all their exciting — and not-so-exciting — moments. I’ve gotten used to not being part of the “hock,” and anyway I can’t imagine taking a picture every time I purchase an iced coffee or tackle a huge load of laundry.
But sometimes it’s hard, like when I was at the grocery store and the woman behind me in line was shocked that I didn’t know that my brother and his family were moving —she’d found out from my sister-in-law’s WhatsApp status. Or at PTA, some stranger showed me the Instagram pictures from my sister’s vacation to Florida — which I hadn’t known about! How can I strengthen my resolve to keep my life private?
Keeping away from social media means you miss knowing a lot of what’s going on. That’s a hefty price to pay for higher standards of discretion and propriety. Why stay away? Is it worth it?
Let’s focus on social, not professional, use of social networks. You likely know a lot of this, regardless of where your struggle sits on the technology arc, but let’s review.
First, social media is a phenomenal time waster. When you’re chatting and posting, it feels like you’re doing something, but nothing is actually being accomplished.
Second, it’s misleading. You feel as though you’re building relationships when you’re often diverting your attention from actual ones. “K, lol gotcha:)” is not communication, connection, or friendship — but it’s a lot easier than putting time into the real thing.
Trickster chemicals play around with our brains and cause dependency. One chemical is oxytocin, which spikes when people share on social media. This chemical, which is also released when you get a warm hug, makes us feel liked, trusting, and generous. Its feel-good effect is one of the factors that lure people to keep following, creating stories, and updating statuses.
Dopamine is released when a person gets pleasure, spurring a desire for more. Stimulated by unpredictability, small bits of exciting information, and immediate gratification, the dopamine released from sharing on some social media can make it harder to resist than cigarettes and alcohol. It doesn’t help that there’s always more action in an unending cyberspace and no built-in brakes.
Is this really making anyone happy?
Knowing posts are contrived doesn’t prevent you from making yourself miserable. Even when you know it’s a show, everyone else’s families seem to be wonderful.
Finally, consistently relating to the world two-dimensionally engenders shallowness. It’s a lot more about how things look and a lot less about how things are.
One afternoon, I saw some kids in an oversized inflatable pool. A little boy, around seven years old, called his mother and posed, expecting her to snap a picture.
“Today”, she told him, “we’re taking pictures in our memory, so that we’ll remember.” The kid was thrown. “But Mommy, I don’t know how I look!” Her answer? “Sweetie, we’re taking a picture of how we feel on the inside.” How refreshing.
Missing out on news because you limit swiping isn’t fun. Surrounding yourself with offline friends is a partial solution. Knowing what you’re gaining can strengthen your resolve. And my hope is that with perseverance and friendly reminders, family and friends who are making different choices will accept and respect yours and try to include you in ways that work for you.
When Connection Is Hard: How to Move Outward
- Just say Hi 🙂 Get in the habit of smiling at people you know and saying “Hi, how are you?” For every one person who will look at you funny, ten will have their day brightened.
- Play Jewish geography At a simchah, introduce yourself and ask the people sitting closest their name. Ask where they’re from, and if they don’t respond in kind, follow up by telling them where you’re from. If you find yourself thinking, “I wonder if she knows…’’ well, ask!
- Go for depth Try to move from giving information to giving reasons. “Yes, we moved from Brooklyn to Jackson. The reason was….” Or, “I used to be in finance, but today I teach. That’s because…”
- It’s not all good Are you always putting on a front? We’re all human and all have failings. Getting past the need to show a perfect front to all people at all times is a prerequisite for authentic relationships.
- Listen to your heart Sharing is harder for you. Don’t force it as long as you do have those few real connections.
- The selected few If the list of people you share with is nonexistent, choose someone you think you can trust. Mention something that’s not too earth shattering or intensely personal, but a normal human struggle you feel this person will connect to. See how it goes. If it goes well, expand the circle and the depth of sharing to build up a small circle of people you can connect with authentically.
- Really now Work on recognizing that everyone has struggles and tough times. It’s more than okay to be real. Sharing your struggles with people close to you will ease your plight and make others more comfortable confiding in you as well.
I have a friend who seems to make new BFFs overnight. She can share even negative or unflattering details about herself with people she’s just met. I always thought that you create friendships by becoming vulnerable and opening up very slowly — but then I see how many friends she has, and I wonder.
The first night of sleepaway camp, with its fresh friendships and midnight confessions, is often soon followed by a summer of regrets. You divulged personal information to bunkmates who you then need to avoid all summer long.
In Bunk Zayin, indiscretion is a rite of passage. But we’re all grown up now and it’s time for some circumspection.
Friendship would disappear if we didn’t unburden ourselves at times. Trust, communication, and relatability in human interaction all depend on a mutual exchange of ideas and feelings.
But a wise man once said, “A pocket that’s inside out can’t hold anything.” When we want to build a relationship, and more importantly, ourselves, personal borders will create space in which things can be held. They delineate what belongs outside and what inside.
It’s a misconception that to be close you have to know every single thing about a person this minute; privacy is vital even in the closest of relationships.
There’s a phenomenon creeping up over the past few years that’s causing friendships to take a turn for the strange, particularly among young women. First comes the forming of quick intense friendships, often without proper boundaries and over-sharing of different varieties. Then there are the obsessions and insecurities, the looking over their shoulders to see who their bestie is talking to, over-analyzing details of inane conversations. Where is this neediness, this lack of emotional backbone, this not knowing when and how to connect properly coming from?
I’ve posed this question to groups of young women, and they’ve told me that social media posturing is causing a royal mess. In a hyper pseudo-social culture where self-confidence is propped up by illusory upvotes, the thought of being alone leads to panic. The unrelenting pull to constantly fake-connect without taking time to process friendships has stunted their ability to interact naturally and confidently.
The habit of sharing every parking space and sliced tomato, knowing it will be oohed and ahhed over by a distracted, hang-on-let-me-just-respond-to-that audience has dulled social confidence. The ease with which emotions are articulated cheapens them and creates an easy-come, easy-go feeling regarding friendships.
What’s interesting is that I see these troubling trends slowly overflowing onto circles with less social media as well. The oversharing, the intense neediness, is getting there too. It’s one more example of how what’s out there makes its way in here.
When You Over-Connect: How to Develop a Sense of Privacy
- Take it up Get in the habit of talking to your Creator. Over-share to your heart’s content — the more the better. It’s the ultimate opportunity for connection with the only One who can really understand.
- Learn to trust your inner voice before immediately turning for advice for whatever crops up, try to deal with it on your own.
- No comparing Try making decisions because that’s what you think is right, without rating the options against what everyone else is doing
- Alive connection Go out with a friend or family member, and leave your phone home. Leave your companion’s contact info in case of emergency.
- Get off the stage Try to imagine your life not from a bird’s eye view, as if watching yourself from the outside, rather imagine yourself experiencing things from inside yourself.
- Close your door Try to refrain from discussing aspects of your lives that take place behind closed doors. If your friends are talking too candidly and you hang back, realize you’re being spiritually sensitive.
- Who owns it? If it’s not your life exclusively, it’s not yours to share. Be trustworthy.
Openness and honesty seem like solid values. But when do they hit up against the competing values of modesty and privacy?
Saying “I’m honest, I’m real, so rather than putting up a facade I’m letting the world hear my pain, see my mess, and know what’s really going on,” is faulty and undiscriminating.
We wouldn’t call living in the park in full view being honest; it’s uncivilized. Privacy doesn’t mean putting your personality on ice or being boring, but rather having boundaries between your real inner self and what you display publicly.
George M. Cohan immortalized being out there with his infamous quote, “I don’t care what you say about me, as long as you say something about me, and as long as you spell my name right.”
Going back to the complaints of the moon at Creation, being front center stage is often perceived as more valuable.
But Judaism values privacy and innerness as conducive for holiness. G-d Himself is described as a Kel Mistater — the Power Who Hides Himself (Yeshayahu 45:15). He’s perceived by Eliyahu Hanavi as a Silent Indiscernible Voice (Melachim 19:11, Rashi).
Hashem’s house, the Bais Hamikdash, gets holier as it gets more exclusive. First came a fence, the “soreg.” Then a courtyard, with strong gates leading to an inner courtyard, followed by a building with walls, and then an inner sanctum. As the location became more private, the holiness intensified.
There’s an account in the Torah that’s perplexing. Bilaam attempted to curse the Jewish people, and Hashem caused him to bless them instead. Chazal inform us that all of those blessings reverted back to curses, save one: “How private are your tents, Yaakov.” So why the celebration? The gain seems to have been wiped out.
Perhaps the answer lies in the Talmudic statement: “Blessing can only rest on something that is hidden from (a public) eye” (Bava Metzia 42a). When the homes and lives of the Jews are private, all blessing is then available for the taking, so really, with the one brachah left in place, that of privacy, we can have everything.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 712)
Batya Weinberg has been involved in numerous aspects of Jewish education for over 30 years. She’s a senior lecturer in many seminaries and a noted student advisor
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