For the 4.2 million Americans who identify as as Jewish by religion, September 13 & 14 marked what is arguably the most important Jewish holiday of the year, Yom Kippur.
The holiday begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, followed by ten days of penitence. During this time, Jews ask for atonement and repentance from God and also the forgiveness of those they have wronged in order to wipe their slates clean before the New Year.
Traditionally, people of Jewish faith would observe a 25-hour period of fasting and prayer and attend a synagogue service on Yom Kippur.
In 2010, Rabbi Jason Miller of the Congregation T’chiyah in Oak Park, Michigan, delivered a sermon about a concern he had about the use of social media during Yom Kippur that received a lot of national media attention.
The rabbi said he was seeing an increasingly popular trend of people seeking forgiveness and delivering apologies via Facebook and Twitter as opposed to face-to-face interactions. This rise in the use of social networking is, according to Miller, diminishing the significance and sincerity of repentance.
“He believes that people are using sites like Facebook and Twitter to issue mass, unspecific apologies in order to eliminate uncomfortable, individual personal interaction,” wrote Warren Riddle, a blogger for AOL.
Miller believes that the true spirit of Yom Kippur means admitting you’re wrong and seeking forgiveness even if it’s challenging and that posting one-size-fits, all blanket apologies on Twitter or Facebook is taking the easy way out.
While Miller encourages the use of social media (he even has a blog), he believes there is a way of overdoing it.
Ann Brenoff, a senior writer for the Huffington Post, agrees with Miller. She said that apologizing in person during Yom Kippur is like visiting someone in the hospital instead of sending flowers— it demonstrates sincerity and caring.
However, other congregations see social media as the perfect twist to the time-honored tradition.
NPR did a program last month featuring Cantor Debbi Ballard, founder and member of the Shema Koleinu synagogue in Miramar, Florida. Ballard talked about how her congregation was invited by its leaders to use Facebook and Twitter to seek forgiveness from those they’ve hurt or wronged in the past year.
Ballard created a hashtag for Shema Koleinu’s High Holy Day services because of the increasing amount of young people in her congregation.
“… I’m not saying use technology all day long. I’m saying let’s use the technology and have it enhance our atonement today by tweeting or texting our sins away, and looking at those sins on a big movie screen. And then letting them roll past us so that we can let them go, so that we can live a more powerful life this year. I think that’s what Yom Kippur and atonement is about,” Ballard told NPR host Michael Martin.
To make their High Holy Day services even more interactive, Ballard explained that they had a flyaway movie screen that would show the congregation questions throughout the service that they could text their answers to. Ballard had already set up a number and the texts went straight to the text-to-screen platform. The answers then scrolled down the screen. Questions included things like, “What limiting behavior or belief do you need to let go of this year in order to live a more powerful life?”
There’s even an app for that! Mobile applications such as eScapegoat allow Jews to confess their sins anonymously.
Such a debate highlights the way Jews have embraced social media and what a powerful tool it is. While some traditionalists, such as Rabbi Miller, may not agree with it, there is no doubt that Judaism has embraced social media for its ability to connect, express and serve the needs of an interactive society.