Too Many Friends

Too Many Friends

First Day Rosh Hashanah Sermon, 5771/2010

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

 

The other day I looked at my Facebook page.   Facebook, for those who do not use computers, is an internet social network website with 500 million users.  Facebook users can add people as friends and send them messages, and update their personal profiles to notify friends about themselves. On a Facebook page you receive suggestions about people, using the parlance of our time, that you can ‘friend’. 

The singer-songwriter, Debbie Friedman, appeared on my Facebook page as a prospective friend.  Debbie and I have many ‘Facebook Friends’ in common.  Since I have known Debbie since the 80s, I clicked on her photo to add her as a friend and got this message from Facebook.  “Debbie Friedman has too many friends.”

It certainly is a milestone in the internet era when Facebook decides you have too many friends.  That means you have 5000 friends, the trigger for the “too many friends” message.   While social scientists tell us that the human brain can only sustain approximately 150 stable social relationships, friendship in the Facebook age has been totally redefined.  One feature of the Facebook age is the rise of the social network of friends, a group of dozens, hundreds, or thousands who you communicate and share information with over the internet on a regular basis. 

 

 

This change in the way people see social relations is aided by the ease in which we can maintain social relations with modern technology. Consider these advances.

 

 

  • I can skype my family and friends across continents.     The limit of voice only communication has been overcome with the widely available technology to see and hear the person on your computer screen wherever she is.   Connections are instantaneous, virtual, and visible and soon coming to your cellphone.  (Imagine if Yosef  and Yaakov had Skype during those 21 years of separation)
  • I can meet, befriend, and even establish relationships on the internet with its unique power of sites to filter and organize information.  Most of the weddings I do these days are with couples who met on internet dating sites like Jdate or match.com.  Sites like Jdate create a virtual social gathering where you meet people with likeminded interests.  (Imagine if Samson had Jdate. He would have not had to date hostile Phillistine femme fatales.)
  • I can send tweets of 140 words about anything I want to my followers. This is why we had such a large counter rally earlier this year when we were picketed by a virulently anti-Semitic group, the Westboro Baptist Church.  The hundred plus counter demonstrators used Twitter and Facebook to notify people of the picketing.  Text messaging enables instantaneous organizing which explains why repressive governments make this technology illegal.   (What would have happened if Moshe could tweet during his confrontations with Pharoah.  “Frogs hopping, stay inside!”)
  • Speed Friending:  It easy to make friends and to make them fast.  The Facebook age is the quickened process for meeting, friending, and relating to others.  Previous impediments of place, social circles, age hardly matter.
  • Friendship as a commodity.  With Facebook we have the ability to quantify our friendships. Like anything quantifiable, people attach prestige and the aura of success based on accumulations like we do with money and things.  Therefore a person who has 3000 friends is somehow better than someone who has 25. 
  • Friendship can even become a fantasy.  I can create a new identity on sites like Second Life in the form of an avatar and seek out virtual relationships with other avatars.   We can now have fantasy friendships.

 

Even with all the social benefits that come with the Facebook Age, our tradition teaches us to be skeptical of the false gods that are promoted in every generation.  Our generation is no different.  Jewish teachings on friendship question the promises and allure of connection in the Facebook age.  The Jewish understanding does not stem from a Luddite hatred of technology, but a wise view on the nature and limits of true friendship. 

 

Consider this passage in Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Sages), “Get yourself a friend.”  Kneh Lecha Haver.

 

Pirkei Avot is a compendium of the moral and spiritual wisdom from the Rabbis of antiquity.  It establishes a fact about friendship.  You have to make an effort to make and sustain friendships.  The attachment of friendship is a good.  But how do we acquire a friend?

 

A commentary to Pirkei Avot elaborates.  To acquire a friend  “implies that a person is to get himself a companion who will eat with him, drink with him, read Scripture with him, study Mishnah with him, sleep next to him, and disclose all his secrets to him, secrets of Torah and secrets of worldly matters. Thus, when the two sit and occupy themselves with Torah, if one errs in Halakhah or in the substance of a chapter……his companion will bring him back [to right thinking], as is said, ‘Two are better than one, in that they have greater benefit from their labor’ (Eccles. 4:9). Avot 1:6; ARN 8.

 

The first on the list is eating and drinking together.  That’s hard to do on the internet.  What it means is face time.  This seems obvious to us Neanderthals who lived before cyber reality, but no champion of virtual relationships can convince me that you can really befriend someone without face time.   Physical presence is necessary for friendship to blossom.

 

This is how we can understand our text’s comment about the need to sleep next to one another.   I don’t understand this in the erotic sense, but rather that friendship develops only after significant time, not just high moments, but of long hours of low energy, or simply being around each other in the unfolding of daily life.   

 

Friending takes time. You can’t get around this.   This text suggests that friending is a slow process of accumulated time spent getting to know another.   Perhaps you have heard of the ‘Slow Eating’ Movement.  The idea is to create an alternative to the fast food culture with the intention of restoring relaxed, healthy, and social gathering to the act of eating.   Judaism offers the way of slow friending as an alternative to the contemporary culture’s embrace of fast friending or instantaneous social networking.

 

 

    A friend according to the text is someone who sharpens my understanding.  Thus the Havruta, the study partner, has the role of correcting his or her partner.  But this correcting is face to face. One of the unfortunate features of the internet age is the ease, in which we can criticize, berate, and flame people without seeing their faces.

 

I read a story recently about the decline of social amity among college freshman roommates.  It appears that the internet generation has lost the ability to resolve roommate conflicts through face to face discussion. The article reports that more often than not roommates in conflict resort to email or Facebook page confrontations.  College officials note that this reliance on internet communications leads to higher rates of conflict in which dorm RAs are forced to intervene to resolve.  

 

The power of internet communications to create havoc and destroy relationships is all around us, even in synagogue life in which I have seen all too many times relationships torn asunder by nasty and accusatory emails.  The Internet is as destabilizing of relationships and communities as it is constructive in speeding communications and collaboration.

 

People use the internet to express anger or criticism, because it is easier to communicate this way than face to face.  But real friendship or resolution of conflict is best resolved face to face as the commentary to Pirkei Avot points out. Face to face correction allows people in strained relationships to take in all emotional and sensory inputs and to apply some self-restraint in the delivery of criticism and the response to it. 

 

 

 What have we learned about Jewish views of friendship?   

  1. Friendship doesn’t just happen. It requires effort, significant together time, and physical presence.  Friendship requires periods of unrushed, non-instrumental time, the suspension of the regular marketplace and working conditions we live in during most of our week and most of our lives.   Jewish tradition teaches that when we alter our pace of life on a regular basis we create the conditions for true friendship to flourish.   

 

  1. True friendship involves the ability to lovingly disagree or criticize our friends.  Jewish sources see friendship as more than sharing information or personal chemistry.  Friendship develops from time spent together engaged in a mutually shared common pursuit in which two persons acquire wisdom, pursue a common cause, or share a common life.  To really live we must be open to challenging and questioning each other in the pursuit of truth and understanding. 

 

The internet technologies of the 21st century are truly amazing and bring many benefits.  Many of us love our gadgets and the amazing things they do.  But I am a great believer in the Jewish teaching of slow and honest friendship remains true despite all the allure of new social technologies.    

 

Jewish notions of friendship should instill in us wariness about the claims and promises of technologically driven relationships.  Our tradition wisely identifies the conditions for establishing enduring, deep, and meaningful relationships and friendships. 

 

On this Rosh Hashannah we begin the effort to make Teshuvah-to repair the most important relationships in our lives.  This is the time when we should also give attention to our dearest friends. Perhaps we have neglected them.  Perhaps we have been unkind.   Perhaps we have taken them for granted.  Make Teshuvah with your friends, not by email or Facebook, but face to face if you can, or at least with a phone or a skype call.  This is no idle matter.  The Rabbis were fond of saying. Havruta or Mituta.  Friendship or Death.  Without true friendship it is as if we are dead.

 

It is therefore not surprising to understand that Jewish tradition conceives of the human and divine relationship as a friendship.  True, on the Days of Awe we depict God as a King or a Father, but on Shabbat we sing to God as a Yedid Nefesh-the friend of our soul.   Can we indeed ‘friend’ God?  Not on Facebook and not in the impoverished way our age understands friendship.  Rather to friend God is to know that God desires true and enduring human fellowship and friendship.  By cultivating authentic friendship we imitate God and also create the opportunity to friend God in our quest for the most enduring relationship possible.

 

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