Jewish Laws for Forwarding Email

Sermon delivered August 28, 2009, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

Some time in the next few months, I will receive an email, probably from a congregant. The subject line will begin with those two telling capital letters, “FW.” It’s a “forward.” The person sending the email has received it from somebody else, and is forwarding it to me, perhaps along with countless others, because she or he believes that we will be interested and concerned by the information therein.

Indeed, we should be. The email begins with a true and important story about the late President, then General, Dwight D. Eisenhower, from the days after the end of World War II. Eisenhower ordered the filming of the Nazi Concentration Camps, and the emaciated men, women and children who had barely survived. Prophetically predicting that, one day, some would deny that the Holocaust ever occurred, the General created a firm, indisputable, American record.

The email goes on to say that General Eisenhower was correct. That’s true, of course: Holocaust denial is a pernicious force, very much alive today. Getting specific, the email claims that the United Kingdom’s national Education authority has banned all teaching of the Holocaust, to avoid offending England’s Muslim community. That’s where the email and the truth part company. As with many lies, this one contains a kernel of truth. Such a thing did happen in one small town or suburb. When word got back to the British Education Ministry, though, the local decision was quickly overturned. National standards were clarified and amplified. The Holocaust continues to be taught, appropriately and responsibly, as it should be, throughout the United Kingdom.

So, how do I know that I will receive such an email in the coming months? Well, I know I’ll get it because I’ve received it so many times in the past. Years after the actual events inaccurately described in this slanderous email, I continue to receive periodic forwards of the same message, often preceded by an anti-Muslim or anti-British diatribe, or a treatise about the ills of “political correctness,” or all of the above.

I don’t respond to most forwarded emails. When the message is suspect, though, I do reply: “This doesn’t sound right to me. Are you sure it’s accurate?” When I already know that an email is false, I send a cordial email back to the sender, saying something like this: “I’m sure you assumed that the person who sent you this email had first hand knowledge of the events. I’m afraid that wasn’t the case here.” I go on to explain the facts, adding, “Perhaps you’ll want to send a follow-up email to all the people to whom you sent the forward, to let them know that they should disregard, and should certainly not forward, your previous message.” Occasionally, the person with whom I’m corresponding does just that. Occasionally.

As I thought about tonight’s message, a song echoed in my head. I learned the tune as a youth grouper, way back in the 1970s. It begins with the Hebrew word emet, meaning “truth,” sung very fast, eight times. “Truth, truth, truth, truth, truth, truth, truth, truth, you come first; truth, truth, truth, truth, truth, truth, truth, truth, you come last.” The words, not repeated eight times, come from our daily prayers. They assert that, for Jews, truth is our alpha and our omega, to borrow a phrase from another faith. Telling the truth is not merely a mitzvah, a commandment, for the Jew. Instead, being truthful is a top priority.

Too often, I fear, we forward emails to others because the message reinforces beliefs we already hold. And yet, we are taught: “Endure the truth, though it be bitter.” These words, from the wise man of Spain, Ibn Gabirol, remind us that the truth takes precedence over what we wish to be true. And yet, folks these days forward with abandon, without asking: “What is the source of this information?” “How can I verify its accuracy?” “Is it true?” Judaism requires that we not assume that information coming to us in an email is accurate, even if we would like to believe it. Instead, we must examine what is written and verify its truth before we share the email with others.

When we do otherwise, we risk falling into a trap best described by the notorious Nazi, Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels said that, if one tells a lie enough times, loudly enough, people will believe it’s true. God forbid that anybody should think that I’m suggesting that forwarding the false email about British schools will lead to another Holocaust. How ironic, though, that folks would unknowingly follow Goebbels’ advice in a purported attempt to squash Holocaust denial!

In late 2007 and early 2008, one particular email was forwarded so frequently and broadly in the Jewish community that our national leadership felt the need to respond strongly and in harmony. I’m speaking about slander spread about then-Senator, now President, Barack Obama, claiming that he is “really” a Muslim, bent on the destruction of Israel and America. On January 15, 2008, a mixed multitude of Jewish leaders released a joint statement. They emphasized that none of their organizations would be endorsing a Presidential candidate. Though the letter doesn’t say so, some of the individuals and the groups they represent are known to be quite liberal; while others are rather to the right. Nevertheless, they came together to defend truth, writing: “Many in our community have received hateful e-mails that use falsehood and innuendo to mischaracterize Sen. Barack Obama’s religious beliefs and who he is as a person. These tactics [are] based on despicable and false attacks and innuendo based on religion. We reject these efforts to manipulate members of our community into supporting or opposing candidates.”

I, too, received this email. I would never suggest that the congregant who forwarded it to me knew it to be false, though he certainly wanted it to be true. However, nobody who forwarded that email could authenticate the accuracy of is claims. They failed to uphold religious standards of truth.

Today, our country is engaged in a legitimate, heated debate about health care reform. However, like me, you have probably received emails insisting that the proposed plan would establish “death panels,” dispatching some elderly folks to the grave, or that plans in Congress mandate federal funding for abortions. None of that is true. By the way, when I was a Student Rabbi in Canada, 23 years ago, people would frequently ask me, “How can you stand to live in the U.S., where people die on gurneys in hospital corridors because they lack health insurance?” That question was based on a lie, too. Both kinds of falsehoods are intended to influence a debate over real, critical issues about the future of our nation. Our nation’s economic future depends on our getting health care costs under control. Our nation’s soul depends on our providing health security to all Americans. We must not mortgage our fiscal future or our spiritual future to falsehood.

Last week, a lady in our congregation sent me an email she had received. She did not forward it broadly, but only to me. She asked, “Can this be true?”

Sadly, many others had sent me the same email previously, forwarding broadly. The message cites a law passed by Congress and signed by the President, to provide some assistance to Palestinian refugees of last year’s war in the Gaza Strip. The email offers a real link to the Congressional Digest, where one can read the law in question. The message claims that this law is an example of the President’s strong bias against Israel and favoritism, not only for the Palestinian people, but for Hamas and the terrorists themselves.

The email seems to be legitimate. Yet months earlier, when I first read it, I wondered: If Congress and the President actually did such a thing, wouldn’t I be hearing about it through mainstream Jewish channels, complaining loudly and clearly about a gross injustice and a significant shift in American policy toward the Jewish State? I decided to forward the email to a contact with AIPAC, inquiring about its accuracy. He responded that the email mischaracterizes the law. In fact, AIPAC had supported the passage of this particular bill. Though the bill does provide for helping Palestinian refugees, it does so in concert with efforts of the Israeli government, authorizing services that Israel cannot. Far from being anti-Israel, the law in question was welcomed by the elected leadership of the Jewish State.

The important part of this story, though, is neither the content of the email nor its inaccuracy. Instead, what is significant is that the lady who forwarded the email to me this week was making an inquiry, not forwarding a falsehood. Like me, when she first saw the email, she sensed legitimacy. Before inflaming others, she thought to confirm the truth of the message. She thereby avoided propagating lies herself.

Asking questions is an ancient Jewish tradition. We know that Abraham questioned even God. In the words of the Talmud, Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman proclaimed: “One who is not ashamed to ask will in the end be exalted.” The lady who examined the truth of the email is much to be credited for placing truth ahead of the fun of forwarding a salacious email.

An ancient Jewish text, Iggeret HaVikuah, includes words that ring proverbial: “Seek the truth and you will know its Master.” God is the Source of all truth. When we lie, when we bear false witness – even when we do so through laziness, simply by not checking the facts – we distance ourselves from God, as we do when we commit any sin. When we seek to tell the truth: to spread the truth, and only the truth – and to ask questions to determine the truth – we come closer to God.

During this Hebrew month of Elul preceding the High Holy Days, we are commanded to examine our actions, to prepare for the work of repentance that will culminate on Yom Kippur. This year, let us all commit ourselves to greater vigilance for the truth. This year, let us devote ourselves to the Jewish tradition to question. This year, let us adhere to truth, and then may we ever come closer to our God.