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Atonement in the cyber age

| Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
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Rabbi Jason Miller is a Detroit-based tech entrepreneur, educator, blogger and visiting rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Toledo, Ohio. With Yom Kippur beginning Tuesday at sundown, he spoke to the Trib regarding atonement in the high-tech era.

Q: Has the atonement process changed significantly with the changing technological times?

A: Atonement has definitely changed with the advancements in technology, specifically with the Internet.

In the Internet age, people have become more comfortable communicating in less formal ways. That has led to people asking for forgiveness in more informal media, including email, text messaging and social media messaging.

Q: Is that something being done primarily by Jewish millennials?

A: I think it's everyone. When people feel comfortable communicating in a certain format, that's how they resort to asking for forgiveness and seeking atonement.

When we were a letter-writing society, we'd send people a handwritten letter through the U.S. mail. When we began using telephones, we'd pick up the phone.

Once email became the chosen format to ask for forgiveness, rabbis began asking the question of whether or not it's kosher to use a medium like that. Today, we're asking the same question when it comes to sending a text message or simply posting sort of a boilerplate repentance message on Facebook.

Q: Isn't resorting to boilerplate running the risk of diluting the emotional impact of repentance?

A: I'll take it a step further: Not only is it a risk; it's incorrect.

To really go through the process of atonement, according to Jewish law, we have to seek the person in a one-on-one format. The best way to do that would be to seek forgiveness from the person on a face-to-face basis, in a real-life atmosphere.

Atonement is not supposed to be easy. If it was, everyone would just send a tweet saying, “Anyone I made a mistake with this past year, I'm sorry.”

We have to go the extra mile. We have to try to find that person and let them know that not only are we apologetic, but if put in that position again, we promise we won't make the same error. We won't insult you.

Repentance is supposed to be a difficult matter, and certainly rabbis should not condone the standard Facebook apology message that Jewish people seem to send out this time of year. That's too easy. That lets people off the hook.

Q: Is there a place at all for sites such as Facebook in the atonement process?

A: There is a balancing act and it's certainly challenging. But I think life can be challenging. That's OK.

What I would say is that it's OK to send a mass message and post something on Facebook that says, “In case I wasn't aware and I slighted you in the past year, I ask for forgiveness.” But I also would add, “Please know that for those individuals (from whom) I know I must ask forgiveness, I will be contacting those individuals on a personal basis.”

So maybe I put something on Facebook, but that doesn't get me off the hook. I still have to go that extra mile and try to really think back and reflect on the past year, think about someone I may have offended or insulted or wronged, and then I have to try to make amends.

Miller can be found on Twitter (@RabbiJason) and his website is rabbijason.com.

Eric Heyl is a Trib Total Media staff writer (412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com).

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