What does the Torah say about… cyber bullies?

With Rabbi Ariel ABEL.

As we saw in the news this month, a 14-year-old girl became a victim of online bullies on a social networking site, who posted messages asking her to kill herself. The girl broke and took her own life.

The Torah is very clear on this point: “No person should oppress his brother.” The rabbis understand this – to forbid ona’at devarim or oppressing another with words.

The effect of words also prompted the sages to compare the embarrassment one suffers to murder. Furthermore, pain caused as a result is a universal prohibition known as tzaar baalei chayim: causing pain to creatures. Could an offender whose intended actions caused the death of another person via cyberspace be tried for murder in Judaism?

If one can supervise kosher milk via a camera system and achieve the baking of matza for Pesach by pressing buttons in a factory, by extension the offending hand outstretched seeking the death of another by writing electronic messages could be considered as equally culpable, as an operated tool causing death. Being present may not be required for the fatal attempt to take effect, especially when the victim is a vulnerable teenager.

In 2007, I was severely criticised by some colleagues simply for questioning how some teenage schoolchildren were being looked after pastorally in the context of visiting Jewish educators. I was even accused of undermining sacred efforts to make youth more religious! But protecting vulnerable people is a core Torah value in itself, and the first priority and duty is to the family and the individual and it is high time that matters relating to this are carefully addressed both nationally and communally in a transparent and open fashion.

This will only serve to increase public confidence in public institutions and each other. The last word goes to the book of Deuteronomy. God chose the people of Israel to demonstrate that vulnerability must be respected and not abused: “It is not because you are numerous… for you are the least among nations.” The Exodus from slavery in Egypt is a divine act of deliverance which we are asked to retell twice a day.

The only way to put this into practice is to battle to safeguard potential victims from oppression of any kind. If we can lead in this area, we can fulfil the mission we have been entrusted by the prophet Isaiah to be: a light unto the nations.