Jewish Thought

Public and Private in the Age of Instagram

I am not troubled by the flaunting of one’s wealth, exotic vacations or Instagram-perfect family pictures on social media. Maybe I should be, but in the scheme of breaches of tzeniut on social media, it pales in comparison to a far more insidious form of immodesty—vulnerable posts. The vulnerable post, a self-disclosure of sorts, is in vogue and will almost always be rewarded with an abundance of likes (which ironically makes such posts not very vulnerable at all). It is, on the one hand, a reflection of a society that embraces self-awareness and emotional wellbeing, which should be applauded, and on the other, an unprecedented blurring of lines between the private and public, a basic breakdown in tzeniut. 

The Maharal of Prague defines tzinah as internality, a perspective and way of life that transcends the material and external and is attuned to the spirit. The premise of tzeniut, then, is that there is a difference between external and internal, the public and the private. Social media rewards and encourages the public sharing of our deepest emotions and asks of us to share as often as we possibly can, leaving us with very little left inside. 

And yet, in a now-famous speech given to American pulpit rabbis, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l, begged them to be more open, and dare I say vulnerable, with their congregants: 

I do not believe that we can afford to be as reluctant, modest and shy today as we were in the past about describing our relationship with the Almighty. If I want to transmit my experiences, I have to transmit myself, my own heart (Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Volume 2 [New Jersey: Ktav Publishers, 1999], 167-169). 

The Rav was encouraging rabbis to share their most intimate feelings, with the hope that in doing so, it would give their congregants a window into their own inner spiritual worlds. And while his particular focus was sharing the depths of one’s relationship with G-d, the principle is widely applicable—the sharing of one’s inner world is a powerful educational tool.  

In truth, this was not the Rav’s own insight. Our tradition is replete with great individuals who practiced self-disclosure to the extreme. In the final chapters of Yeshayahu, the prophet shares his heartbreaking reservations over the impotency of his mission (see Radak on chap. 49). Yirmiyahu, in the third chapter of Eichah, uses the first-person account to describe his brokenness over the destruction of Tzion. And most famously, David Hamelech, throughout the book of Tehillim, shares the entire gamut of emotions through the lens of his own highs and lows. Clearly, self-disclosure is not all that bad. 

Social media rewards and encourages the public sharing of our deepest emotions and asks of us to share as often as we possibly can, leaving us with very little left inside. 

And here’s where I, ironically, get vulnerable. I struggle with this tension: to share or not to share. I have seen firsthand how impactful self-disclosure can be, how the sharing of a powerful yearning can inspire others to grow and how acknowledging a weakness can give others strength. I have also felt the emptiness of sharing too much, of feeling compelled to weigh in, to speak up, and to empty out the rich emotions bubbling up inside, or far worse, to share when the emotional tank is on empty. I constantly feel the magnetic draw to posting, the undeniable dopamine hit that every single “like” releases. It’s not easy navigating the vulnerable post, all the while being blinded by its appeal. 

I have not yet figured it out and I doubt I ever will, but I do have some social media posting rules that I often fail at but try mightily to abide by. When I started posting on Facebook, I did some research on what many social media influencers do to gather a following. My rules, which I developed through much trial and error, are the exact opposite of what they taught me: 

1. Post when it feels right. There is both a strategy and a compulsion to post all the time. Fight it. Your number of followers will undoubtedly be fewer, but you will feel better inside as you treasure the richness of your emotions. And let’s be honest, we don’t always have something to say, and that’s okay. 

2. Double-check whether you need to be the center of the story. It is natural to talk about ourselves; for some of us, a little too natural. And as mentioned above, personal posts equal clicks. Can I convey the message of my post without it being about me? Despite it being socially acceptable in 2024 to do so, every “I” still smacks of self-centeredness.

3. It goes without saying that sharing information about, or pictures of, one’s own family should only be done with their permission. Even then, since posts about family tend to attract more likes, there is an additional blind spot that needs to be acknowledged when posting about family.  

4. Lastly, ask yourself: Why am I posting this? Is it to further my “brand,” or do I have something meaningful to add? Every personal post depletes our limited supply of spiritual-emotional oxygen. 

For all the pitfalls, I have found social media to be an incredible tool for both teaching and learning Torah and for creating and being part of a community. While some may argue that the challenges to tzeniut would be grounds for deleting one’s profile entirely, tzeniut does not demand of us to stop or to hide. “Hatznei’a lechet im Elokecha”—we are enjoined to walk with tzeniut, to not lose sight of our inner world as we boldly forge forward.  

Rabbi Yisrael Motzen is the rabbi of Ner Tamid, Baltimore, Maryland, and serves as the special assistant to the executive vice presidents at the OU.

More in this Section

Rethinking Tzeniut by Bracha Poliakoff

Modesty: An Educator’s Perspective by Shifra Rabenstein, as told to Barbara Bensoussan

My Tzeniut Journey by Josepha Becker

A New Approach for Teens by Dr. Zipora Schorr

Tzenius: The Key to an Inner Life by Rabbi Reuven Brand

Can Social Media and Modesty Coexist? by Alexandra Fleksher

To Post or Not to Post by Gila Ross

Walking a Tightrope by Rebbetzin Ruchi Koval, as told to Barbara Bensoussan

High Fashion, Higher Standards by Sandy Eller

This article was featured in the Summer 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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