Catfish – The Rabbi Episode

Rabbi Michael Broyde might be the first catfish rabbi.  For those unfamiliar, the term “catfish” was coined by a young man named Yaniv “Nev” Schulman, who made a 2010 documentary about his experience falling in love on Facebook with a fictitious young lady named, Megan.  Nev was so taken in by the girl that wanted to meet her in real life.  However, every time they came close to meeting, she had an excuse as to why she couldn’t.  As his doubts compiled, Nev decided to film his journey to find Megan.  When they finally met, Megan turned out to be Angela – a middle aged married woman with multiple online identities.

Angela’s husband, Vince, tells a story in the film. He says that when live cod were shipped to Asia from North America, the fish’s inactivity in their tanks resulted in only mushy flesh reaching the destination; but fishermen found that putting catfish in the tanks with the cod kept them active, and thus ensured the quality of the fish. Vince talks of how there are people in everyone’s lives who keep us active, always on our toes and always thinking. It is implied that he believes Angela to be such a person.

Nev Schulman has gone on to create an MTV series called, Catfish.  The show profiles those who, like Nev, have been involved with people who created fake online identities.  Apparently, there are quite a few people who spend their days creating personae online.  It is quite complicated and requires pilfering other people’s photos, coming up with background stories, creating fake friends and colleagues for the false characters, obtaining multiple cell phone numbers for each character, etc.  Many of the imposters on the MTV show lead fairly solitary lives and prefer to live in their fake universe without thought to the damage they do.  A famous Catfish case that was recently in the news featured Notre Dame linebacker, Manti Te’o.

Like a catfish, Rabbi Broyde certainly has everyone stirred up.  Perhaps the orthodox community is late to the games played by insecure and lonely souls on social media sites.  We have quickly caught up with this incident.  It’s hard to know what kind of insecurities caused Rabbi Broyde to create false online identities praising and supporting his own scholarship and career.  Certainly, he was already a well received personality in the orthodox world.  Despite Broyde’s rapid fall from grace, it can’t be denied that modern orthodox Judaism did lose a prominent figure.  More specifically, modern orthodox women lost a prominent supporter.

Rabbi Broyde’s thoughtful analysis about the future of ordaining women into spiritual leadership roles was progressive, if not cautious.  His endorsement of a pre-nuptial agreement for grooms to promise not to withhold a get showed his commitment to eliminate the plight of the agunah.  Rabbi Broyde even tried to make an argument to free women from the bindings of their headcoverings in a controversial essay.

It remains to be seen whether or not Rabbi Broyde will recover from from his catfish controversy. It also remains to be seen if other prominent orthodox rabbis will step up where he has left off, concerning women’s issues.   Despite his online indiscretions, Rabbi Broyde is a man who has attempted to reconcile halacha with 21st century life.  He is a man who has made efforts to ensure that contemporary orthodoxy maintains the integrity and dignity of Jewish women.  It’s a shame that he could not maintain his own.


5 thoughts on “Catfish – The Rabbi Episode

  1. I think we should be extremely clear that the “controversy” here has been manufactured by hateful people and thrust upon Rabbi Broyde, clearly with the intent of ruining his life.

    There was, to begin with, a direct invasion of his right to privacy and anonymity. The list of intellectuals who have used pseudonyms through history is immense (see the 13,000 entries of the dictionary of pseudonyms, to which we should add the hundreds of additional pen names used by rabbinical figures). Lawrence Sterne is known to have written a review of his own literary masterpiece Tristram Shandy and had a friend sign it; no one speaks of this as a deeply troubling act or a “fall from grace.”

    What we are in fact confronting here is a priggish, puritanical backlash against Internet culture, in which anonymity is in fact the norm. In this regard, I disagree with the assumption or suggestion, apparently influenced by a popular American television show, that authors like Pessoa, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Romain Gary and hundreds of others who engage in pseudonymous discourse live in “fake universes” and cause “damage” to others by using their personas to promote intellectual (artistic, philosophical, social) agendas of one sort or another.

    And where is this heading? Should we have Broyde arrested and prosecuted for “criminal impersonation,” as was done in New York to Raphael Golb in retribution for his satirical sock-puppet campaign concerning the Dead Sea Scrolls controversy? To see how easy it would be to secure a conviction against Rabbi Broyde on trumped-up “identity theft” charges, take a look at the documentation at:

    • I have no knowledge as to whether or not this backlash against Rabbi Broyde is a personal attack meant to ruin him. Certainly, it’s not unheard of for people to want to knock down a man growing in popularity and power – even a rabbi.

      As one who was only made aware of Rabbi Broyde through this recent “sock puppet” controversy, I have no negative opinion against him as an individual. In fact, through my research, I have respect for him as a scholar. Rabbi Smueli Boteach has a good article that makes a case for forgiveness in yesterday’s Jewish Press, entitled, “One Strike and You’re Out?,”

      That being said, Rabbi Broyde failed to forecast the changing mores of social media etiquette. You site 18th century writers such as, Voltaire, who used pen names and created artificial characters as a vehicle to create discourse. I have to say that I think there is a big difference in the methods of discourse an artist would use to create controversy and discussion and the methods that a rabbi would use (especially to promote his own candidacy as Chief Rabbi of Britain). I also have to point out the road to public relations was far more limited in the centuries past, and what artists or scholars did in the name of getting their works out had a different degree of forgiveness – there was no internet in Voltaire’s time.

      You say that in today’s internet culture, “anonymity is in fact the norm.” Again, we live in a rapidly changing world, and I have to disagree. I think that any scholar, writer, business person, religious leader – anyone who wants to be taken seriously on the web – must use their own name. People don’t take someone seriously who won’t stand behind their name.

      Even five years ago, for me as a blogger, the landscape was such that most people blogged under pseudonyms. I did too. This time around, I knew that if I wanted to blog again with integrity, I had to stand by my name. Those multitudes of anonymous bloggers and commenters who are the “norm?” They are called out all the time for not having the courage to post under their own names. They are not taken seriously, nor are they respected.

      Even this conversation taking place here, Quixote, you could be Rabbi Broyde himself, or you could be me, trying to start up a stir in my own comment section. Which is it? No one reading it can ever be sure.

  2. Indeed, I could in theory be Rabbi Broyde; without some system of verification, no one can be “sure,” and that is precisely the nature of the Internet: see this article in Atlantic Wire (link provided below), where we read that “if an account is not verified, assume it’s a fake.” The article refers us to the opinion of Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor at the Oxford Internet Institute: “We’re in a … postmodern world where we can’t tell the truth from fakery.” The author of the article states: “some argue… these misrepresentations are a part of our own identities. The Internet is what Philosopher Slavoj Žižek called a ‘space of false disidentification.’”

    The argument that one must “stand by one’s name” to have “integrity” has been the basis of objections to anonymity for centuries, usually coming from devout Christians who are very angry about anonymous criticism of their own conduct, or of Christianity, or of the Church. Until a century ago, most articles were published anonymously. Today, Internet services like Twitter not only tolerate, but encourage anonymity. Other websites like Facebook priggishly forbid it (Facebook was recently fined for this policy in Germany, where all websites are required by law to allow anonymity). If you look down the comments on any NYTimes article, you will see they are mostly pseudonymous.

    Add to this the fact that according to the Gemara (as explained by “Yitzchak” on the Jewish Channel site), if people will not accept someone’s halakhic view he is allowed to lie and tell them that this was in fact the view held by a well known halakhic figure.

    Putting all of this together and to conclude my thought, I think what you have tuned into (and what might be reflected in the obsessive reaction to Rabbi Broyde’s minor impropriety), is a religiously inspired, conservative backlash against anonymity and its pleasures. I am troubled by the notion that the contents of an argument should be evaluated by reference to the identity of their author, rather than on their own strength or weakness.

    (Note: I am equally troubled by the tendency I see in classrooms in this country, where students preface their answers to questions by saying “As a Jewish woman,” or “As an American Muslim,” or “As an African American male,” etc. The strength of the answer does not depend on who you are or where you come from.)

    P.s. I don’t mean to suggest that you personally are participating in the offensive, mediatized witch hunt against Broyde. My comments go more to the general pattern I’ve seen developing in the press, than to your own personal take on the “affair.”

    • “Add to this the fact that according to the Gemara (as explained by “Yitzchak” on the Jewish Channel site), if people will not accept someone’s halakhic view he is allowed to lie and tell them that this was in fact the view held by a well known halakhic figure.”

      I have never heard of this (doesn’t mean it isn’t true, as I’ve never studied Gemara).

      Essentially, I could make an argument about the kashrut of treif restaurants, or that married women don’t have to cover their hair, or that watching television on Shabbos is permitted if it’s on a timer – and make these statements in the name of some prominent rav – and it would be cool?

      Somehow, this theory doesn’t seem kosher. If anyone can misuse the names of respected rabbis to further their own halachic agendas, we can’t trust the validity of any psak. There has to be some line of integrity we are not willing to cross.

  3. Fortunately, the authors of the Gemara were a lot less priggish than many current representatives of Jewish orthodoxy. Will people accept a view that is wrong, merely because someone asserts that it was put forward by a well-known figure? There, at any rate, you have a taste of the paradoxical spirit of Judaism, one basic tenet of which (and in which, incidentally, a quite radical democratic philosophy is implicit) is that all ideas come from on high; all interpretations are valid. This concept may also help explain why so many important halakhic opinions were published pseudonymously. Beyond the halakhic texts, the pseudepigrapha are precisely writings attributed to individuals who did not write them. All of this may seem like anathema to many orthodox Jews today who feel that “thou shalt not use my name in vain” ought to apply to them as well as ___, but arguably without these concepts Judaism would not have thrived like it did, with all its internal differences of interpretation persisting within the social and geographic realities of the diaspora.

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