May 27, 2022 |

Going "Off the Record" for the High Holy Days

This article originally appeared in the NY Jewish Week.

It usually happens at social gatherings. Someone says, "I've got an unbelievable story for you." I take out pen and paper and begin writing. Then, at the most interesting part, the person stops and says "you're not going to write about this, are you?" stopping my non-invisible pen from scratching its way further across my equally non-invisible notepad. Clearly, I was, in fact, already writing about this. But I don’t want to promote gossip. So when asked for anonymity, I comply.

There are always things we keep to ourselves. A journalist will occasionally encounter a source who grants an anonymous or “off the record” interview, often because of concern about the source's job, a family member, or some other sensitive issue. The Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution--which, among other things, protects witnesses from having to incriminate themselves—is often rendered, in Miranda Warning format by local or television law enforcement, as the right to remain silent. Even our dearest friends have their secrets.

I blog and write on the record, but I am occasionally tempted by the prospect of anonymity; if my name were not attached, I might be more fearless and truthful. But as someone who believes in the sanctity of word choice, I think that speech, commentary, and conversation should be on the record. "Off the record" should be a worst case scenario, not a default setting.

In our technology age, our concerns about being on the record have multiplied as communication methods have expanded. Phone settings likely default to record and archive sent messages, even if you’re unaware of it. People also don’t seem to be moving toward self-censorship in emails, still believing it to be private and unhackable (which, depending on the mail client and would-be hacker determination, may or may not be true). But one electronic privacy movement has me a little upset: many people are taking their IM conversations "off the record."

The first time one of my friends took our conversation off the record, he did it because it was a sensitive issue. He asked me to be discreet and I agreed. But after that, our conversations were always off the record, which kind of stung. Didn't he trust me? Another friend, convinced that someone else was reading her messages, then took our conversations off the record as well. It had nothing to do with me, she explained, but in case someone was watching, I might want to follow her lead. Should I be less trusting of others, generally, and take all my conversations off the record?

“On the record” provides a chance to revisit your past words. In the "chats folder," conversations, which seemed so essentially of one specific moment and only that moment, have a second life. The interaction has been TiVo'd—you can rewind, review, and revisit every swiftly selected word choice, every emoticon. But no record means that, for better or for worse, it's like it never happened. Relationships begun off the record obscure early memories of how the virtual became real. We won't remember comedy-brilliance, verbal flirtations or Jewish peoplehood revelations that might have created solutions to Mideast peace conflicts or perceived singles crises.

In deliberating privacy restrictions and exercising self-restraint, my Jewish brain instantly links to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The "Al Chet" prayers, many of which relate to speech; images of the Book of Life, plaintive pleas to wipe the slate clean and cancel the evil decree...all exist in the service of acknowledging our human flaws. We regularly violate each other's trust and privacy; we use their words as weapons against them. We cannot trust the people around us, because they are just like us.

But taking things "off the record" means absolution via tabula rasa, which provides a convenient layer of impunity. So say that there is a Book of Life, and Someone's recording our deeds and actions. Instead of the traditional cries to wipe the record clean, might it not be advantageous to have a record of what we’ve done, so we can chart our growth and know our roots of both failures and successes? There's a record: here's where it all began.

Perhaps having access to our accumulated morality/immorality record would be too much for humanity to bear. But for all their antiquity, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur go beyond the current technology, making absolution retroactive. Whether it’s in a chats folder, in the Book of Life, or in your heart, you’re only human. You know there's bad stuff there: now is your chance to get it off the books.


Esther D. Kustanowitz

Joined: February 3, 2008

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a writer, editor and social media consultant based in Los Angeles. She has many Dvar Torah writers in her family, and she can't wait to read contributions from Divrei Torah: The Next Generation (two nephews and a niece).

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