Is Matisyahu Still Chasidic?

“All my life I’ve been waiting for… I’ve been praying for… The chance to shave off all this scraggly facial hair.”

Those aren’t the lyrics to a Matisyahu song, but they could be. Only a few hours after the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) published my story about Matisyahu’s unimpressive appearance on a reality TV cooking show, they issued a breaking news alert. As Daniel Sieradski commented in Heeb, it was the type of breaking news alert that is usually reserved for a terrorist attack. Only this was no terrorist attack. It was just Matisyahu shaving off his signature Chasidic-looking beard and transitioning from his Hasidic lifestyle as a religious Jew.

Has Matisyahu Gone “Off the Derech” by Shaving Away His Hasidic Identity?

I don’t think his decision to put his wife and mother-in-law in front of the camera with him on the “Chef Roble and Co” TV show was a very wise PR decision for Matisyahu and I think his current decision to shave the beard and drop his Chasidic identity could be the result of mismanagement.

In a blog post, Matisyahu wrote:

This morning I posted a photo of myself on Twitter. No more Chassidic reggae superstar. Sorry folks, all you get is me…no alias. When I started becoming religious 10 years ago it was a very natural and organic process. It was my choice. My journey to discover my roots and explore Jewish spirituality—not through books but through real life. At a certain point I felt the need to submit to a higher level of religiosity…to move away from my intuition and to accept an ultimate truth. I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules—lots of them—or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission.  

Get ready for an amazing year filled with music of rebirth. And for those concerned with my naked face, don’t worry…you haven’t seen the last of my facial hair.

I met Matisyahu for the first time at the Hillel International Staff Conference in a hotel in Connecticut back in December 2004. I remembered watching him perform on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” earlier that August. For most of the Jewish professional leaders gathered in that hotel ballroom, the show was more about a Hasidic reggae singer than it was about the music. It was a novelty. He certainly wouldn’t have gotten that gig had he not been an overtly Jewish performer.

So now the question is what does Matisyahu become without the Hasidic identity? Will he return to Matthew Miller? It sounds like he will, but that can’t be a very wise decision since his name has become his brand. But what does this mean for the Jewish community? Matthew Miller is a ba’al teshuva meaning he came to religious Judaism as an adult. Will this call the long-term devotion of other ba’alei teshuva into question? What will this mean for Matisyahu’s wife Tahlia and their children? Will they remain as Orthodox Jews, committed to the Hasidic lifestyle?

Many musicians are secular but spiritual. It looks to me as if Matthew Miller doesn’t realize that his cache is in his Hasidic identity more than in his music. He will quickly become just another performer. Matisyahu will certainly not be the first frum (religious) Jew to “go off the derech” (journey from a religious life to a secular one), but he might be the most famous to so this publicly.

As Sieradski writes in Heeb, “One can’t but help but wonder if this is a bellwether for the rest of the ba’al teshuvah community. Few people have benefitted so richly from their Orthodox identity than Matisyahu, whose iconic hasidically-garbed appearance was oft stated to have had more to do with his rise to stardom than his talent alone. If Miller, whose feverish religiosity inspired so many others on the road to Jewish observance, couldn’t hack it as a frum yid, how can others be expected to maintain the illusion when the benefits are far less tangible?

I’m hoping Matisyah (or Matthew Miller) will find future success in his endeavors, but I’m pessimistic that his music alone will keep him at the top of the charts. He got famous by being “that Hasidic reggae singer,” but he will likely fade from fame as “that Hasidic reggae singer who shaved his beard and disappeared into secular life.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Response to Rick Perry’s Campaign Ad

Like many millions of people, when I watched Texas Governor Rick Perry’s “Strong” Campaign ad for the first time on YouTube I was deeply troubled. “I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian,” Perry begins. “But you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”

My first thought was of the gay men and women currently serving in uniform who are risking their lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the globe to protect our country. I immediately decided to film a parody of Rick Perry’s video. I wanted it to be a spoof of his video in order to show the ridiculousness of his message.

The response to my video has been great so far. After only 15 hours there have been about 800 likes and only 10 dislikes with almost 5,000 views. The most meaningful aspect has been the comments on the YouTube video. One viewer wrote, “i’m an atheist but i would sure would vote for rabbi jason over any of the idiots that are postulating themselves if i could.” Another wrote, “As a non religious person raised as a christian in the church, i strongly support this, I have friends of all religions and believe our differences is what makes this country great! THANK YOU FOR YOUR EDUCATED WELL THOUGHT OUT OPINION.”

I have been pleasantly surprised that there have not been more negative, hate-filled comments in response to my video. I will not censor any comments because I believe it’s important that everyone sees the hate that exists in some people’s hearts and the ignorance that exists in their minds. Here’s a comment that made me feel very good this morning: “Bless you, Rabbi! Thanks for retaliating in such an intelligent, focused, and humorous video! Every time I’m reminded that there are people like you in this country, I have hope for it again… Hope you and your family have a bright and beautiful Hannukah! Cheers! -from Agnostic, Gay, Christopher :)”

Here is the video, which was filmed and edited by Adam Luger:


Text:
I’m not ashamed to say that I’m a Jew — Heck, I’m even a Rabbi… but you don’t need to be in shul on every Shabbos to know there’s something wrong in our country when gays can serve openly in the military and yet they still can’t get married legally in most U.S. States.

Our Jewish kids in public school have to watch as their peers celebrate Christmas — a holiday they don’t observe. They have to sit quietly as the Christian students pray in school. That just seems uncomfortable.

As President, I will fight to end this crazy talk that there’s a war on religion. And I will fight anyone who discriminates against others simply because of their sexual orientation.

Intelligence made America strong. It can make her strong again.

I’m Rabbi Jason Miller and I think it’s too cold to film a video outside in Michigan in the winter. Who approved this?

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Join the Minyan with Skype

It was 1998 and I was in my first semester of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. My Talmud professor, Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner, approached me after class one day to discuss a project he was working on. As a member of the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), he was examining the legal permissibility of a virtual minyan (prayer quorum). Knowing my interest in technology, my teacher picked my brain about some of the technical implications of video-conferencing. He sought to answer the halakhic (Jewish legal) question of whether a minyan could be convened using non-traditional, electronic means. Some of the sources he was considering were drawn from the same pages we were then studying in his class from Tractate Rosh Hashanah as it deals with hearing the sound of the shofar to fulfill the obligation.

Rabbi Reisner’s project resulted in a teshuva (legal position paper) titled “Wired to the Kadosh Baruch Hu,” in which he ruled that a virtual minyan conducted via video-conferencing was not “kosher.”

Now, one of my colleagues has opened his daily minyan through Skype access which brings this halakhic question back into discussion. Skype had yet to be invented back in 1998 when Rabbi Reisner considered the issues surrounding virtual minyan participation. In a bulletin article for his synagogue (reposted by the Rabbinical Assembly), Temple Emunah in Lexington, Massachusetts, Rabbi David Lerner refers to Rabbi Reisner’s published teshuva noting that he reasoned that should the technology come available the virtual minyan would be permissible.

Rabbi Lerner had good reason to open his daily minyan via Skype to those who couldn’t attend in person. One of his congregants, Maxine Marcus, lives in Amsterdam and works in The Hague, where she serves as a prosecutor of war criminals from the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Her mother recently lost her fight against cancer. After returning to Amsterdam following the funeral last fall in New York, Maxine how difficult it was to say Kaddish in Amsterdam. Rabbi Lerner made the decision to allow Maxine to participate in the Temple Emunah minyan through Skype.

Based on my reading of Rabbi Reisner’s teshuva, the issue of reciting kaddish as part of an already constituted real-time minyan was a separate issue from constituting a minyan via the Internet through video conferencing. Thus, so long as a minyan is already in place in Lexington, Massachusetts at Rabbi Lerner’s congregation, there was never a question about a “virtual participant” reciting Kaddish in that minyan.

Based on Rabbi Reisner’s conclusions, however, it would seem that even with Skype a minyan could not be constituted virtually meaning eight people gathered together could not be joined virtually by two others using Skype to count as a minyan. He writes that “a minyan may not be constituted over the Internet, through an audio- or video-conference or any other medium of long distance communication. Only physical proximity, defined as being in the same room with the shaliah tzibbur (prayer leader), allows a quorum to be constituted.” He goes on to explain, “Once a quorum has been duly constituted, those who hear the prayers being offered in that minyan may respond and fulfill their obligations thereby, even long distance.

With regard to the Mourner’s Kaddish, Rabbi Reisner concluded in the 2001 teshuva that “a mourner at a distance may recite it, but must be accompanied by a physical participant (a member who is physically present) in the minyan. This preserves the reason behind requiring a minyan for the recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish. It establishes community. Without this concluding statement, individuals might take it a step further and recite Mourner’s Kaddish on their own.” Therefore, as far back as a decade ago Rabbi Lerner was on firm halakhic standing to allow his congregant in Amsterdam to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish via Skype so long as at least one minyan member in Massachusetts accompanies her.

Rabbi Lerner reports that introducing Skype into his daily minyan has strengthened the minyan and has proven to be a very powerful experience. “Members of the minyan have gotten to know Maxine, schmoozing with her for a minute or two after minyan over Skype.” He also has found that opening his minyan virtually has impacted the general community. He wrote in his bulletin article, “This project enabled someone on the other side of the Atlantic to come and experience the power of God, the power of prayer, the power of community, and the power and support of a nurturing community around sacred occasions and after times of loss. His biggest challenge has been trying to encourage other congregations to invite remote minyan-goers to their minyan without letting it adversely impact on our minyan or attendance.

Kol Hakavod (kudos) to Rabbi Lerner for making good use of technology like Skype to allow a mourner in Amsterdam to find comfort with her community in Massachusetts. While Skype might still not be the technology that allows ten people to come together virtually in Cyberspace to form a minyan, it is certainly a great way to allow outsiders to join an existing minyan with a Web cam and Internet connection.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Social Media and Religion

I read yesterday’s article in the NY Times about how people are interacting with religion through social networking sites like Facebook and was amazed at the success of the Jesus Daily Facebook page. It is one of the most popular Facebook pages with over 8.5 million fans. I figured there should be a similar Facebook page that offers users a daily dose of Torah wisdom so I created the Torah Daily Facebook page this morning. The page quickly amassed 100 followers and will continue to grow. The Torah Daily Facebook page will offer daily inspiration from Jewish texts provided by anyone with some wisdom to share.

Here is the blog post I published on The NY Jewish Week’s Jewish Techs blog after reading yesterday’s NY Times article on social media and religion:

With about a billion users between Facebook and Twitter alone, more topics than just Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga are being discussed on social media networks today. Religion is certainly one of them.

An article by Jennifer Preston in yesterday’s NY Times (“Jesus Daily on Facebook Nurtures Highly Active Fans”) reports that “while it’s too early to say that social media have transformed the way people practice religion, the number of people discussing faith on Facebook has significantly increased in the last year, according to company officials. Over all, 31 percent of Facebook users in the United States list a religion in their profile, and 24 percent of users outside the United States do, Facebook says. More than 43 million people on Facebook are fans of at least one page categorized as religious.”

The article was prompted by the wild success of the Jesus Daily Facebook page, which was launched by a diet doctor from North Carolina who posts a few motivational quotes from Jesus each day. The Facebook page, created by Dr. Aaron Tabor, has close to 8.5 million fans and, according to AllFacebook.com, in the past three months has had more daily interaction (likes and comments) than the official Justin Bieber page with 3.4 million interactions last week alone.

There are now over 750 million people on Facebook so it shouldn’t be surprising that users are interacting with pages to find an online spiritual community. If you’re already navigating around the Facebook site on a computer, tablet or mobile phone it’s much easier to read a spiritual teaching in your news feed than to actually attend a synagogue or church service.

Rabbi Laura Baum, a social media maven who is part of OurJewishCommunity.org was quoted in the article explaining how social media has changed our lives. She said, “There are those people who prefer to check out our tweets on their phone or listen to our podcast. I don’t think the use of technology needs to be for everybody. But we have found a community online. Many of them have never felt a connection to Judaism before.”

An increasing number of synagogues have found that it is much easier to connect to the membership through a Facebook page than through a traditional website. Like a website, the Facebook page is an efficient way of disseminating information for a congregation, but it adds the social interaction features that promote community and have made Facebook the killer app of social media. Linda Jacobson, the president of start-up congregation B’nai Israel Synagogue in Michigan has used Facebook to connect with members and reach potential members. “Our website is great for publicizing calendar events, displaying photos and telling visitors about our congregation. But Facebook goes well beyond that,” Jacobson explained. “It allows our followers to interact with that information and with each other. There’s an entire ‘backchannel’ that brings people together virtually to share photos from our congregational programming, comment on lifecycle events, create sub-communities based on interest categories and coordinate meals when there’s a death in the congregation.”

Jacobson seems to have put social media to good use because she’s seen her congregation’s membership rolls steadily increase over the past year. Rev. Kenneth Lillard, author of “Social Media and Ministry: Sharing the Gospel in the Digital Age,” was also quoted in the NY Times article and he concurs that social media tools like YouTube, Twitter and Google Plus in addition to Facebook represent “the best chance for religious leaders to expand their congregations since the printing press helped Martin Luther usher in the Protestant Reformation.”

Beyond official synagogue Facebook pages, there are many ways in which users are looking to Facebook for spiritual insight and education. Some popular Facebook pages have been created by rabbis in an effort to share motivational teachings from the Torah. Rabbi David Wolpe, the popular author and spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, has a Facebook page that boasts over 19,000 fans. Wolpe utilizes Facebook to offer short sound bites that both motivate and challenge his readers. He makes a point of trying to respond to all questions on the page as well, which is not an easy task for a busy pulpit rabbi and a highly sought-after speaker like Wolpe. One follower asked if the rabbi had any marriage advice to which Wolpe responded simply “Shared values; forgiveness; deep attraction; resilience; luck; faith.”

One thing that social networking sites like Facebook have demonstrated is that one need not be an official religious leader, like a priest or rabbi, to dispense wisdom to help guide people in their daily lives. Many individuals and businesses offer a daily prayer or spiritual teaching to inspire their followers on their Facebook pages. Some Facebook users may post an inspirational teaching as a status update. There are businesses that post weekly motivational quotes on their Facebook page as a way to engage their following.

As social media increasingly become part of our daily lives, people will find new ways to interact with religion and spirituality. For some, it may be interacting with like-minded people on a synagogue Facebook page. For others it may be learning a different Talmud text each day through a Twitter feed. In the Digital Age, a minority of virtual religionists will emerge. These will be individuals who do not affiliate with a bricks and mortar religious institution like a synagogue, but are nevertheless engaged in many aspects of a faith community through social networking. Increasingly, people will say they are religious or spiritual or inspired by religious texts, but only because they have chosen to plug in and engage with social media.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Why Atheists Love Religion Websites

I published my first blog post on the Huffington Post website back in October. What immediately amazed me was the large number of comments posted about my piece. In the first couple of days there were close to 500 responses to what I had written. And then I began to skim these “talkbacks” to find that the vast majority were written by individuals who were angry about any form of organized religion and believed that God was as make-believe as Mickey Mouse. I was surprised to see so many self-affirmed atheists not only lurking on the religion section of the Huffington Post, but also being its most vocal contributors. It should be noted that my blog post had little to do with God and was devoted to post-denominationalism in Judaism. Most of the comments were from lapsed Christians who now felt religion was a joke and seemed angry that it was still in existence (in any form).

I planned to write about this phenomenon, but never got around to it. So, I was glad when my colleague Rabbi David Wolpe, of Los Angeles, posted his feelings about it on the Huffington Post yesterday (“Why Are Atheists So Angry?”). In a much more eloquent way than I could, Rabbi Wolpe put into words his take on why there are so many atheists participating in the online conversation on websites devoted to religion — and why their comments are so tinged with angst. When I first read his post yesterday there were no comments, however, when I checked back today there are now close to 900 responses — certainly with a good number of them from the atheist community.

Rabbi Wolpe writes:

How harmless is it to post an article about why people should read the bible on a site devoted to religion? I did on this very page, and it evoked more than 2,000 responses, most of them angry. I had previously written a similarly gentle article about how God should be taught to children that evoked more than 1,000 responses, almost all negative and many downright nasty.

It is curious that a religion site draws responses mostly from atheists, and that the atheists are very unhappy. They are unhappy with the bible (“foolish fairy tales” is one of the more generous descriptions), unhappy with the idea of God (the “imaginary dictator” whose task in human history, apparently, is to ensure that oppression and evil triumph) and very unhappy with anyone (read: me) who presumes to offer religious advice to the religious. Only the untutored assume that religious people predominate on websites (Huffington Post Religion page, On Faith in the Washington Post, Beliefnet.com) devoted to religion.

In the past when I have debated noted atheists — Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others — the audience was heavily weighted toward my opponents. That makes sense. Each of these men — like Dawkins, Dennett and others — brings with them a large following. But why seek out a religious site solely to insult religion?

To summarize, Rabbi Wolpe offers four four reasons why he believes atheists are so angry. First, Atheists genuinely resent the evil that religion has caused in the world. Second, they are convinced that religion is a fairy tale that impedes science/progress/rational thought. Third, “there is an arrogant unwillingness to engage with religion’s serious thinkers.” And, finally, he argues that “there is sometimes in the atheist a want of wonder. In a world in which so much is still not understood, in which multiple universes are possible, in which we have not pierced the mystery of consciousness, to discount the supernatural is to lack the openness to mystery that should be a human hallmark. There is so much we do not know. Religious people too should acknowledge this truth.”

Perhaps websites like the Huffington Post and Beliefnet should offer a section devoted solely to atheism so that the atheists would no longer dominate the airwaves in the religion section with with their angst. Or perhaps, these individuals will continue to weigh in on the discussions surrounding religion, but will do so in a more civil manner that will actually move the conversation forward in a productive way. I know deep down that these individuals are still seeking. They are still interested in the conversation and have their fleeting moments of belief; otherwise I don’t think they’d spend the time engaged in the debate.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Newsweek Magazine Affirms Female Orthodox Rabbi

Newsweek Magazine released its annual list of the 50 most influential rabbis in America.

Now in its fourth year, Sony Pictures chairman and CEO Michael Lynton and Gary Ginsberg, an executive vice president of Time Warner Inc., list who they think are the 50 most influential rabbis in the U.S.

While the yearly ranking is merely based on the opinions of two Hollywood moguls and some unscientific criteria, it generates a lot of buzz. There’s also a certain amount of ego that becomes manifest among rabbis when the list is released each year, in addition to debate regarding who was ranked too high and who was missing from the list altogether. My teacher Irwin Kula, who ascended from #10 in 2009 to an impressive #7 this year, tweeted a link to the Newsweek list with the question “How can I not share this!”

What is most interesting in this year’s list is which rabbi was ranked as the 36th most influential rabbi in the U.S. She is new to the rabbinate and new to the Newsweek ranking. Her name is Sara Hurwitz and a lot of controversy surrounds her. Rabbi Avi Weiss (#18) ordained her as a rabbi a couple years ago giving her an acronym for a title and then changing it to “rabba,” a title that irked many in the Orthodox world. Earlier this year, under much pressure from the Right, he backed down and decided to not go through with creating women rabbis.

However, it would appear that Lynton and Ginsberg side with Avi Weiss on this one. And so Rabba Sara Hurwitz becomes one of the most influential rabbis in the country according to Newsweek Magazine, while among the people she is supposed to serve she is not even considered a rabbi.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

My Rabbi Saved My Life

This past March, around the same time I began to blog for The New York Jewish Week, a banner ad on the Jewish paper’s website caught my attention.

The ad featured a head-shot of a man and the text “My Rabbi Saved My Life.” First, I thought “what a great ad since it grabs your attention and makes you want to click through to see what it’s all about.”

Clicking on the link took me to a website for The New York State Diabetes Campaign. There, I learned that this was part of a Faith Fights Diabetes campaign aimed at religious leaders and encouraging them to speak with their congregations about diabetes and general health. On the Faith Fights Diabetes campaign website, there are seven religious leaders including a guru, rabbi, priest, minister, pastor, and two imams (one male and one female).

My father was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes when I was two-years-old, so this is certainly a cause that I am directly connected to and one that has my full support. But I also wondered whether it is the role of clergy to get involved in the medical lives of those in our congregations.

This subject truly resonated with me recently when the spouse of one of my congregants asked me to intervene in his wife’s eating habits. He felt that she, a diabetic, was eating poorly and putting herself at a great health risk. I thought of the Faith Fights Diabetes campaign and how rabbis (and other faith leaders) really could play a positive role in the health lives of our congregants. When I served an internship at a large synagogue in New Jersey, we had two congregational nurses on staff who served important roles for synagogue members. There, the rabbi might refer a congregant to one of the nurses, but I really don’t see a reason why the rabbi himself cannot speak openly about the importance of eating right, exercising and getting regular medical exams.

The campaign encourages clergy to learn how to fight the diabetes epidemic in congregations. It recommends that a poster about diabetes is hung in public areas of the church, temple, mosque, or faith-based organization. Some practical tips for clergy include serving healthier food at congregational events and discussing diabetes in a sermon (sample sermons are on the website).

As spiritual leaders, we have great influence on our congregants. Why shouldn’t we use our pulpit to promote healthy living and ensure that the people we care about are informed about Diabetes?

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Sending Social Networking Sympathies

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

The story was recently told to me about a Facebook user who updated her status message to announce the death of her grandmother and the grief she was feeling because of the loss. Her friend’s mother, a Facebook newbie, read the status update and clicked Facebook’s “Like” option. Was this a Facebook faux pas or a way to express condolences in the era of social networking?

We are all trying to make sense out of how to deal with death when it comes to Web 2.0. Here are some questions that arise with regard to social networking when a loved one dies.

What can Facebook teach us about grief?

In her Christian Science Monitor article, grief expert Diana Nash writes, “After the typhoon in Indonesia, after the deaths of Patrick Swayze and Michael Jackson, after school shootings, and in the wake of suicides, young people in mourning are now turning to social networking sites such as Facebook for support. This raises the question: Are social networking sites a better spiritual partner than a church, mosque, or temple? If you search for ‘In Memory of…’ on Facebook more than 100,000 results pop up.”

Clearly, young people are using social media sites like Facebook as an outlet for their grief. Facebook is a community populated by one’s friends in which those grieving can express themselves without censoring one’s emotions. Many people who were not comfortable talking about personal matters like grief and mourning feel comfortable sharing a few words on the computer to their network of linked friends.

What is the etiquette for announcing a death on Facebook?

Over the past couple of years, I have seen an increasing number of deaths announced through status updates on Facebook. When someone hears of a person’s passing and immediately updates his status by expressing his grief, the modern form of the condolence book has been set up. Others are now free to comment on that status update by offering their condolences to the bereaved, sharing a memory of the deceased, or expressing their own grief about the loss.

Certain questions arise before announcing to the Facebook community through a status update that someone has died. Perhaps the immediate family wants to make this announcement itself? Perhaps the survivors want to wait until certain decisions are made before informing the public (e.g., funeral arrangements)? If the death was tragic or unexpected, the delicate wording of the “announcement” is critical.

What is the status of the deceased’s Facebook page?

An October 28, 2009 article in TIME focused on this very subject. TIME reported that “In an Oct. 26 blog post, Max Kelly, Facebook’s head of security, announced the company’s policy of ‘memorializing’ profiles of users who have died, taking them out of the public search results, sealing them from any future log-in attempts and leaving the wall open for family and friends to pay their respects. Though most media reports claimed this was a new Facebook feature, a spokeswoman for the company told TIME that it’s an option the site has had since its early days.”

If this policy had been around, why did Facebook’s Max Kelly decide to publicize the memorializing of profiles in a blog post? When Facebook rolled out its new version a few days prior to Kelly’s blog post, a new feature automatically generated “suggestions” of people to “reconnect” with. On a personal note, I’m still receiving the automated suggestions by Facebook that I should reconnect with my deceased uncle. (Thank you Facebook, I try!)

Kelly’s explanation of how to put a deceased loved one’s Facebook page in the special category generated a lot of attention. To date, there are over 2,300 comments on his post.

Assuming that a family chooses to  not  put its deceased loved one into the Facebook memorial vault, what is the etiquette with regard to the ongoing maintenance of the deceased Facebook page? Should a family member gain access and manage the page? After all, what if someone posts a comment on the deceased’s Facebook that the family wants removed?

About a year after my uncle’s death, my cousin logged into his father’s Facebook account and accepted the “friend requests” that my uncle wasn’t able to accept in his final week’s on this earth. You can imagine the surprise (if that’s what it was) that some people felt when they were told that they were now “friends” on Facebook with a man who passed away a year prior. Maybe the ‘memorializing’ of profiles is the best policy after all?

And there’s an expert available who can help families create a Facebook obituary. R. Brian Burkhardt is “Your Funeral Guy” and his website describes the steps toward creating a Facebook Memorial.

Should we set up a Facebook page for the deceased?

As soon as a person dies (especially a young person), there is often a race to create the Facebook page in their memory. This can serve as a place to direct the community’s grief through sharing memories, posting photos, and disseminating information about memorial services, donations, etc. Before creating a Facebook page in memory of a loved one, it is important to check to ensure that there is not already one created. The administration of the page is also important to ensure that no inappropriate comments or photos are posted.

My teacher, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, wrote about “Mourning and Consolation on Facebook” in his Windows and Doors blog on the Beliefnet site. He reminds us that “The safety which media like Facebook create is a crucial element in grieving process – the safety to say whatever we want without fear of repercussion and the safety of knowing that whatever we say, someone is listening. On the other hand, the care of one’s family while they mourn, the attention to details that can only be addressed by those among whom we live, and the likelihood that only in the context of a physical community bound together by more than he desire to share their grief, will such things be properly addressed should not be forgotten in the rush to Facebook mourning groups.”

Can visiting a shivah homepage be a substitute for visiting a shivah house?

No doubt, a new etiquette will form for offering condolences to mourners in the social networking age. Until there becomes an agreed upon protocol, however, common decorum should serve as the guide. When a mourner announces the death of a loved one in a Facebook status update, it is appropriate to offer condolences as a comment to the status update or as a wall post. Traditional forms of consolation toward the mourner should then follow, whatever one’s faith dictates (attendance at the funeral if possible, a tribute in the deceased’s memory to a charity, condolence call, etc.).

Rabbi Hirschfield writes, “There are also new possibilities including online visitation of mourners, saying Kaddish with a virtual minyan, the buying and delivery of virtual food to the homepages of mourners, just to name a few. While the latter is not physically nourishing, and that may be a crucial aspect of the tradition of feeding mourners, can we deny it’s value as psychological and spiritual nourishment?”

As I am writing this post, I logged into my Facebook account and saw that a friend had posted a photo of his father’s tombstone since today is his father’s yahrzeit (anniversary of the Jewish date of death). I hadn’t known that he lost his father (almost eleven years ago according to the date on the memorial stone) and neither did several of his other friends on Facebook according to their comments to the photo. This photo, simply captioned “Dad,” allows his friends to share their condolences on his father’s yahrzeit.

And yet, there’s something deeper at work here. Yes, there are friends from around Cyberspace who are offering their condolences or expressing surprise at not having known his father had died over a decade ago. But there are also those who are now finding relief in admitting that they too take photos of loved ones’ graves. As one commenter wrote, “I’m glad to know that I am not the only one who takes pictures at the cemetary [sic].”

No one has clicked the “Like” option for the photo. At least not yet!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller