It’s a question rooted in an age-old practice but made new by the vicissitudes of modern technology: Is it kosher to ask mechila by e-mail? Asking forgiveness, or mechila, for wrongs committed against others is emphasized during the month of Elul, and given particular attention during the 10 Days of Repentance from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur.
The rabbis in centuries past who wrote and codified the religious texts which guide our behavior even today tell us that we must take personal responsibility and repent, do what’s necessary to repair the wrong, apologize and ask forgiveness for hurts we may have caused others, and do it before the new year begins fully on the Day of Atonement.
Our sages intended that we ask forgiveness in person, though they address the possibility of doing so by letter as well. The telephone and, of course, e-mail didn’t exist in their day.
E-mail, however, has become the favored form of routine communication for many. But should it be used to ask mechila?
There is precedent, technologically speaking, in Jewish life. In the last few years, people have been faxing requests for God’s intervention to the Western Wall. The faxes are placed in the crevices of Judaism’s holiest site.
And hundreds from around the world fax and e-mail their requests for blessings and intercession to the grave of the Lubavitcher rebbe, where three fax machines print out 600 to 700 such letters each day, says the young rabbi in charge. Rabbi Abba Refson adds that 100 e-mails are received daily, as well.
Rabbi Refson lays each paper on the grave of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994. The pile later is removed and the paper burned.
"A couple hundred" people also visit the Queens gravesite each day, says Rabbi Refson, and while there is a difference in the intensity of petitioning for the rebbe’s help up close and from a distance, "the results are the same," he says.
That may not be true when it comes to asking forgiveness.
Most of the rabbis solicited for opinions said mechila is best sought in person, and that e-mail is a distant third choice, at best.
Rabbi David Wolpe of the Conservative-affiliated Sinai Temple in Los Angeles was unequivocal in his opposition to the use of e-mail for mechila.
"Part of the experience in asking someone to forgive you is the difficulty of actually confronting them," he said. "The problem of e-mail is the same problem, to some extent, of that of the telephone, but it goes even deeper. The telephone offers intimacy without danger, and e-mail offers exchange without intimacy.
"With e-mail it’s just too easy to just push buttons, and it doesn’t argue for a deep enough level of contrition. Our society is too contrived to allow people to avoid the hard work of confronting people face to face, and the messiness and difficulty of doing that is what makes human society problematic, and so interesting, and so wonderful."
Rabbi Samuel Intrator of the Upper West Side’s Carlebach Shul agreed.
"Mechila should be in front of a person. There are concepts in halacha [Jewish law] that you have to have the experience right before a person, for them to see your face, and you have to see theirs, the face of forgiveness," he said.
Other rabbis allowed room for e-mail requests for mechila.
"It’s legitimate only if you don’t have the means to speak with someone by phone. It’s not preferable," said Rabbi Valerie Lieber of the Reform Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn.
"When asking for forgiveness it’s important to allow another person to respond, which e-mail does, but it shouldn’t be used as a cowardly substitute for directly speaking to someone."
The mechila matter touches on a wider debate about the Internet, say those who watch the new technology. The Web can be a positive or negative force in personal lives, depending on how it is used, says Judith Klavans, a computer scientist specializing in the study of language, and director of the Columbia University Center for Research on Information Access.
"The last five years have seen a major change in the way we can define community because of electronic communication," she said.
E-mail makes it easier to stay connected with busy relatives and friends, and the anonymity of using a machine as an intermediary frees people to be more intimate than they would normally in a face-to-face encounter.
Sensing the potential problems of in-person meetings, a few rabbis said an e-mail request can better open an exchange.
"The preference is definitely to do it face-to-face," said Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the gay and lesbian synagogue in Greenwich Village. In the days between the High Holy Days, she holds open office hours so those who have felt slighted or hurt by her can walk in to discuss it.
"There is a way that e-mail has a fairly impersonal, distancing effect, but there’s a difference between what’s ideal and what people can do. There are a lot of reasons people have a hard time facing difficult things," Rabbi Kleinbaum said.
"Doing it by e-mail is better than not doing it at all. If it encourages contact between people, then it’s all for the good."
Some rabbis see no difference between the approaches.
"The act of asking forgiveness has to be judged by its outcome," said Rabbi Meir Fund of the Flatbush Minyan in Brooklyn. "It matters not what the means were for procuring it. It matters not whether it is by carrier pigeon, phone, fax, e-mail or in person if it succeeds in eliciting forgiveness."
He adds, however, "if indirect methods are not effective, then a direct approach is obligatory."
Many rabbis compare e-mail to its closest cousin, letter-writing. Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual adviser to students at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary and undergraduate men’s college, views e-mail as better because it is faster.
"Writing someone a letter is not seeing them as directly as confronting them, so e-mail has the same disadvantage as a letter. On the other hand, it’s better than not asking mechila at all," Rabbi Blau says.
"Sometimes people are sufficiently embarrassed or the other party is not open to seeing them. It’s not the best way, but it’s certainly a way of making a connection and expressing one’s feelings, and hopefully it will re-establish communication."
Rabbi Shira Milgrom’s family has an annual ritual of writing letters to each other asking forgiveness before Yom Kippur.
"The letters are given face to face and there is time for direct contact," says the spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami, a Reform temple in White Plains. "But letters give you a chance to think through what you really want to say, so they can often be more serious and introspective" than a verbal connection.
"It doesn’t replace the person-to-person hugs, tears and reconciliation, but is part of it," she says. "In the same way, an e-mail request for mechila would hopefully be followed up by face-to-face reconciliation. But where there can’t be face-to-face reconciliation, at least there’s this.
"There are limits to how letters or e-mails should be used, says Rabbi David Teutsch, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa.
"You can’t use them to ask for blanket mechila," he says. "You have to ask for forgiveness for something specific. It would not be appropriate to send a form letter or a mass e-mail to your list of contacts, if you just want to make sure that you’ve cleaned up old business before the start of the new year."