Now in 2018 enter the world of love and romance. Whether embodied in Abraham searching for a wife for Isaac from his native Mesopotamia or Yenta looking to make matches in Anatevka in the movie Fiddler on the Roof, Jews are concerned (some may obsessed) with ethnic, religious, and cultural continuity. This search however has been transformed like everything else by new digital innovations. Now we can “swipe left” on the site Tinder. Swiping left is a way of instantly dismissing a person as a potential date/mate. So let us pose for Jewish investigation “Is it ethical to swipe left?” instantly dismissing a person based on a picture and the briefest of bios if the person is of no interest to us. By mutual consent of the people entering the site no explanation is needed for the rejection. (The newer “J-swipe” site softens the edges of the dilemma presented below but still I believe leaves us with a core ethical concern)
Prior to looking at the gesture through the lenses of Jewish law and values, it is useful to imagine a spectrum of possible evaluative stances. The very positive (or at least benign) stance: This is nothing more than Yentl the matchmaker gone digital. People are always sorting and categorizing on the basis of physical attraction. This stripped-down version of other dating websites (like jdate) simply declutterers the fact that physical attraction motivates our dating behavior. As one millennial shared with me in an interview “it cuts out the bullshit.” Particularly in an age of stress and extraordinary multitasking we should appreciate the efficiency of Tinder. There is also a recognition here of the ultimate subjectivity of the digital matchmaker. A Hebrew saying asserts on matters of tastes and smells that there is no rational argument. It is all a matter of preference. (COM)
On the other end of the spectrum is a very negative evaluation. The very act of “swiping left” involves the rejection of individuals based on the most superficial characteristics. This of course raises the question of whether it matters if the person being rejected never knows of the rejection. It also raises the specter of a digital meat market where the grossest forms of evaluation are used to judge individuals.
If we take as a given the Jewish values of betzelem elohim/ people are made in God’s image) and kvod habriyot/the dignity of each human being, does swiping left undermine these values? What of the fine notion from Pirkey Avot/Ehics of the Fathers —a book of foundational wisdom of the Jewish people—don’t look at the cover of a person or think of (its image) but rather discern its contents or character.
Yet, a defender of Tinder might point out that it takes time and communication to get to the core character of a person. Further, not all relationships are of equal depth and intensity. Appearance and attraction may be a necessary first step. Friendships also have value in and of themselves without the friend becoming bashert/one’s life partner. And lest we be accused of an anachronistic puritanism let’s remember that even if marriage is considered a societal prize for our relationship, commitment to life-partnerships is often delayed in our day. Yet, sexual need and expression are not. Tinder is also about “hooking up”, finding satisfactory sexual partners.
Drawing from a different Jewish source, we might turn here to the work of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. Buber contrasts relationships that are deeply dialogical — I-Thou– with those that are instrumental– I-It. I-Thou relationships bring God and Godliness into our world of human relationships. I-It relationships “thingify” other individuals. Does swiping left lead to viewing the larger circles of people we never encounter (or here reject) as things? Buber actually finds it inevitable that we live a good deal of our life in the world of it, of things (Buber 2002, 54) Is this an acceptable example of one of those occasions?
Further, do we want to draw a distinction between the phenomenon of swiping left—where ostensibly no one knows they have been discarded—and the emerging practice of “ghosting” where relationships of long-standing are abruptly broken without explanation or dialogue?
So far we have been pursuing our analysis from the perspective of the “swipee” and what it might mean to be made an object, even willingly. It is valuable to flip the perspective and ask what is the impact on the “swiper”- what is the potential effect on his or her character of swiping left? Here it is useful to return to our exploration in chapter four of the middot (character traits) of musar study and go a bit deeper.
One of these character traits is savlanut/patience (Morinis, 2007, 55)How does swiping left affect our capacity to wait for the best things in life to slowly ripen and come our way in good time? There is arguably an impetuousness to the act of “swiping left” that creates the wrong message for us about how we get the things in life we most value. Similarly, rachamim/compassion, means forming slow and generous judgments about fellow human beings. What is the impact (conscious or unconscious) of herding so many people so quickly into a corral of the unacceptable?
Moral and spiritual dilemmas such as these will only continue to grow in the next decades. A digital space where ethically fraught issues can be weighed before being acted upon seems to be a very necessary concomitant of living in today’s multiple civilizations.