Archive | February, 2017

A Free Press As the Root of Democracy: Reflections on Shabbat Shekalim

25 Feb

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When I was a youngster, before I discovered the rabbinate as my career, I had other aspirations. I wasn’t interested in becoming an astronaut, nor a doctor or a scientist. In my wildest dreams, maybe a baseball player. Remember, the Chicago Cubs weren’t good in those days, and I thought maybe I’d have a chance. Alas, I did not. So, I aspired to be a journalist. I was fascinated by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their coverage of Watergate and how through their reporting they spoke truth to power. Growing up in the 1970s, I watched as much TV as anyone, including all the reruns—The Lone Ranger, Star Trek, The Brady Bunch, and others. But I was also drawn to the evening news, especially the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite. I realized early on that journalists had an important responsibility to report the news and convey the truth.

Our free society depends on a free press. It shines a light on those who serve in public office to hold them to account for the the oaths of office they take to serve the public and our Constitution with integrity. A robust free press asks tough questions of government officials, irrespective of their party affiliation. Even Washington and Lincoln were often savaged by the press during their administrations, and so too with every President until today. Every president is in a bubble in which they surround themselves with supporters and are sensitive to criticism. Yet, time and again, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s words ring true: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” The free press hold our leaders to account.

Our public officials swear to uphold the Constitution and by extension protect the public’s most vital assets such as clean air, clean water, fair labor laws, fair housing standards, anti-discrimination laws, financial protections, food and drug safety, national education standards, as well as national defense.  It’s impossible for each of us to become experts on public policy on the myriad issues facing our society, and the free press provides a great public service to protect transparency and our right to know whether our public officials are serving us with integrity.

This week, as we mark Shabbat Shekalim, we are reminded of integrity as a core value of our tradition. In the passage that instructs the Israelites about the levy of the half-Shekel the Torah says (Exodus 30: 13):  זֶ֣ה ׀ יִתְּנ֗וּ

This they shall give. Every one who passes among those who are counted, half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary. Why does the verse begin with zeh, “this they shall give”? Usually a verb in the Bible begins Waw-consecutive, including in cases like this involving instruction.   Prompted by the word “this,” the Sages conjecture that God showed Moses a flame in the shape of a half-shekel. Why a flame? Because money is like fire; it can warm and comfort–or it can consume and destroy (Elimelekh of Lyzhansk).

Throughout the history of our democracy, numerous politicians of different political persuasions have served our nation. Some have succeeded and provided warmth and comfort, while others failed, including those whose corruption threatened to consume and destroy our society. At every juncture a vibrant free press has served as a check on government. As George Orwell wrote: “Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose.”

We should be most concerned when the President repeatedly calls the mainstream news media the “enemy of the people”  and that he even goes so far as to demand that reporters stop utilizing anonymous sources.  Marc Felt  would never have confided to Bob Woodward the crimes of the Nixon White House unless he was certain of Woodward’s rock-solid assurance that his identity would not be revealed. For decades, he was known as Deep Throat, and he was an American hero for exposing a national crisis. Reporters must and will continue to rely on anonymous sources to reveal difficult truths.

And yet even in the Nixon years, as fraught as that administration’s relations with the press were, never were they barred from the White House briefing room as happened yesterday.

The press is not perfect, just like any human endeavor. They get things wrong, including the predictions of most news organizations of the outcome of the last election. The spike in fake news and alternative facts also do not exist in a vacuum. They exist because for multiple reasons, many Americans have lost trust in the mainstream media.

J.D. Vance, author of the bestselling book Hillbilly Elegy, has a remarkable story. He grew up in poor, white  Appalachia and went on to Yale Law School. He has become a go-to interpreter of working class whites and their distrust of mainstream institutions. He said recently in an interview :

“The news media seems to be approaching Trump in a very oppositional way. And whether it’s Trump or Obama, it’s always important for the media to take a somewhat oppositional tact because that’s one of their main roles as the fourth estate. But I also wish news executives would think about this credibility gap and think constructively about how to repair it…We may just be in a different media environment where people consume information in their bubbles.”

I think Vance raises an important issue in noting the lack of trust towards the news media, that news organizations would be advised to earn back. Part of the challenge is that journalism is a business as well as a craft. In our world, we consume news as much for entertainment as to know what’s going on. In response, the news media must focus on the entertainment value of their stories. High entertainment value yields higher advertising revenue. That yields higher ratings and salaries for TV reporters. We as consumers of news are complicit in demanding high entertainment value from the news in addition to truth. Money is like fire. When we’re careful, it can keep us warm and comfort us. However, it can also burn when it dominates our focus.

Let us demand the highest standards from our journalists, and let us also reject any efforts to from officials to threaten the free press as a vital check on government and harbinger of truth. Shabbat Shekalim reminds us to preserve the integrity of our public institutions. Ken Yehi Ratzon.

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A glimmer of hope in a trying week

3 Feb
Muslim and Jewish families unite in protest over Executive Order

Muslim and Jewish families unite in protest over Executive Order

What is the essential mitzvah of Passover? It’s not eating matzah. It’s not cleaning your house and getting rid of hametz. Yes, the Torah mentions those as mitzvot, but I believe they serve a larger purpose that is spelled out in Parashat Bo: passing on our tradition to the next generation.

On at least three occasions, we find in Parashat Bo mention of children:

1. God brings two more plagues on Egypt, locusts and a thick darkness, where people could not see one another for three days. Pharaoh tries to work out a compromise, letting the Israelites go taking their elders, but not their young ones. Moses insists, bin’a’areinu uvizkuneinu neleikh—with our young and with our old we will go.” Moses will not settle for anything less. He states his case loud and clear that we, the Israelite people, are all in this together. We need one another. The young need the old and the old need the young.

2.

In today’s Torah reading, we study the foundation of what we recognize as the Passover seder. The Paschal lamb must be eaten with matzah and maror.  I find one verse in this section to be particularly striking (Exodus 13:8): V’higadata l’vincha bayom hahu leimor, ba’avur zeh asah Hashem li b’tzeiti mi-Mitzrayim—“And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.’” From this verse, we derive the mitzvah of telling the story of our people. It was not enough for the Israelites to get out of Egypt. They committed themselves in a public ritual to tell their story from one generation to the next for all time. We should all remember where we came from, and we should always remember our responsibility to make the world a bit brighter and a bit better for the next generation.

3. וְהָיָ֕ה כִּי־יֹֽאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָֽעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם:

“Your children will ask you, ‘What is this service to you?’”

This is the origin of the familiar seder custom of having the children present ask the Four Questions. This verse is also one of three references in this parashah plus one in Deuteronomy that the Haggadah connects to the prototypical Four Children whom parents are obliged to engage in discussion at the seder. The whole point of the seder is to connect with the next generation so that they may connect with Jewish tradition.

In our day, our children are watching to see how their Jewish mothers and fathers respond to the Trump administration’s abuse of vulnerable populations. On January 27, President Trump issued an Executive Order banning refugees and permanent residents who originated from seven predominantly Muslim countries.  A number of permanent residents were detained and denied entry at US airports. The order had the effect of discriminating against our Muslim neighbors on the basis of their religion. Protests erupted spontaneously across the country protesting this illegal and immoral action.

I attended a rally on Sunday at Palm Beach International Airport and was inspired by the large cross section of our community united to raise our voices in protest against this action.

As protests continued throughout the week, there was a rally at Chicago’s O’hare International Airport on Monday that got a lot of attention. A photo from that rally went viral. In the photo were a Jewish man wearing a kippah and his young son on his shoulders wearing a black velvet kippah. The young boy was holding a sign that read “Hate has no home here.” Standing just a few feet away was a Muslim man with a young girl on his shoulders. She was wearing a hijab and was holding a sign that said “Love.” The boy and the girl were looking at each other and smiling.

The Chicago Tribune published this photo and within hours it was retweeted 16,000 times. After the photo went viral, the Tribune ran a follow-up story in which the reporter tracked down the two fathers, Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appel and Fatih Yildirim. The boy’s name is Adin, and the girl’s name in Meryem. The families had never met until that rally. The fathers exchanged phone numbers.

When they started hearing from hundreds of friends and acquaintances after the picture was published, they texted each other, in awe of the way the small moment became momentous.

“I know the tension between the Jews and the Muslims. People think we hate each other. But we’re not fighting. When we come next to each other we can have normal conversations,” Yildirim said. “We can promote the peace together.”

Bendat-Appel said:

“I just feel like if this picture, in some small way, can bring a bit more light and love into the world, I’m so happy about that.”

According to the report, the Bendat-Appel family invited the Yildirim family to their home for Shabbat dinner last night, which hopefully took place.

This magical moment captured in photograph of a Jewish child and a Muslim child coming together to promote justice gives me hope that the message of Passover continues to ring true. Passover is meaningless unless we transmit our tradition to the next generation, inspire them, and engage them in the cause to create a better world.
Our children are watching us and the events around us. When they ask מָ֛ה הָֽעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם —what does this mean to you?—We’d better be prepared to respond in a way that will inspire them to fulfill the values of our people.  I pray that the innocent bond between two young children, one Jew, one Muslim, will lay the groundwork for healing in our country and our world.