Tag Archives: Trump

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.

Remembering what we’re “here after”

18 Mar
A Sikh protester is removed from a Trump rally.

A Sikh protester is removed from a Trump rally.

There’s a story told about a rabbi who was counselling a man in his congregation. The rabbi advised that it was time to start thinking about the hereafter. The congregant said, “No problem, Rabbi, I do that all the time. I walk upstairs and then I think, now what am I here after?”
Shabbat Zakhor is a communal reminder of what we are all here after. On the surface, on Shabbat Zakhor we remember the times that the Jewish people suffered because other nations preyed upon our vulnerabilities. If we dig deeper in the text, however, we find that Zakhor is as much directed at our own behavior as a community as those of other people. The special maftir reading is from Deuteronomy 25:17-19. We are reminded of the wicked machinations of Amalek who attacked the Israelites from behind, preying on the weakest and most vulnerable members of the society. The full text is as follows:

17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — 18 how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. 19Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

We read this section on the Shabbat prior to Purim because Haman of the Purim story is a descendant of Amalek and is therefore an archetype of evil. The great irony of the Amalek portion is that we are told simultaneously to remember Amalek AND to blot out the name of Amalek.

There is another odd feature of the Amalek portion. There is ambiguity regarding the phrase in verse 18, v’lo yirei Elohim. The New Jewish Publication Society translation moves this phrase from the end of the sentence to the beginning and says: “[H]ow, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down the stragglers in your rear. The merit of this translation is that it makes clear that the wicked Amalek lacks fear of God, another way of saying they have no common decency. On the other hand, there’s a problem. Another way of reading verse 18, based on the actual phrasing in the Hebrew is: “And you were tired and weary and did not fear God.”

In other words, it is perfectly reasonable to read the text in a way that says the Israelites did not fear God! How can this be? Was it that the stragglers lost faith, thus becoming vulnerable to Amalek? What kind of God would allow such a thing? Furthermore, the command is to remember what Amalek “did to you,” and we get the sense that the concern is not only external—a cowardly attack on the weakest Israelites—but also internal. Our sages have long intuited that Amalek represents, yetzer ha’ra, internal corruption. The verses just before this passage in Deuteronomy 25 speak about unethical business practices—the keeping of uneven weights by merchants, which is an “abomination to the Lord.” The juxtaposition implies that it was our own corruption that made us susceptible to attack. Amalek is the evil inclination, and when we allow its voice to control our conduct, we cheat others and become worthy of attack. If we look back to Exodus 17, the original narrative of Amalek’s attack is preceded by the complaints of Israel, who said, “is the Lord in our midst or not?” In both places internal discord leads to external disaster. This is hardly a coincidence.

We know that there are people in the world who have evil in their hearts and who do not fear God. To a large extent, their moral compass (or lack thereof) is out of our control. What we do control is ourselves and our actions. There is a lot of pain and suffering in the world of which Amalek may be an archetype. In response, we can actively choose to behave in a way befitting people who fear God.

What was true of ancient Israel is true of modern Israel, and also of America. There are very real external enemies such as ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the waves of lone wolf terrorists in Israel who have carried out savage stabbing attacks in Israel. We remember Taylor Force, an American business student at Vanderbilt, who was stabbed to death in Jaffa. Our community and our country must be strong, vigilant and brave in facing and fighting these real external threats.

At the same time, I am gravely concerned about the danger to both Israel and to America that comes from within. When we abandon our better selves and give in to fear, anger and hatred, then we become weak and unworthy. The recent Pew study of Israel shows that a majority of self-identified religious Jews wish to “transfer” Arabs out of the country. This, I believe, would be a betrayal of Israel’s Declaration of Independence and of the democratic nature of the State. Likewise, I am deeply concerned about the political atmosphere in America. Our political system has been ugly and mean-spirited for years, but never before have we seen blatant calls by a major candidate for President to incite mob violence against his detractors. Until now. Our democracy thrives on disagreement and spirited debate over issues of substance. Without these basic pillars, democracy crumbles.

When we remember Amalek, we not only remember Amalek’s attack, we remember the response of the Israelites to this disaster. At least according to one reading of the text, the response was less than satisfactory. It made the disaster worse instead of less severe. Zakhor et asher asa lekha Amalek, “Remember what Amalek did to you,” rings true today. It’s not just the physical attack, but also the osmosis of Amalek-like thinking into the psyche of the Israelites that dehumanized the most marginal members of their society at the time of their greatest need. Shabbat Zakhor is an annual check-in for us. It’s a reminder of what we’re “here after.” Let us resolve this Shabbat Zakhor, that we will not marginalize others and strive to bring healing and kindness to our community. May our renewed resolve usher in a joyous Purim.