It’s “Just Business,” Right?

Image: A man fastening his tie. Photo by unsplash/pixabay.

In the film The Godfather there’s a very famous line, spoken by Michael Corleone: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”

Michael Corleone is in the process of becoming a criminal, and the “business” to which he refers is a crime. I wonder sometimes if the people who say “It’s strictly business” about their own dealings realize that they are quoting a criminal.

Usually when a person uses the phrase, they are implying that if something is business, then the usual moral laws don’t apply. Perhaps the action in question is technically legal, or a loophole is found that can make it fall outside the purview of the civil law. And so they say, “It’s just business,” meaning, “Don’t bother me with that morality stuff – that’s for sissies.” Or simply: “It doesn’t matter. It’s just business.”

However, that’s not how Jewish tradition approaches business at all. In the Talmud, behavior in business is seen as so telling of a person’s character that it is the first question God asks at the Seat of Judgment:

When a man is brought before the [heavenly] court he is asked:  “Were you trustworthy in business?” – Shabbat 31a

An enormous block of the Talmud is taken up with business behavior, and it is the topic of a significant chunk of the medieval codes (Mishneh Torah, Shulkhan Aruch) as well. There are mitzvot having to do with weights and measures, with accounts payable and receivable, with payroll, and a myriad other aspects of business life.

Sometimes these mitzvot are remarkably similar to what an MBA would recognize as “Business Ethics” and sometimes not. That’s the reason that the second question at the Seat of Judgment is “Did you set a time for Torah study?” We are not born knowing how to live a life of Torah; we have to study with other Jews and struggle with the texts and the tradition.

The news is full of “just business” that might qualify as Torah transgressions: waste and destruction of natural resources, misleading claims, and dangerous workplaces, to name just a few. I am sure that the people responsible for companies that indulge in such practices tell themselves that they are doing it to stay competitive, that such moral qualms are a luxury they can’t afford.

Torah teaches us that everything we do matters. It matters if we deal fairly with others. It matters what we do with the natural world. It matters when a landlord doesn’t maintain their building. It matters when an employee’s children go to bed hungry. It matters when I pay a few dollars less in taxes and a bridge falls down.

It. All. Matters.

Torah is challenging. Torah is expensive (ask anyone who keeps kosher.) Torah is almost always the harder way of doing things. But at the end of a life of Torah, we can look back and see ways in which the world is a bit better for our having lived in it.

And that is what matters, isn’t it?

News v Gossip: Let There Be Light

Image: Hands with smartphone, the word “NEWS.” Art by geralt at Public Domain.

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי-אוֹר

And God said, “Let there be light, and there was light. – Gen 1:3

In the Creation story, God uses words to create the world and almost everything in it. Only human beings are different; God uses his hands to make them.

This story in Torah is about many things, but one of the most important to Jews is that words are immensely powerful. Words create worlds.

Today I read about a case of words creating worlds that shocked me to my core. This story by Caitlin Dewey in the Washington Post reports:

Paul Horner, the 38-year-old impresario of a Facebook fake-news empire, has made his living off viral news hoaxes for several years.

Let that sink in. “Fake-news.” “Fake-news empire.” He has made his living for years selling something he calls fake news.

I’m reading messages on Facebook, and I see a link for a story: “Donald Trump wins popular vote!” If I’m a Trump supporter, I think, “Wow! this is great!” and I click for the story. If I was a Clinton supporter in the election, I think, “Wait, that can’t be right!” and I click for the story. Either way, I read the story and I see all the ads that come with it. Paul Horner makes money. Cha-ching.

This example comes from an article on this phenomenon by Madison Malone Kircher. She includes a link to a list of fake-news sources, and I strongly recommend that you take a look.

OK, so this is very bad. A guy writes lies, labels and markets those lies as News, and markets them to people on the Internet, making his money on ad sales. It’s legal, but it’s also wrong by any moral code I know, and reprehensible according to Jewish tradition.

But it gets worse.

In the interview in the Washington Post, Paul Horner brags that “I think Trump is in the White House because of me.” He outlines exactly how he made up stories and planted evidence to support those stories. He talks scornfully about people who take his stories as truth and never fact-check them, sending them along to others. Note that he wasn’t a Trump supporter – he just thought it was funny to fool Trump supporters. He appears to have soothed his conscience about this by characterizing his writing as satire.

Paul Horner creates worlds with his words. He does not do this alone: he has thousands and thousands of helpers, people who blindly click on headlines, accept articles from websites they know nothing about and send links along to their friends, who trust those words because they came from a friend. They post the links to Twitter and Snapchat. The lies spread like a virus.

And Paul Horner isn’t the only one. Paul Horner is the representative of an industry. To learn what sites not to trust, sites that pride themselves on clickable headlines and viral lies, see this list.

According to Jewish tradition, gossip is a sin. Listening to “news” of unknown reliability and repeating those words, those fall under the heading of rechilut, listening to or spreading gossip.

I confess I’ve clicked on some headlines like that.  I confess that I’ve read the articles, been shocked, once or twice tweeted them.  I (naively) believed that things labeled “news” that seemed possible to me were actual reportage of facts, and I spread those lies by sending the links to others. Chatati – I sinned.

Teshuvah is a process for recovery from a sin. I have realized my sin. I take responsibility for it – I didn’t always check to see if the source was reputable. I’m deeply sorry I did that (and I did know better, because usually I do check to see if a reputable journalist wrote it.) Now for the hard part: a plan to make sure this never happens again.

Tempting as it is to get news from Twitter and Facebook, from now on, I get my news from journalists and nowhere else. I am an online subscriber to the WaPo, the LATimes, the NY Times, and my local news organizations. Sure, I may follow breaking news on Twitter, getting first-hand reports from eyewitnesses, but I will always remember that those witnesses are not journalists. Real journalists are bound by a code of ethics, and when they are caught breaking that code, there are consequences. While there are bad apples in every bin, most journos are trying to find the truth and tell it, and they stake their professional reputations on their words.

News from a professional journalist can be relied on as news. Later facts may change the way we interpret the news, but if one of those journalists is caught in a lie, much less spreading lies for profit, that’s the end of their time at a respectable institution. Also, notice that politicians of all stripes dislike the big newspapers – real journalism annoys ideologues on the left AND the right. If a politician seems chummy with a news organization, something is wrong.

Paul Horner and his ilk are not professional journalists. They don’t even pretend to be journalists. Their excuse is that they are making jokes. In my world, unless their words come with a recognizable label (like The Onion, for instance) it’s a sinful use of words. When we pass along clickbait, we become complicit in the sin.




8 More Actions Against Hate

Image: 15 people demonstrate, holding up banners with hearts. 

In American Hate: It’s Time to Speak Up I listed 7 ways to act against hate in America. Since then, more possibilities have crossed my radar, and I want to share them with you. Understand that some of these are time limited: act now, or be too late.

  1. Urge Congress to Stand Firm on White House Leadership Appointments. This week President-Elect Trump named Steve Bannon as White House Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor. As an editor and as a strategist in the Trump campaign, Mr. Bannon promoted white supremacist ideologies including anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism and Islamophobia. The Religious Action Center has provided a form that will help you look up your senators’ and representative’s addresses and send a letter protesting this appointment.
  2. The 2016 Election isn’t over yet! Louisiana still hasn’t voted on a Senator and the Democrat in the race has a good chance to win. His name is Foster Campbell, a rancher, who was was elected to the Louisiana Public Service Commission with more than 78 percent of the vote in 2008. According to Jonathan Walczak writing in The Hill: “Electing Foster Campbell is the most immediate way to rebuke President-elect Trump. A Campbell victory would mean a 51-49 split in the Senate. This is the last best way to make a difference in 2016.” To help, first go to and check Mr. Campbell out. If you can support him with a donation, no matter how small, it will help. If you know voters in Louisiana, call and remind them to show up and vote in the runoff on Dec 10.
  3. Read this Sally Kohn articles in the Washington Post: This is what white people can do to support #BlackLivesMatter. See what applies to you and run with it.
  4. Support the National Immigration Law Center (NILC). It is one of the leading organizations in the U.S. dedicated to defending and advancing the rights of low-income immigrants. Again, visit the website, read their materials, and donate if you can and if their goals sound right to you.
  5. Subscribe to your local newspaper and to publications that don’t preach anyone’s party line. The “Fourth Estate” is an essential part of a healthy democracy, and our has been sadly weakened by the advent of “free” online news sources. When you pay for your newspaper, online or offline, you are paying journalists to ask questions and dig for answers. The good ones annoy politicians of ALL stripes. Personally I subscribe to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and SFGate, the news source for the SF Bay Area. There is no more important investment you can make in the functioning of our democracy than to hire some good watchdogs.
  6. Volunteer and/or give financial support to Planned Parenthood. Republican plans for the Affordable Care Act and the Supreme Court do not bode well for women’s access to reproductive medical care, birth control, and legal abortion.
  7. Join a synagogue, if you haven’t already done so. Ask about their social justice programming. Combining your energy with that of other Jews makes for more effective activism.
  8. Educate yourself. Listen to minority voices online, in print, and in person. Don’t assume you know what’s best for African-Americans, Muslims, women, poor people, Native Americans, incarcerated persons, LGBTQI, or disabled persons. They aren’t stupid, even though institutionalized racism has taught those of us with privilege to think they are. Don’t assume that your minority status makes you an expert on someone else’s needs. In short, don’t talk – LISTEN.

What are you doing to fight hate in America? If you are a member of a minority, what have you seen that worked?

Georgia on My Mind

Image: “I Voted” sticker. Photo by Dwight Burdette, some rights reserved.

[Rabbi Isaac taught that] A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted. – Berachot 55a

Next week I’m headed down to Georgia to serve as a non-partisan volunteer poll monitor. My job will be twofold: (1) to assist voters who are having difficulty finding their polling place and/or accessing a ballot and (2) to report problems at the polls. I will not be there supporting a candidate. My vote is cast in California, and it will be over and done.

Why am I going? Because the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 25, 2013. (For a history of the long fight for the Voting Rights Act, read A Dream Undone in the New York Times, 7/29/15.) Since then, a number of states have instituted restrictions on voting that appear to disproportionately disadvantage the poor, the elderly, and people of color.  I’m not going to Georgia to interfere with the law; I’m just going to help insure that the law doesn’t keep a legal voter from voting legally.

I’m going to Georgia to help insure that every person who is eligible to vote gets to cast their vote. When people’s polling places have been moved, I’ll help them look up the new polling place. When people can’t get to the new polling place because it’s too far from public transit, I’ll help them access a ride there. When a polling place is not handicap accessible, I’ll report the problem and help arrange for access. If someone is turned away from the polls unjustly, I’ll help them get access to legal assistance.

I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. I won’t be giving legal advice or doing anything heroic or stupid. I’m volunteering through the Religious Action Center and Election Protection, and they have given me training about the boundaries of my participation.

As a Jew, I believe that voting rights are sacred. In the quotation from the Talmud above, Rabbi Isaac gives the example of Betzalel, the chief builder of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 36.) Betzalel could be chosen by God, but only with the approval of all the people of Israel. That ethic of political participation and the admonishments of the prophets to include the poor, the orphan and the widow in civic life have informed the American Jewish support for voting rights for all American citizens.  That’s why I want to participate in this election: not only by exercising my own right to vote, but also by making sure that others get to exercise theirs.

If everyone has legal access to their right to vote, I’ll spend a really boring day sitting around, and then exhaust myself flying home in time to teach a class.  Let’s hope for that, shall we?


Mental Illness in the Torah

Image: Painting of David and Saul, Franco-Flemish School, unknown Master, 19th century. Public Domain. Several characters in the Bible may have suffered from mental illness, but King Saul is one of the most dramatic depictions.

In many ways we seem to still be in the dark ages when it comes to mental illness. Treatments are far from perfect, access to treatment is often difficult, and most of all, the stigma attached to mental illness is cruel. A Washington Post article, Halloween Attractions Use Mental Illness to Scare Us, reflects a casual cruelty about mental illness that would be completely unacceptable relative to physical illnesses such as cancer or polio.

Mental illness is mentioned in the Torah. Like physical illness, it was understood to be either a misfortune or a punishment from God. It is listed among the curses in Deuteronomy 28:

Thus if you will not listen to the voice of the Eternal you God, to observe to do all God’s commandments and God’s statutes which I command you this day, all these curses shall come upon you, and overtake you… (Deut 28:15)

The Eternal will strike you with madness, and blindness and astonishment of heart and you will grope at noonday as the blind grope in darkness. You will not make your ways prosperously. You will be oppressed and robbed always, and there will be none to save you. (Deut 28:28-29)

While on the surface this might be an upsetting passage, let’s look below its surface meaning for two interesting things. The first is that Deuteronomy 28 refers to boils, scabs, tuberculosis, fevers and inflammation in precisely the same way it refers to shigayon, usually translated “madness.” There is a fundamental understanding of illness as illness, whether it is physical or mental.

The second is that verses 28 and 29 offer a striking description of the ravages of mental illness.  Lev in Biblical Hebrew is not just the “heart” – it is more accurately described as the seat of thought and emotion, what we moderns refer to as “mind.” I offer a paraphrase in modern English for verses 28-29:

The Eternal will strike you with mental illness, so that your mind will not work properly. You will be unsure of your perceptions, and your sleep cycles will be disrupted. You will find it hard to find employment. You will be vulnerable to criminals and exploitation, and it will be difficult to find help.

The author of Deuteronomy had a remarkable knowledge of the experience of mental illness. However you understand authorship of the book (divine dictation, divine inspiration or human authorship) it shows a striking familiarity with the phenomenon.

Today we no longer understand physical illness to be evidence of sin, and there is no reason to see mental illness in that way, either. The mentally ill are not at fault, and deserve the same compassion we give any other person afflicted with illness. Both physical and mental illness are curses upon humanity, but much of the misery they cause can be alleviated with human compassion.

What can we learn about mental illness from Torah? First, we can learn that it has always been with us. Thousands of years ago, it was not all that different than it is today. Secondly, we can learn that it is in fact the equivalent of physical illness: it threatens life and livelihood.

What has changed from Biblical times is that we are aware that we are the hands of God in this world. It is up to us to use our heads and our hearts to relieve the suffering of the afflicted, with the employment of science and the balm of compassion.

Doubling Down on Justice

This past August 5, the Movement for Black Lives published a 47,000 word platform that has hit a nerve in the American Jewish community. Most of the furor has focussed on a single hot-button word in the document: genocide. The rest of the attention has gone to a call for support of BDS, divestment from all things Israeli.

I have been quiet while I read and studied the document itself and read reactions from Jews whose opinions I respect. 

Today Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR in Los Angeles published an article in the Jewish Journal that says what I’d like to say, only much better than I could ever say it. So instead of blathering here I will post a link to it for you.

The Industry of Evil Speech

Image: Assorted tabloid headlines

Jennifer Aniston is fed up. She is not pregnant, and she’s tired of telling people that she isn’t pregnant. This week the Huffington Post published her article, For the Record, in which she writes about what it is like to be fodder for the tabloids.

Gossip is a huge industry. It masquerades as “news” and in the U.S. the people who profit from it talk righteously about the First Amendment and the public’s “right to know.” It is enormously profitable: in 2011, industry revenues topped three billion dollars.

In Hebrew, the word for gossip is rechilut (reh-khee-LOOT) and it is one of the kinds of speech that are strictly forbidden in Jewish tradition.

You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people; neither shalt you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Holy One. – Leviticus 19:16.

We often cite the second half of that verse but it bears noticing that the two concepts (talebearing and blood) are mentioned together. Gossip has consequences, even when the reports are true, as Ms. Aniston illustrates in her article. Paparazzi make people’s lives miserable; they engage in unsafe practices like car chases and ambushes. They harass not only the celebrity but children and employees and bystanders. They do this because tabloids and magazines like People pay a huge premium for “gotcha” pictures which appear to tell a salacious story or which paint the celebrity in an unfavorable light.

Rechilut, gossip, is a serious matter for Jews. Maimonides explains that it is even worse to spread reports about someone if those reports may damage their reputation. This is what is known as the sin of lashon harah, “evil speech.”

Who is a gossiper? One who collects information and [then] goes from person to person, saying: “This is what so-and-so said;” “This is what I heard about so-and-so.” Even if the statements are true, they bring about the destruction of the world.

There is a much more serious sin than [gossip], which is also included in this prohibition: lashon harah, that is, relating deprecating facts about a colleague, even if they are true. – Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot

And this is in fact what the gossip mongers sell under the guise of “entertainment news.” The headlines are always the same: speculation about marital infidelity, weight gain, weight loss, pregnancy (and who’s the father?) and so on.

Some may argue that when someone goes into public life, they sign up for this treatment. But the fact is that other human beings do not exist for our entertainment. They do not owe us anything except the time and expertise for which we pay them. It is fine to watch Jennifer Aniston’s work as an actress on TV, but it is not acceptable to read gossipy speculation about her in People or the National Enquirer.

Because you see, we are the other half of the equation: this evil industry would not exist if we did not provide a market for it. When we click on a gossipy item, we provide a market. When we buy the Inquirer or People or Us, we provide a market. When we watch TMZ or similar shows, we provide a market.

When I see a tempting item on the screen or the cover of a magazine, I remind myself, “Is it really my business?” The answer is usually “no.”

Let’s step off the lashon harah assembly line. Life is too precious to waste it on trash.