News v Gossip: Let There Be Light

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

 

 

 

Chatati

Image: In ancient times we used a scapegoat to atone for our sins. Now we just have to take responsibility for ourselves. A little goat.

Chatati means “I sinned.” I intended to delete an abandoned draft (4 Rabbis) and accidentally published it. Then I deleted it. And now my regular readers are wondering where the new post went!

I am very sorry. Rabbi Adar’s Adventures in Bloggerland continue. I shall be more careful going forward!

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  www.fostercampbell2016.com 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?

Books about God & Judaism

Image: Sombrero Fog Galaxy, photo by the Hubble Telescope, via Wikimedia. Public Domain.

Tomorrow night I’m going to be teaching “God, Covenant & Mitzvah,” in Intro to Judaism class. It’s a challenging topic for many, because it’s one of the areas where Judaism is quite different from many other religions.

There are no creeds in Judaism. As a rule, Judaism is much more concerned with speech and behavior than it is with belief. Judaism is a religion of doing: making the world better through actions and the careful use of language.

There are two books I recommend to students who are interested in exploring the topic of God & Judaism further:

Finding God: Selected Responses by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme is a very succinct introduction to Jewish ideas about God over the centuries.

God? Jewish Choices for Struggling with the Ultimate edited by Josh Barkin is a wonderful little book written for adolescents. It addresses questions such as “Who created God?”  and “Does prayer work?” and “Where do people go when they die?” The answers are short answers from rabbinical students and young Jewish teachers, and they provide a nice feel for the variety of voices and opinions in the Jewish world.

These two are the best books I know for approaching the questions most people want to ask about Jewish belief. Beyond them, we move very quickly into much deeper water and heavy duty theological language. I recommend you read these two, and if you are interested in going further, ask your rabbi for suggestions!

 

Turning Mourning into Meaning in the Post-Election Period

We Jews and all peoples of faith and moral purpose need to put one foot in front of the other and not get lost, to perform deeds of loving-kindness constantly, to pursue justice and peace unrelentingly, to be agents of hope always, and to be an “or la-goyim – a light unto the nations.” – Rabbi John Rosove

Regular readers know that periodically I repost entries from Rabbi John Rosove’s blog. He’s one of the rabbis I read regularly and trust. This sermon for Temple Israel of Hollywood spoke straight to my heart.

I hope that it gives you the comfort that it gave me.

L’shalom, Rabbi Ruth Adar

 

Rabbi John Rosove's Blog

The  following is a sermon I delivered to my congregation this past Friday night, November 11, 2016, after the shock of the Trump electoral victory.

The impact of this now concluded presidential campaign and the election results have shocked not only this country but the world. One either has been lifted up upon wings of eagles or plunged into despair like Jonah in the belly of the great fish.

I don’t presume to know the hearts and minds of every member of our community. I know only my own mind and heart, and it’s from there that I speak to you tonight.

I hope my words will reflect the thoughts of many, and if they do – good! If not, it can’t be helped.

My challenge this week, like yours, has been to cope with an election result that has caused me deep distress and anxiety, and then to find…

View original post 1,374 more words

American Hate: It’s Time to Speak Up

Image: Storm clouds gather over a landscape. Photo by Unsplash at pixabay.com.

Friends, I want to make you aware of something happening right now in the United States. This is something that transcends politics; whether you voted Trump or Clinton or 3rd Party or not at all, it concerns all Americans of good will.

More than 800 journalists have received hate mail and/or death threats via Twitter and other social media outlets over the past year, and the pace has escalated since the election. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) report:

The top 10 most targeted journalists – all of whom are Jewish – received 83 percent of those 19,253 tweets. The top 10 includes conservative columnist Ben Shapiro, Tablet’s Yair Rosenberg, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and The New York Times’ Jonathan Weisman, and CNN’s Sally Kohn and Jake Tapper.

More than 2/3 of these tweets were sent by only 1200 Twitter accounts, out of the 313 million accounts currently active on Twitter. Twitter has deactivated 21% of the offending accounts; the ADL is in conversation with them about the others.

Language in these tweets is overtly anti-Semitic. In an Atlantic article by Emma Green, she reports:

Beyond hateful language, users often photoshop journalists’ faces into images from the Holocaust, like Jews lined up to get food in concentration camps or lying in bunks in barracks. Users might share cartoons that depict ugly stereotypes about Jews, showing them with big noses and surrounded by piles of money. The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, was one of the handful of most frequently targeted journalists. In June, he wrote about some of the tweets he’s recently received, including a cartoon of the U.S. “Jewpreme Court,” a picture of money coming out of an oven, and a tweet that asked, “Why do Jews get so triggered when we mention ovens?”

There are death threats as well, as well as threats against the families of the journalists. This is not the kind of speech which qualifies for the protection of the First Amendment. Specific threats have been brought to the attention of law enforcement and I hope will continue to be pursued as the crimes they are.

Among the bios of the 1200 source accounts, the words that appear most frequently are “Trump,” “nationalist,” “conservative,” and “white.” The Trump campaign has not endorsed or supported this language; troublingly, though, it has not repudiated the anti-Semitic language and behavior of supporters, either.

I am aware that Mr. Trump has Jewish family members. I’m not sure why he does not take the anti-Semitic language of his supporters more seriously.  History teaches us that this kind of hate never stops with just one small group of people. I assure you that if Mr. Trump and his administration do not discourage this hate fully and quickly, we are going to see things in America no decent American ever wanted to see. 

It might start with “just the journalists,” “just the Jews,” “just the Muslims,” or “just the black activists.” I assure you that it will not stop there unless we put a stop to it now. We are seeing a rapid escalation of this language, plus acts of violence, and there is no time to waste.

What can we do? Here are some options:

  1. Send a strongly worded message to Mr. Trump directly (@RealDonaldTrump) asking that he repudiate his supporters’ hateful words and behavior and that he order them to stop it now. If you voted for him, please say so.
  2. If you are a Twitter user and you see hate speech against any group or a threat to any person, report it. Here is a set of directions for doing so. Don’t shrug it off. Twitter has been slow to respond to individual incidents, so it is important that your report be available as support to other reports. For other ideas, check out the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry.”
  3. Send supportive messages to any journalist whose work you appreciate. All of them, not just the Jews, are feeling threatened these days.
  4. Send supportive messages to anyone you know who might feel threatened by the outcome of the election. Tell them what you are doing to work against hate. Don’t tell them, “It’s going to be OK.” The rhetoric during the election was very threatening and incidents of actual violence against minorities have escalated since the election.
  5. If you see harassment or bullying of any kind in person, intervene before it escalates into violence. Read What Should I Do If I See Bullying? for an effective, psychologically sound method for intervention. Know what to do, so that when you see it you will know how to act safely and effectively.
  6. Support the Anti-Defamation League. Read their website. Sign up for their newsletters. Stay informed. ADL is not a partisan organization; major supporters include Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, lefties and right-wingers.
  7. Support the Southern Poverty Law Center. They track the hate groups behind many of these threats, and provide valuable information to law enforcement. Read the article on that website entitled White Supremacists Think Their Man Won the White House.

When I was ordained in 2008 I never dreamed that I’d have to write an article like this. Not here, not in the United States of America! I beg you to choose your course of action and follow through on it.

Shabbat Shalom! – Lech Lecha!

Image: A man with a backpack walks down a footpath. Photo by Hermann via pixabay.

“Lech lecha” – “Get yourself” or “Go, you!” or “Go forth” is from the first line of this week’s Torah portion:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

The Eternal said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” – Genesis 12:1

As often happens, the ambiguity of translation gives us lots of room for interpretation. This is a story about a leap of faith, about a journey, about a dream. What does it say to you, in this particular year, in your particular situation?

Some words from our online darshanim [preachers]:

“To Boldly Go:” on Lech Lecha and Star Trek – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Smashing Idols – Rabbi Dan Fink

A Post Election Prayer: The Journey Ahead – Rabbi Andy Gordon

Sojourners for Justice – Rabbi Nina Mizrahi

Sarah: Blinded by her outward appearance… – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Go Forth – Rabbi Kari Tuling, PhD.

Lech Lecha and the 2016 Election – Rabbi Joe Black