“Fit” to print

The United States has a long history of compromised journalism. Yellow journalism in the 1890’s trumpeted pseudo-science, underdog plots, specific politicians, and political parties with outrageous and misleading headlines, unnamed sources, and damning innuendos.All of it was a competition between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst for readership of their respective newspapers.

The famous “muckraking” at the beginning of the 1900’s was an unscrupulous and unsavory methodology for obtaining damning information on politicians and celebrities. Even President Teddy Roosevelt got swept up in the mess in 1906. The impetus behind the muckraking was the corporate interest in the new mass-market magazines, which were lucrative as long as the stories were salacious.

Standing in 2014, the business model is a bit more complicated but the corporate interest in newspapers and magazines remains steady. These are “for-profit” enterprises and the most important desks at these businesses are the advertising desks. No one is surprised when magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Time, which are owned by conglomerates, are accused of killing articles that put their advertisers in a poor a light. The further accusation is that the reporters are told to write stories that highlight their advertising customers with a positive spin. Those who do not comply are terminated. There is enough compelling evidence from a number of unique sources to make one pause.

Accusations of bias have been leveled at New York Times over the Hamas-Israel conflict, which is still ongoing. The tone this time is more than journalistic favoritism of Palestinians. The same accusations have been leveled at the AP and their large bureau in Israel. In this case a former reporter from the bureau details pictures suppressed and articles killed that were disproportionately negative against Gaza and the West Bank. Many media observers see the pattern of the glossy magazines being emulated in the news sheets.

Everything fit to print may not be fit for consumption.

I will leave you this little fact. The AP has not filled its stringer position in Congo. Stringers live in African countries among the inhabitants for $300 a month. The named reporters for the AP live in hotels across the continent at nearly $300 a day and they cover six to ten countries from one city. The AP pays for the big stories but not for the daily investigative journalism that matters more in the long run. It’s a business and therein lies the inherent problem of news consumption in the United States. It’s a business.

A Member of the Tribe

The eulogies are fast and furious as the news of Joan River’s death continues to spread. All of the major internet sites have clips of her appearances and routines from the past fifty years along with remembrances and biographical analyses. There is a lot to say and hope that in the coming days the writers and the commentators will not be able to agree on one single narrative to eulogize her life.

             I have a small footnote. Joan Rivers was a real Jew – not a pious Jew, a synagogue Jew, nor an ethnic or cultural Jew. She was a member of the tribe, an offensive term when non-Jews use it but a high compliment when it is bestowed by one Jew upon another. To an outsider, tribalism is a derogatory term reeking of exclusivity and condescension. To proclaim someone a member of the tribe within the Jewish world is to mark that person as being remarkable and proud about being a Jew.

            Joan lived a philosophy that many rabbis preach but few rise to embrace. Joan embraced everything Jewish from food and family to politics and Israel. The term “Judaism” is a definition imposed upon Jews by outsiders. There is no “ism”, no specific religion for the Jews. We are a people and the sphere in which we dwell is called “The Jewish World”. Joan embraced this entire sphere, sometimes with high regard and sometimes with low profanities.

            She called her career as a comedian a calling. She skewered any and all who dared to flaunt themselves for fame, fortune or power. She skewered herself. She spoke truths with a capital “T” and I believe that these public expositions of truth dressed as jokes were the source of her influence and media power through these past fifty years. This trait alone made her a leading member of the Tribe.

The Symptom or the Source?

From India emerged a story of two women who were gang-raped and then hanged in the middle of the night in a rural hamlet. The local police were slow and hesitant to respond. Outrage across India has been vocal and the State finally stepped in. Arrests have been made. However, the estimate of the moment is that a woman is raped every half hour in India, mostly in the rural areas. Prosecuting one case of rape/murder does not appear to affect this criminal behavior.

The first solution, arrest followed by conviction, has failed to change behavior even though we think it should. Fear of punishment should prevent crime from happening. This is not the best model of morality, not doing something out of fear of getting caught, and it does not work in any case. There is little fear.

The source of the problem is that women are isolated and alone in a largely lawless, violent area. India is unable to impose law and order in these rural areas and therefore rapists will be deterred. Since the rapists cannot be stopped, the better solution is to change the women’s circumstance.

The solution is toilets. Yes, toilets. There are no privies in these rural areas and relieving of human wastes is done in the fields, in the open. Modest women will wait until it is dark to go out into the fields to relieve themselves, some in the middle of night for complete privacy. This circumstance makes women utterly vulnerable and indeed, this is when the rapes usually take place. A non-profit group is now installing outdoor toilets in these rural areas, allowing these women to relieve themselves during the day and under the watchful eyes of family.

The community is given the tools, in this case a sanitary toilet, to protect and police themselves. The land is still lawless but the women are safe. With the immediate threat to life averted, perhaps the Indian government will be able to address the issue of corrupt police forces and crimes against lower castes.

The task of Taking Nude Pics

Over the long weekend in the USA, an Indian hacker released nude pics of A-List celebrities on 4Chan and on Reddit, large social networks. An uproar ensued over privacy, personal rights, and widespread prurient interest in examples of naked females. The hacker is fleeing incarceration and has promised more stills to anyone willing to pay in bitcoins.

Pictures of naked people are “naughty” as the Brits would say. Many artists would argue that eroticism of the human form is a severe and limiting use of the body. The nude body can express a universe of emotion and of ideas that have little to do with sex. This episode has no redeeming artistic value though. The release of these photos is exploitation and profit.

While human life is upheld as the utmost of sacredness, the human body is not treated the same. Judaism does not recognize shame for the naked form nor vanity of its presentation in a non-exploitative circumstance. God gave you this body and because it is God-given even with its flaws and imperfections, the body is inherently good.

The body is a tool. It holds hands and manipulates tools. The body acts out deeds of love and friendship and raises up to meet threats and adversity. This is how we were created.

Modesty is a much maligned virtue these days until someone’s nude pics are posted are the internet against their wishes. Celebrate your bodies with those you love and avoid sharing or even the possibility of sharing with the rest of the world. This advice does not rise to the level of a religious dictate, the suggestion is simple common sense.

Winning the Peace

Thomas Friedman of the NYTimes predicted that Benjamin Netanyahu would win the conflict but lose the peace. The latest status of the third cease-fire with Hamas seems to confirm the opinion writer’s assessment. Israel made vague promises and will open the border crossings a little bit at a certain times, actions that Israel already took before the conflict. Friedman blames the prime minister and he misses the point.

There is no honest broker representing the Gazans, at least one who has the bodyguards to protect him when he is labeled a collaborator. There is no one with whom Israel can straightforwardly negotiate. The video interviews with the people on the streets of Gaza during the first and second cease-fire make obvious that no one is free to speak their mind in Gaza, especially if their words have the slightest hint of anger or dismay at Hamas.

I believe most Gazans just want to go to jobs or school during the day and spend the evening with their families and friends in the evening before going to sleep. In this little corner of the world, nothing so simple is ever easily obtainable.

Bombing Libya and more

The NYTimes just announced that Egypt and U.A.E. air force are the ones bombing targets in Libya, targeting Islamist militias. Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, published on the Op-Ed page of the NYTimes this morning that Qatar is the major funder of Hamas, even threatening to deport Hamas leader, Mr. Meshal if he agreed to a long-term cease-fire with Israel. Whatever one thinks about the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza, none of these Arab players have any moral credibility as they fight among themselves, often using proxies. At one time, the manufactured hatred of Israel was enough to contain the internecine violence within and between the countries of North Africa and the Middle East. No longer. Israel could be compared to a sideshow alongside the civil wars and civilian massacres of the countries surrounding her.

On the Ice Bucket Challenge

The ice bucket challenge has gone viral on the internet and may raise $100 million for the ALS Foundation. Curing a disease is a worthy endeavor but there is a lot more to consider when giving to charity. ALS, also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a degeneration of the nerve cells in the brain and the body, an awful, unstoppable death. There are approximately 5,600 new cases a year in the United States compared to an estimated 96,830 expected new cases of colon cancer this year. The ALS Foundation has funded research for thirty years and there is no cure in sight. Medical research is not $100 million away from a cure if there is even a cure. Contrasted to colon cancer, there are curatives and early screenings that promote positive, long-term outcomes from a colon cancer diagnosis.

This newly-raised money for ALS will not be spent immediately. Some of the funds may be spent on “awareness” but there really is no need for awareness because of the success of the challenge. Further, ALS does not spend money on patient care because their focus is research. There are charities, small and usually local, that help with patient care of chronic diseases but the ALS Foundation is not that type of charity.

Most if not all of these funds will be back-loaded. Because medical research is better understood as a decade’s long project, paying for a year’s worth of research is useless. To commit funds for a decade’s worth of study is a process fraught with a lot of negative possibilities including no positive outcomes. Imagine giving a significant amount of money for disease research and being told after ten years “we know x, y and z aren’t possible cures and the elimination of x, y, and z furthers our understanding of the science.” Many givers do not wish to pay for the elimination of non-cures when they thought they were paying for possible cures. The science is correct but the expectations of the givers is contradictory. Nonetheless, ALS Foundation is funding research and legitimate research is going forward.

The most prominent concern is the set amount of charity households donate each year. If money is given to ALS Foundation that normally would have gone to a food bank or a social action advocacy group, then the food bank and the advocacy group are out of luck this year. The truth is that the pot of donated funds is not an ever expanding amount. Based on the economy and the wherewithal of the middle class, the amounts given every year will wax or wane. Even though the tax credit on the IRS Form 1040 rewards giving, if the discretionary income is not available, then the household will not be able to give or give as much. The end result will be that the smaller charities will lose income.

Giving to charity is one of the highest of obligations and every dollar can make a difference. The responsibility of the donor is to make sure that every dollar he or she gives counts.

Peace would be Nice

Peace is not sexy, or at least it hasn’t been since the 60’s. Back then peace was intertwined with free love, drugs, and lots of music. Free love turned out to be a poor theory, drugs are still a scourge, but the music still sounds pretty good. Peace as it was depicted in the many decades ago has been demoted to a silly hand gesture and balloon letters surrounded by garish colors.
In our day, peace is great hypothetical. Sometime in the future, we will have peace. Somewhere on the planet, there is peace. We pray for peace, but praying is one of those suspect activities. Everyone talks of peace, political leaders, military leaders, corporate leaders and yet each and every one of them is trained, prepared, and paid to kill, destroy, maim, or overrun the enemy. Indeed, everyone talks about peace; few live it.
Maybe I am wrong that few have peace. Peace flies under the radar and is not easily reportable.
The murder rate in Israel and the territories is less than the murder rate in Philadelphia, even with the qassam rockets flying into Sderot and helicopter gunships are hitting targets in Gaza. Yet, our papers and our news programs tell us how dangerous Israel and the territories are. Places that have peace appear neither in the newspaper nor on the cable news or internet posting. Peace doesn’t sell.
Peace is slow. Watching peace is like watching paint dry on the wall. Nothing happens and what does happen is barely worth noting. When there is peace, there is no drama.

A Sideways Look at Kashrut

Kashrut is in the news again. First is the news item from the State of Florida and its prison system. The state wants to cut its kosher food program in the state prisons because too many inmates are requesting the kosher meals. The meals cost up to three times as much as the regular meals in the prisons and apparently taste much better.
The second item is a false rumor circulating around the Department of Defense. The DoD issues kosher MREs (Meal, Ready to Eat) for any observant Jews (or Muslims) in the Armed Forces. These MREs do not taste better than the regular MREs according to those in the know. The DoD is not cancelling kosher MREs.
This month we are making our way through the Book of Leviticus where one finds the original sources for kashut. In fact, one of our Bar Mitzvah students will preach on the subject in the coming weeks. The Levitical theme of kashrut was that food could transform the human body into a temple vessel, a tool for worshiping God.
In our day, ideas about food have gone through a series of revolutions. Food can be entertainment. Food is the science of nutrition. Food is fundamental to health throughout one’s life. Food is curative, in mind, body, and spirit. Food causes disease. Food can be transformed into “frankenfood”. We have new terms like “locavore” and “foodie” while recipes for Pesach or Hanukkah have been eclipsed by a billion wings served on Superbowl Sunday and chocolate everything on Valentines.
The core teaching of Kashrut is that food can be a meaningful human experience. In our day we have many imitators of this lesson. These imitators leave us fat and bloated, insatiate and unhappy with the choices we have made. If you feel any or all of these symptoms, then it is time to follow the age-old customs of our distant ancestors: open the pantry and make some significant decisions about the foodstuffs you are going to choose to eat.

Jews in Western Europe

Dr. Deborah Lipstadt published an op-ed in the NYTimes yesterday putting together the attacks on Jews over the past year or so in Europe and the rising tide of French Jews immigrating to Israel. “It is not the Holocaust again” she states with good argument but it is still appropriate to worry. The attacks were perpetrated by young men born or raised in Europe, not in Muslim countries. The number of neo-Nazis in Germany is small but the shift from disgust in Israeli government policies to hatred of Jews is large and substantial among the rest of the populaiton.

Ever since Jewish history was subjected to modern critical theory, one pattern has been the departure of Jews from a country signaling a radical downward shift in the abandoned country. No one can predict whether such a pattern holds in the 21st century as it did in previous centuries for many reasons. Even so, when Jews begin in leave in numbers, thought the numbers are still relatively small, it is time to worry.