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Friday, September 22, 2017

There is a well-known tension at the heart of the Passover holiday. The Haggadah contains a debate about whether the story of the Exodus is primarily a transition from slavery to freedom or from the worship of foreign deities to the worship of God. In other words, is Passover a holiday that celebrates autonomy or the beginning of Jewish responsibility and obligation? For the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, these two currents were not actually at odds with one another. “Indeed,” he wrote in one letter, “there cannot be one without the other; there can be no real freedom without accepting the precepts of our Torah guiding our daily life; pure and holy life eventually leads to real freedom.”

Physical liberty is a necessary precondition for growth. Yet mere freedom without religion is its own sort of prison. The boundaries and constraints of Judaism actually give us the freedom to pursue our higher purpose. Or, stated differently, freedom without a framework of religious obligation only leaves us more susceptible to other forms of mental and spiritual entrapment.

I have never appreciated the wisdom of this idea more than in the current political climate. One lesson from the electoral triumph of Trump and its aftermath is the power of the contemporary media to shape and configure our national conversation. From the accusations of “fake news” arising from both sides of the political aisle, to the sheer anxiety, panic and obsession that has been sown over the events and non-events of the past couple of months, the limits of the news media’s ability or willingness to accurately and responsibly reflect reality has never been more obvious than it is now. In truth, this phenomenon is not new. The news media, which emanates from the same business interests and cultural swamp as other forms of entertainment, has always been a form of art, or artifice. We all know that the media shapes and interprets events in order to sell papers, profit off of advertisements and appeal to various interest groups. That it is really art and of the lowest sort. Somehow we still fall prey to the media’s powers and the illusion of its objectivity.

Media outlets themselves are not primarily to blame for this state of affairs. In a free-market economy, a purveyor of products attempts to entice consumers to believe that what he or she is peddling is absolutely essential. Generally, as consumers we learn to look past this marketing and “spin” to curate what we actually need versus what we do not. Our dollars are limited, and if we listen to every advertisement demanding that we buy certain goods, we would be awash in unnecessary items and financially impoverished. Our time is a commodity that is even more valuable than money—it is an even scarcer resource, because we cannot make more of it and we do not know how much of it we have. Many of us allow precious hours of our life to be stolen from us as we partake in a media circus that will do nothing for us, our families, our nation or humankind. It is time that we free our minds.

I recently spoke with a seasoned Jewish educator who has been teaching for decades. He is the sort of gentle soul whose love for Jewish children and for Jewish tradition is etched into every crease on his face. He admitted to me that he has never been one for politics and wasn’t much of a news junkie until recently. Now he is up each night reading news stories, and he is scared. He is anxious about America’s political future and scared for the fate of the Jews here. It seems surprising that, in his 60-something years, no event has shocked him as much as the election of a coarse real-estate tycoon to the presidency and his serving in that office for less than two months. Obviously, this is a startling development worthy of any responsible citizen’s attention. Yet many dramatic events have transpired over the course of any adult’s life that have influenced the course of history. I’m skeptical that recent political events are so cataclysmic that they dwarf these other developments. More likely, the news media, harnessing the power of the internet, has simply become more savvy at making us feel that this is so.

When the Jews were liberated from Egypt, despite the incredible miracles that accompanied them, it would not take long for fear and trepidation to set in. Wailing for food, and then for water, some Israelites even suggested that it might be preferable to remain slaves in Egypt than to encounter the uncertainty of the wilderness. Whether or not they were justified in this reaction is somewhat ambiguous. Surely the God who split the Red Sea for them would not leave them to wither and starve in the wilderness. Indeed, God would provide, but the Jews of that generation would also never escape the downward spiral of insecurity and doubt that their initial burst of anxiety sets into motion. God rescued them from Egypt, but they never quite rescued themselves from their own mental prisons. It is perhaps partially for this reason that this generation never merits to experience autonomous Jewish life in the Land of Israel.

There is a difference between being politically aware and letting a shallow and hysterical news cycle dictate what you care about and when. The accessibility of vast amounts of information in the modern world is a great opportunity, but the commoditization of this information means that we need to constantly be on our guard. It might be useful to think of going on Facebook, CNN or wherever you get your news as similar to walking through the Bloomingdale’s cosmetics department, where every salesperson is standing there trying to spray you with some expensive perfume. Perhaps it is helpful, or simply enjoyable, to pass through this department once in awhile—but one should assume that the experience is designed to sell customers something they do not need or even want. In such situations, it is wise to try to get out as soon as possible.

Some, under the influence of the media’s scaremongering, suggest that these are not “normal” times for Jews in particular. According to their view, somehow the new media frenzy in which every act of anti-Semitic vandalism or every threat against a Jewish institution is publicized is in our communal interest. I do understand this impulse, even with the knowledge that these acts were never reported with the same gusto until there was a compelling political narrative to which they could be attached. Yet, we should be wary of the ease with which the media weaponizes our communal anxieties into a cudgel to advance a particular political agenda. Think of the anti-Semitic mobs tormenting our ancestors in Europe and the Middle East. They too were whipped up by some kind of frenzy over various non-events related, or attributed, to the Jews. Perhaps what we need more of is an aggressive journalistic rooting out of every potentially harmful threat that arises here in America to every minority group. Better still, we need to cultivate an ability to rely on moral intuition, as refined by one’s religion, family and community, in determining how to react to current events, rather than relying on self-serving media outlets. Ultimately, we can only control ourselves. The media, and the mobs, will do what they will. But perhaps our efforts to curate and limit the effects of this news bombardment could stimulate some kind of positive ripple within our community, which could ripple outward. At the very least, it will help us find some measure of equanimity. Again, it is time that we free our minds.

In considering what models of insight we may look toward as an alternative, we need look no further than our own tradition. Of course, learning Torah isn’t meant to replace reading a newspaper in form or function. But appreciating the former can illuminate what is missing from the latter. No one profits off of the Torah we learn other than ourselves. The pace of Jewish learning is different from the pace of the contemporary information superhighway. That pace is slow, but we are in control of each page that we turn. The wisdom we acquire through this painstaking process is not comparable to the fleeting sound-bytes and clickbait thrown our way by the media. For hundreds of years, since the Enlightenment, people have pointed to the coercive power of religion in a negative sense. Yet, for the average person, the Torah does not have even close to the addictive power that the news media has. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was right that physical freedom is no assurance of mental or spiritual freedom. Our challenge is to appropriately limit and harness the power of contemporary media so that we can maximize the precious gift of liberty that we are fortunate to enjoy.

If there is a place for news sites, social media and television in our spiritual and intellectual lives it should be an extremely marginal one. Loosening the hold of these media outlets on our minds is not an easy process. They are designed to addict us—emancipating ourselves from their grip takes strength and conviction. As the Haggadah puts it, “In every generation a person must see himself as though he personally has left Egypt.” Freeing our minds to see beyond the headlines to more enduring human questions, and to the words of the Living God, is one of the great challenges of modern life. May this Passover be one in which we recognize this challenge and understand that our tradition provides us with the tools we need to meet it.

By Sarah Rindner

 Teaneck resident Sarah Rindner teaches English literature at Lander College for Women in New York City. She, along with Rabbi Daniel Fridman, teaches the Leaves of Faith Book Club at the Jewish Center of Teaneck.