Yes, its true. An era is ending.
Jon Stewart, who hosted the Daily Show—the “fake news” program on Comedy Central—for the past 17 years, announced he was stepping down yesterday. Jon Stewart, the Jewish kid from New Jersey whose wit and satire helped shed light on the hypocrisies of government and society, who became for a generation a primary news source, who though humor took on the most serious of subjects, is moving on to new projects.
At seemingly the same time, NBC announced that Brian Williams, the host of NBC Nightly News for the past 10 years will be suspended without pay for six months after it was recently revealed that he had misrepresented facts of a helicopter incident while he was covering the war in Iraq in 2003. While he had claimed that he was travelling on a helicopter that was brought down by a rocket propelled grenade, it recently came to light that he was not entirely truthful in his account.
In a way, both of these stories can point to the blurring of the lines between news and entertainment. Stewart, who always claimed that he was not meant to be a “real” news outlet and was anchoring an entertainment show, nevertheless provided real social commentary that both reported and reflected the zeitgeist.
At the same time, Williams, who is one of the most well respected news anchors today since taking over the anchor chair from Tom Brokaw a decade ago, played off that serious persona to comic and entertaining effects. He made the rounds on Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock and as a frequent guest on the Daily Show. One wonders if his attraction to the world of entertainment led him to embellish the facts of his experiences.
The “real news” pursues entertainment, while the “fake news” pursues seriousness. As I joked on Facebook yesterday commenting on the parallel announcements, “Maybe Jon Stewart has been tapped to take over NBC Nightly News.”
But it would be too easy to draw these dichotomies. It is hard to say what is “the news” and what is “entertainment.” The elements of both are found in the other. Hard news is conveyed in entertaining ways, either though colorful graphics and flashy presentation, and entertainment sometimes reflects and comments on real events.
And perhaps we need a mix of both; the Torah tells us as much. In the weekly Torah reading this week, portion Mishpatim, Moses is on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah from God. God enumerates all of the different laws (“mishpatim”) and practices that the people are to follow. We then read, in Exodus 24:3-8,
Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of God and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that God has commanded we will do!” Moses then wrote down all the commands of God. Early in the morning, he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. He designated some young men among the Israelites, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to God. Moses took one part of the blood and put it in basins, and the other part of the blood he dashed against the altar. Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that God has spoken we will faithfully do!” Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that God now makes with you concerning all these commands.”
The laws are serious. But the laws are delivered with pomp and spectacle. The Torah is telling us something about ourselves that Stewart and Williams confirm: we like our news, and we like our entertainment. And indeed, we can’t have one without the other.
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Jon Stewart, in his July 21 episode of The Daily Show, viscerally demonstrated what many of us, I am sure, are experiencing on our Facebook feeds and our email inbox when it comes to postings on Israel and Gaza. Take a look at his attempt to talk about Israel.
At the same time as I support Israel’s right to defend itself in a war with Hamas 100%, I do believe there is room for respectful and thoughtful analysis of the broader context as we try to understand why we have arrived at this moment, and what might lie ahead. There are those who are uncomfortable with that conversation, because they don’t think it’s the right time to raise anything that might be critical of Israel’s choices and policies, but it’s not really possible to have the conversation if we’re not willing to look at those choices. I don’t think that’s helpful. I don’t think we need to silence opinion and conversation, but I also don’t believe that this broader conversation about the peace process can be applied to the specific battle at hand today. Whatever both sides may have done or failed to do in the past, today’s battle, if you identify with the fate of the Jewish people and the Jewish State of Israel, is about Israel defending its citizens from indiscriminate attack, and nothing about the larger context of the peace process will shake my certainty that they must do what must be done to achieve that goal.
Among Jews, there are a wide spectrum of opinions and feelings about what is happening in Israel and Gaza right now. But on certain issues I would hope we would substantially find agreement:
1) Hamas is a terrorist organization. It has stated publicly that it seeks to cause harm to its own people as a way of furthering international condemnation of Israel. To that end, it operates from mosques, schools, and in the midst of heavily populated areas. What it is doing from these locations is firing rockets indiscriminately on the civilian population of Israel.
2) No nation state in the world would tolerate for one moment this kind of bombardment. Israel is completely within its rights to do whatever it takes to protect its citizens. When the safety of your citizens and the stability of your country is at stake, you do whatever it takes. Those who speak of a larger context or the suffering of the Gazan people are conflating issues that should not be conflated. We can still talk about the larger question of what is or is not happening with the peace process, and where Israel bears responsibility for poor judgment along the way along with poor choices on the part of the Palestinians. But none of that mitigates Israel’s right to do whatever it takes to protect its citizens when they are being indiscriminately fired upon. That is an act of war, and Hamas has chosen to declare war on Israel. And if you were living in Israel right now, you would not expect anything less of your government.
3) Even while defending Israel’s right and need to take the actions it is taking, as human beings we can still have compassion for all who are suffering through this war. When Gazan civilians die in the midst of the battle, we should cry for the loss of lives. When children in southern Israel have PTSD because they have now lived through years of having seconds to run for cover when the sirens sound, we should have compassion. When Israeli extremists murder a Palestinian teenager we should be disgusted and bring them to justice (as Israel is). And when young Israeli adults are serving their country in the IDF and will be called upon to do difficult things that will lead to the loss of lives, we should think about the impact that war has on all who have to fight it. There are no easy choices.
When it comes to thinking about and talking about Israel, I’m sure that many of you, like me, have been listening to the news and reading many online articles about the situation. Some information is helpful, some inaccurate. Some are naïve, some are antagonistic. Some draw lines of connection that are helpful and some are profoundly misleading.
We all have a tendency to read more from those who already think like us. So how do we navigate our way through the quagmire of information? One might try to distinguish between what is descriptive and what is opinion. But this isn’t always useful. We might hear a news report that begins by telling us how many Gazans died today and how many times Israel fired on Gaza. That is descriptive. But if only as an afterthought is it mentioned, in passing, that Israel did so in response to the several hundred rockets fired by Hamas at their civilian populations, then the information is not being communicated accurately. When Israel is criticized because more Gazans were killed or injured today than Israelis, that is simply a preposterous way to judge and evaluate what is happening and what Israel needs to do to protect its citizens in this war. Approximately 7 million Germans died in WWII and 420,000 Americans died. Was America guilty of a disproportionate response to Hitler? Where opinions clash, it is often not about the facts on the ground per se, but about the framing of these facts, where there are enormous differences in perspective.
And then, when we try to expand the conversation to understand this recent flare up in war with Hamas in the larger context of the long-term lack of a peaceful two-state solution, what we have are many pieces of a puzzle, and they don’t all fit neatly together. So we can talk about the need for a settlement freeze and other choices that Israel could make to better lay the groundwork for a different kind of way of thinking about the Palestinian question. And we can talk about it, as many Israelis already do, independent of an all-inclusive final peace settlement. But if we’re going to talk about those things, we also have to talk about the choices that Hamas has made to take 10 years of potential economic development in Gaza and pour those resources into weapons and tunnels designed to kill Israelis. When we talk about Israel’s policies and choices, we cannot do so in a vacuum that excludes the context of Palestinian policies and choices.
Part of what makes this so complex are the narratives that each side tell about the other; narratives that are often deeply flawed. I’ve often argued for the need to listen carefully to the Palestinian narrative; not because we are required to agree with their framing of their plight, but because we cannot understand what they are doing or why when Israel seems to make a step in the right direction (like withdrawing from Gaza) they are rewarded with terror attacks. It’s not so easy to change someone else’s narrative. So, for example, Hamas will often make reference to the success that the Algerians had in making the French leave. They hold that story up as a model for themselves; make life so intolerable for an invading colonial power that eventually they will leave. But the problem is that, as much as Palestinians define Israel as a Western colonial insertion in their land, that is not what Israel is, and is most certainly not how Israel understands itself. The people of Israel don’t have a “France” to go back to.
And so, when Hamas ramps up the terrorism, Israelis who will not be terrorized out of their homes will fight back with all they’ve got. On the other hand, if we listen to Bibi Netanyahu and observe his policy of continually increasing the breadth of settlement activity, it would appear that he and many others operate with a narrative that thinks that if Israel just continues to establish itself and build itself up, the Palestinians will eventually just give up and move to one of the surrounding Arab countries, or accept a minority status in a Jewish state. Given the Palestinian narrative in which they see the creation of the State of Israel as having denied them their sovereign rights in their own homes and villages, that is a naïve and foolish policy to pursue.
But it gets more complicated. As Jews, we often focus on Israel’s choices and policies. Those on the right support the Netanyahu narrative. Those on the left want to change the narrative to one that could open the pathway to peace. But… that pathway doesn’t exist if only one side changes their narrative. While Hamas continues to operate out of its narrative, then peace simply cannot be—they will not let it be. I’m not sure, but I think Mahmoud Abbas might wish to change the Palestinian narrative, but it is challenging for him to do so without great danger from fundamentalists on his right. Perhaps that is why he is being quiet during this Gaza war. Perhaps he understands that nothing will ultimately change until Hamas is taken out of the equation. Israel understands this too.
In the meantime, let us pray that this war can come to an end soon. Let us pray for the safety of civilians everywhere. Let us pray for Israel’s soldiers, and let us pray for safety of Jews around the world—Jews in Turkey, Jews in France, and elsewhere where anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attacks have already taken place. And let’s talk with one another; reach out to those with family in Israel, respectfully share thoughts and opinions about the larger issues, stand up for human rights when they are violated, and stand up for Israel when she acts to defend herself.
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A version of this article was delivered as my Shabbat sermon on Friday, July 18th. The original sermon can be viewed on the archive of our livestream (sermon begins at approx. the 40 min mark).
Back in 2006 Justin Timberlake promised that he was “bringing sexy back”, but I guess he never got around to it because this past week we found out the profound function of last year’s most exciting invention, Google Glass. There is now an app. for having sex with your Google Glasses on so that you can see an image in your glasses lens of you having sex, but from the perspective of your partner’s link of his/her pair of web-enabled camera glasses. Do I really want to see myself having sex – while I’m having sex? Jon Stewart pointed out that this takes “Go F’ yourself” to a whole new, more literal level. It’s not just Google that is helping to drive away the sexy, apparently there is an Facebook app. to see which of your friends is “down” for a hook-up. Back in July, the New York Times reported in an article “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, too) that casual sex just seems to work for some college women (presumably, just as it has for men) who just don’t have time for a relationship – they feel it would take them off track with their studies and their career path. Regardless of which gender, I hope I’m not alone in finding this trend as incredibly ‘unsexy’.
I mention Justin Timberlake and his song SexyBack because I’m a romantic and I worry about humanity loosing it’s sexy. Sex, in the hook-up culture that we have developed seems like a commodity, something to gain, to acquire, instead of something to share. If only JT was successful – surely we rabbis have done nothing to bring the sexy back.
There is a classic joke about the man who, before his wedding, goes and asks the rabbis just what is permissible between he and his soon-to-be wife.
“Go ahead, ask, ask,” the rabbi said.
The man asked question upon question, about whether one position or another was okay. To each inquiry the rabbis responded, “Yes, that is fine, between a man and his wife, its all fine.”
The man was relieved and so he asked about more and more erotic things; about each, the rabbi said it was fine. It was all fine until the man mentioned one last thing that he assumed would be fine like all the previous questions he asked.
“Tell me, rabbi, why is this last thing not permissible if all the other things were?”
The rabbi replied, “That last one is no good. It could lead to mixed dancing!”
Serious Question: Can rabbis help us bring sexy back?
My colleague and friends, Rabbi Elliott Dorff, wrote about the values of Jewish sexual decision-making. He articulated 8 sensibilities that would apply in marital or even (gasp) non-marital sex:
1) Seeing oneself and one’s partner as the creations of God
2) Respect for the other
6) Health and safety (including emotional safety)
7) The possibility of a child
8) The Jewish quality of a relationship
It’s a beautiful list, I agree with each value, but it’s not sexy.
So Jewishly, where does that leave us regarding “sexy”?
Until modern Judaism becomes more adept, and willing, to talk about the value and beauty of sex in a relationship rather than some variable of self-gratification which is how I understand the current trend, we’re left with only some biblical verses that are only vaguely sexy, and only if you read them with the proper wink and nod:
“And he knew her.” (oooooo)
“And he took’ Sarah.” (oooooh)
“I have compared thee, O my love, to a steed in Pharaoh’s chariots.” (Steamy!)
Regarding Google Glass in bed: I suppose I can call it kosher under two conditions: 1) people keep from posting these things on the web, and 2) it doesn’t lead to mixed dancing.
Last week, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, in a remarkable display of bad taste (to say the least), decided to put on an Afro wig and blackface in order to portray an African-American basketball player for Purim. In response, Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show, pointed out the hypocrisy of Hikind’s insensitivity given his career as an outspoken critic of both actual and alleged (at least to Hikind) anti-Semitism. Stewart followed his comments with this hysterical segment entitled “Crazy Stupid Dove–The War On Purim” (see video below).
This is not the first time The Daily Show has captured the humorous side of Jewish holidays. As J.J. Goldberg notes in his recent Forward blog, Stewart also introduced a laughing-out-loud funny segment about Passover last year called “Faith Off” in which he called on Jews to make Passover more enjoyable than Easter.
If you have ever attended, taught, or sent your children to a synagogue religious school, you know that teaching elementary school children the essentials of Judaism in 4-6 hours a week is extremely challenging. Given how little time there is to teach and how many other facets of contemporary American life religious schools have to compete with, we often turn to games, skits, and other ways to depict Judaism as fun and attractive. But in doing so, we sometimes revert to a simplistic, easy to digest version of Judaism without complication or obligation.
What is fascinating about The Daily Show’s Purim segment, though, is not how funny it is but how substantive it is. The segment thoroughly rebukes the transformation of Purim into a Jewish Halloween and the general trend towards fitting Jewish holidays into mainstream culture. Its message is actually the antithesis of his Passover piece, in which Stewart suggests coming up with cartoon characters and making video games to update our celebration of Passover. Through intelligent humor and sophistication, the Purim segment makes a compelling argument for rejecting the commercialization and assimilation of Jewish holidays. It is this translation, this targum, that we would do well to embrace. Most young Jews today are not interested in frontal, rote transmissions of tradition. Our religious school educators are correct that we need to approach today’s students through creative, interactive ways to reach the “multiple intelligences” of the Jewish public, to borrow from educational theory jargon. But what The Daily Show segment teaches us is that we don’t need to be reductionist to make tradition contemporary and accessible. The challenge for us, as Jewish educators and teachers of the next generation, is to pick up where The Daily Show leaves off.
There are times when Jon Stewart just hits the nail on the head of an issue. Last week he had a segment on how all of the Republican candidates for office and President Obama spoke at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual convention in Washington DC.
All of the Republicans spoke about how they would back up Israel and bomb Iran so that Iran cannot develop nuclear capabilities which it would likely use against Israel. All claimed that the current Obama administration would not do so. Until of course President Obama took the stage and said that he would do everything in his power to keep Iran from building a nuclear bomb including military action. Basically everyone agrees that a nuclear Iran is dangerous for Israel, the Middle East and the world at large. Everyone agrees that Israel is an important ally of the US, and the US would protect her if the need arises. Jon Stewart expertly points out all of these facts, and then closes the segment with some incendiary quotes from politicians criticizing Israel. Who , he asks, has the gall to say such things? – Well Israeli members of parliament, of course, since only in Israel “Can you hold political office and criticize Israel.”
The simple meaning of this final line is that no American political candidate or nationally elected politician will criticize Israel. The clips which he played demonstrated the truth of this statement. However, the ability of any American to criticize Israel is also now up for debate.
I myself usually do not write or talk about Israel for fear of saying the wrong thing or offending someone. If you lean a little left on Israel those who lean right will attack you, and if you lean right, those on the left will attack. There is no winning. Better to not say anything at all.
The problem with this approach is that then we leave the conversation to all of the people who are shouting their position from the rooftops. If everyone is shouting, then no one is listening. Not listening to each other is not good for Israel, and is not good for the Jewish community as a whole. We could learn a lesson from the clips Jon Stewart shows. The truth is that once all the yelling dies down, we would see that we are all basically standing in the same place. All of this rhetoric and energy around Israel is because American Jews actually have a very strong relationship with Israel. We care. In fact, we care so passionately we fight with each other over things large and small.
For decades, American Jews have questioned whether we have a right to criticize Israel. Some argue yes, we are all one big family, so we can set each other straight when we need to. And others say no, we are one big family and we just need to support each other. There is truth to both positions. There is no “right” way to talk about Israel.
I would love to see everyone calm down a bit and remind each other that we are indeed all coming from a place of supporting Israel. We just support Israel in different ways, and have different ideas and dreams about what Israel can and should be. Let’s talk about ideas and dreams. Let’s also talk about possible solutions to the political realities Israel faces.
I truly wonder if we can learn how to talk and listen to each other again. Because I don’t want Jon Stewart’s jokes to ring so true. He can make fun of the situation because when all else is stripped away, it is silly. We are squabbling and posturing to each other for no reason.
Each of us can take steps to lower the rhetoric around Israel. Be brave, start conversations with friends and relatives. Truly listen to points of view which differ from your own, and ask others why they care about Israel. There are a lot of great stories and connections that we can build in this way.