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Shoftim: August 18, 2018

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

I saw a t-shirt a couple of weeks ago, it read; “Moses was the first person to download information from the cloud to his tablet.” I am sure that if Moses read that line he would have no idea what we are talking about for three reasons: One, he was talking to God, not a cloud. Two, God carved the tablets, and three, Moses would not understand English; he spoke only Hebrew and Egyptian.

I also know that the Torah, the content of that download, would have no idea what the concept of Freedom of the Press was because, at that time, there was no press and freedom was a rather new concept for the People of Israel. Nowhere in the bible does Jewish Law support the idea that people had a God given right to say what they like and for the press to publish the truth that they had discovered. Freedom of the press and freedom of speech just are not biblical concepts.

Significantly, over 350 newspapers of this country answered the call of the Boston Globe and this past Thursday morning defended the right of a free press to publish the news. The broadcast media covered the story and added the reminder that everyone should subscribe to a newspaper. They didn’t print the same editorial; they each wrote the opinion from their own point of view. And yet, each one spoke out against the danger of the label “fake news”; each declared that it was dangerous and unfair for anyone to call the news reporters: “Enemies of the People” and they reminded everyone that not that long ago, the reporters of a newspaper in Annapolis, MD were murdered in cold blood at their desks while they were doing their jobs.

So, before I go deeper into the Jewish aspect of this issue, I need to make full disclosure: I was once a Journalist. I reported for my High School newspaper and wrote opinion pieces for them. I also wrote for my College newspaper at Florida Atlantic University (alas JTS does not have a student newspaper). You see, I was a journalism student before I became a Rabbinical Student.

I can’t say that the free press in this country has been good to me either. I have been misquoted several times; my synagogue once put an ad in the newspaper for our Adult Education program and the ad was published for our program of Adult Entertainment; I once asked a newspaper why they were giving front page coverage to a Nazi march in my town and they covered the march anyway and put my quote on the front page.

 I have a standing rule in the office that if a reporter calls, the office is to find me and give me the number to return the call as quickly as possible. Reporters work on deadlines and if you have something to say, you better get back to them quickly. Occasionally, they will ask me questions that a Rabbi has no business sharing an opinion about, so I decline to answer, but most of the time I see it as a chance to educate a reporter, at least, the community perhaps, if I get my answer right.

 I discovered long ago that religion reporters were usually the lowest reporter in the pecking order and I would do what I could to get them a promotion to “real news”. You see, Reporters live by the 5 “W”s, Who, What, When, Where and Why and when it comes to religion the Who is God, What is spiritual, When could be thousands of years ago, Where is somewhere in the human heart and Why? “Because God said so.” Religion is very frustrating for reporters, so they almost always give the beat to the newest, least experienced reporter in the newsroom.

Judaism does not have a concept of a free press. It just does not. But it does have a concept of truth. That concept, Truth, turns out to be very complicated, and not an easy idea to promote. Truth is much harder to define than Falsehood. The Torah has, as one of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not bear False witness.” But while the Torah seems to imply that Truth is important, there is no law in Torah or Talmud that commands us to “Tell the Truth!” Why is there no such command? Because it is easier to catch someone in a lie than to catch someone telling the truth.

First of all, a person can be convinced they are telling the truth but what they saw or heard may not have any real connection to reality. We sometimes see what we want to see and hear what we expect to hear no matter what the reality may be. How many times are we convinced that we heard someone say one thing, when what they really said was something else? Even a recording of a speech can not really help us hear what was actually said. Sight is not much better. There is an experiment where they asked college students to watch a video about two teams playing basketball. They asked the students to count how many baskets the blue team makes. After the video is over they often have the count of baskets correct but when asked about anything else in the video, they are sure that it was just a normal basketball game. Except, when they play back the video, a man in a gorilla suit walks on to the court, walks around for a while and then walks off the court. Most of the student never remember seeing him. So much for seeing is believing.

Add to this our belief that we can stretch the truth. Something can be “mostly true” or “basically true”. The Bible even catches God playing with the truth. Sarah hears the message that she is finally about to give birth to a son. She laughs saying, “how is that possible with my husband so old? Abraham asks why Sarah is laughing and God says, “She thinks she is too old to have a child.” The Rabbis note that even for God, there is no point in hurting someone with the truth.

In fact, the great Sage Hillel insists that every bride on her wedding day should be described as beautiful. Shammai is shocked, “Even if clearly she is not that pretty? Wouldn’t it be better just to wish the bride and groom Mazal Tov?”. Hillel replies that on a wedding day, every bride is beautiful to her groom. There is no reason to say anything different. Anyone who has ever been asked the question, “Do I look fat in this outfit?” knows exactly what Hillel is talking about.

Finally, truth depends a lot on who is reporting. If a news reporter was in this room right now, she probably would not have very much to report. A reporter from the society page may have something to say.  A reporter who reports on building codes may have a lot to say. And what about the fashion reporter? What would she say about our service today? I can’t tell you how many times a Rabbi gives an important sermon and many people in the congregation think he is talking to someone else! Not ME!

Judaism demands that truth always be verified, that is why our legal system demands two or more witnesses to any crime. No one can be convicted on the testimony of just one witness … except when it comes to a woman whose husband is lost at sea. One witness to his death is enough to free her from being chained to the unknown. Even there we fudge the truth to free a woman to move on with her life.

Do news reporters always get the truth in every story? How would that even be possible? But when the facts don’t back up the reporting, they have a responsibility to correct the record. I can’t tell you how many articles I read each day that have some correction from an earlier version of the story. Reporters go to editors precisely to look over the story and make sure that, as far a possible, the reporter has gotten the story right. If not, they must go back and find out the important missing information. Reporters can lose their jobs if they make up facts to make the news be what they think it “should” be. Editors lose their jobs when they too easily let false stories come into print.

The story of a free press, however, in these difficult times, is that they may favor one person over another; reporters can slant a story in any direction. A news organization can pitch only stories their readers want to see, but they are not “The enemy of the people.” As one editor wrote, “We are not the enemy of the people, we are the people”.

But what I think the worst part of all this is that our politicians are going after the news reporters today. I have little doubt that tomorrow they will be telling clergy what we can say in our pulpits. And then the next day they will be telling everyone not to speak up against the official line. There is nothing good that will come from the constant attacks on the press. It may be OK to say that the press doesn’t like me. But to say they are the enemy of everyone is dangerous to our country and to everyone who lives here.

Everyone should have a subscription to a newspaper, either a print copy or an online copy. They are the only organizations that have a commitment to the truth at all times, even at their own expense. I understand how frustrating it can be when we see our name in the news and see the words we have spoken twisted in ways that we never intended. It is OK to get angry at this and it is a reminder to be very careful what we say on the record. We should be, at all times, committed to telling the truth, because getting caught in a lie can hurt our integrity and our honor. But when our leadership lies to us, it is vital that there is a press that can help us uncover the truth.

Knowing every truth may not be possible. But having a free press is still the best way to uncover what is ultimately true about life. I may not be able to believe everything I read, but if I keep reading the news, the truth will eventually be told. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are vital to our society. Let us not let those who fear the press, unload their fears on us.

May God help us always to be able to find the truth in life and may we always use that truth to make life better for us and for all of society as we say…. Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, August 18, 2018.

Wed, January 23 2019 17 Shevat 5779