Monthly Archives: February 2019

Jussie’s Lies and the Search for Truth

The truth is, I hadn’t planned to write a Before Shabbat essay today. It’s the last weekend of vacation, people are away, maybe I’m feeling lazy… whatever. But then, the Jussie Smollett case broke wide open. If you’ve been out of the loop or refusing to watch the news (something I wish I could manage…), Jussie Smollett is a gay African American actor who claimed that he was attacked on the streets of Chicago. The alleged perpetrators, wearing MAGA hats, called him disparaging names, smacked him around, put a noose around his neck (a racist trope), and then poured bleach on him as a metaphor for their hatred of Smollett’s black skin.

What a harsh, tragic story. What a tale of invidious racism and a sign of just how low people have sunk. Almost every trope of hatred was mixed into this travesty of an assault. Three weeks ago, I responded, in part, by writing, “I want to say to Jussie Smollett that while I was never beaten or terrified like he was, I feel his pain and I applaud his bravery. We were strangers in the land of Egypt, and in Poland, and Russia, and Latvia, and, and, and… We stand with you, Jussie. We pray for justice. We pray for wisdom. We pray for peace.”

I honestly felt a deep sadness about Jussie Smollett, about the USA, about the future, about the world as it is and will be. Today, three weeks later, I feel sick. I wonder: what was it that motivated Smollett to do something so stupid? How blinded was he to the ramifications of his despicable actions?

Smollett initially claimed that the story of his attack, a true archetypal hate crime, happened. As Chicago police began to investigate the crime, they found that some pieces were not fitting together. He began to equivocate just a bit and then, realizing he had been backed into a corner by the truth and by surveillance cameras, he fessed up.

False reports of hate crimes are exceedingly rare. Between 2016 and 2018, there were approximately two dozen false reports, either confirmed or suspected, according to figures compiled by the Center on Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. That’s a fraction of the several thousand hate crimes documented by the federal government over the same period.

It was all a ruse, a publicity stunt, to get him sympathy, attention, a better salary, and name recognition. On the latter, be careful what you ask for. His stupidity, his utter lack of dignity for himself and empathy for the people he falsely implicated as well as callousness for the people who, like him, are actual targets of hatred, are evident.  He’ll never work again. Good.

Why did so many people, including myself, accept Smollett at his word? Because it was a story of outrage, another sign of how the current zeitgeist of America is a horrible, vindictive nightmare. It proved that haters are emboldened, that hate crimes are increasing, and that innocent people of color are victims of persistent racism that continues to grow. Smollett’s lie worked as well as it did because those general statements are true. By lying, Smollett gravely damages the credibility of those victims of hate who are telling the truth.

We are, all of us, so ready to jump on the stories we hear that support our view of reality. Instead of waiting to listen to the considered truth, instead of giving the media precious time to get it right, we want the answer according to our political preferences. It’s true of the Left. It’s true of the Right. It’s true of well-meaning people who are fired up, loyal to their cause. It’s also true of ideologues on the Left and the Right, cynics who make ignorant pronouncements and outright lie for their own advantage.

The whole situation is so sad. In the end, there is little to do other than this: we can, each one of us, try breathing a bit more deeply first. We can try to evaluate information rather than immediately use it as ammunition or as a means to make our soapbox higher. We need to listen more carefully. We must be unrelenting when lies are told as if they were facts. The truth: so fragile, so vulnerable, is so often a victim of hatred and corruption. I pray that we might find a way to uphold the truth again.

Shabbat Shalom,

rebhayim

Waiting

The chorus of the Door’s hit, Waiting for the Sun, is essentially one word: waiting. I sing that chorus quietly, in my head, whenever I find myself in a line for longer than 5 minutes: at Starbucks, on the phone, at the supermarket. It’s a good mantra, and I highly recommend you learn it.

 I’m sure there’s a statistic somewhere that provides what percentage of time we spend waiting: for people, places, and things alike. It’s probably a shockingly large number: at least, it feels that way. Even with my trusty iPhone in hand, waiting around can get irksome. I have so many other things I could be doing! Why am I stuck waiting?

The recent news flash that Boston has the worst rush-hour traffic in America was not a surprise for anyone who has ever found themselves on I-95 between 7-10am or 330-700pm, literally inching along. It can be utterly maddening, hence radios, illegal texting, and the Doors…

Why do I get so anxious and bothered about waiting? Someone once remarked to me when I began to lose it in some line I was standing in at the time, “What else have you got to do?” I suppose sometimes I have an excellent comeback, like, “Are you kidding? I have several appointments!”, or, “I have to make dinner!”, or something like that.

But the truth is that I am not a neurosurgeon, nor am I an EMT or an ER doctor. Life and death does not depend on my presence or absence. I always have stuff to do, but is it worth jacking up my blood pressure? I don’t think so. I will try, in good faith to get to where I need to be, but without killing myself in the process. The older I get, the earlier I leave to make sure I arrive on time to where I need to be, though this causes problems, chief among them being: I have to wait… Hence, the Doors. And earphones and podcasts and music.

Jews know a lot about waiting. We’ve been waiting for the Messiah for two thousand years or so. Sometimes this staying on hold gets to be too much, and there’s an explosion of impatience that provides an opening for someone to claim that they are the Messiah. Over the centuries, hundreds of thousands of Jews – maybe millions – became tired of waiting. Impatient for a change in their lives that would lead them from poverty and persecution to eternal life and salvation, they embraced a messiah.

 But it never panned out. From the first century, when Jesus as the messiah failed to ignite more than a small following of Jews, to the 17th century, when Shabbetai Tzvi convinced so many Jews for a short while that he was the Anointed Savior, to current times when there are those who say that the Lubavitch Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, was the messiah and will rise from the dead – we’ve waited.

Most non-Orthodox Jews have let go of the ultimate Messianic dream. A personal messiah, chosen by God to lead the Jewish people to salvation, especially after the Holocaust, seems hopelessly anachronistic. No one is coming to save us. There are no shortcuts or sacred deeds that will lead to a perfect world. There is no end run around mortality. This is life: hard, unknown, dark, scary. We are the doers. We are the ones who create light to banish the darkness. We’re waiting.

It’s not sad or frightening to acknowledge that every self-aware human is waiting for the end. So as we move through space, let’s not hide. Let’s dance and sing and celebrate and love. As Leonard Cohen sang it,

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin

Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in

Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove

Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to the end of love

Or as Jim Morrison sang it, “Waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting…”

Beating Up the Future

A couple of months ago, I saw an extraordinary headline in the New York Times. It read, Wielding Rocks and Knives, Arizonans Attack Self-Driving Cars. I initially thought I’d misread it. It sounded like an Onion story. However, the story was legit.

Police reports obtained by local media suggest that the Chrysler Pacifica cars run by Google sister company Waymo have become a target for some disgruntled locals, with 21 incidents recorded in the past two years.

One car had its tires slashed while parked and Waymos have had rocks thrown at them on five occasions, the Arizona Republic reported.

One man aimed a gun at the backup driver of another Waymo car as it passed his driveway. He was arrested and charged with aggravated assault and disorderly conduct. His wife told police that he suffered from dementia.

A dark Jeep appears to have targeted the cars on six occasions, swerving abruptly towards them or braking sharply in front of them.

On another occasion, a “heavily intoxicated” man deliberately blocked the path of one of the cars by standing in front of it.

“He stated he was sick and tired of the Waymo vehicles driving in his neighborhood, and apparently thought the best idea to resolve this was to stand in front of one of these vehicles,” an officer wrote in a police report.

This phenomenon conjured an image I’d once seen many years ago. It shows people taking sledgehammers and iron bars to textile machinery. They’re angry, and they’re afraid. They believe that there is something evil afoot, and it’s to be found in the mechanisms of a new machine.

These were the Luddites, British workers in the late 1700s and early 1800s who, in a futile attempt to turn back the tide of mechanization, set about destroying machines — and in some cases killing the people who owned them. It led Britain to pass a law making machine-wrecking punishable by death.

The Luddites had many concerns about machines and how they would ruin their lives by taking away their jobs. But they also worried, as Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1829, that technology was causing a “mighty change” in their “modes of thought and feeling. Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.”  “It’s about being afraid of machines and an abstract force called technology, rather than economic and political oppression,” says Steve Jones, a professor at Loyola University, Chicago. “People … have the sense that there is a disembodied, non-human force called ‘Technology’ that’s a threat.”

“People tend to express the highest level of fear for things they’re dependent on but that they don’t have any control over, and that’s almost a perfect definition of technology,” said Christopher Bader, a professor of sociology at Chapman College. “You can no longer make it in society without using technology you don’t understand to buy things at a store, to talk to other people, to conduct business. People are increasingly dependent, but they don’t have any idea how these things actually work.”

I try to empathize with this fear of technology, this sense that we are not in control of our world. It can be frightening to imagine how so much is happening around us all of the time that we cannot see or hear. We may wonder about our vulnerability to malevolent forces, how freely people can snoop around our lives, and so on.

The thing is, we can’t destroy technology. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle, nor can we uninvent the iPod or the desktop computer. Change can be extraordinarily disruptive – it usually is. As much as we may complain about our kids and screen time, there is no question that technology is enabling our kids and grandkids to access so much more knowledge than ever before.

Technology is not always good nor always bad; it is simply a reflection of the best and the worst of the human imagination. But we need to be on the edge of the change, and not trying to beat it up with a rake. Running a driverless car off the road may stop that car at that moment, but the future will not be deterred.

We Are All Strangers


This past week, Jussie Smollett, a gay Black man (who is Jewish, by the way…) who is one of the stars of the TV show Empire, was brutally attacked in what Chicago police are investigating as a possible hate crime. The actor took himself to the hospital directly after what police called a “possible racially-charged assault and battery”; authorities say he is in good condition. Police received a report that Smollett was walking in the downtown Chicago neighborhood of Streeterville around 2 a.m. local time “when two unknown offenders approached him and gained his attention by yelling out racial and homophobic slurs towards him,” the city’s police department told NPR. Smollett told police that the two men beat him up, “poured an unknown chemical substance,” believed to be bleach, on him, and wrapped a rope around his neck.

As I read this awful story, I first thought about Jussie Smollett. He must’ve been so terrified, convinced he would be murdered right there on the streets of Chicago. It’s traumatic just to read about such a blatant attack. It’s hard to know how Mr. Smollett will go on after having actually experienced it.

I’ve never hated anyone so much that I felt moved to violence. I despise the alt-right people who spread calumnies against Blacks and Jews. I loathe those people who propagate antisemitism, hatred of Moslems, racism in any form, and all neo-Nazis. But I don’t dream about beating them or killing them.

How did the alleged perpetrators justify their wanton and unprovoked violence against this Black gay man? Who are these people? What motivates such unforgivable violence against another human being?

Bernard Golden writes that “Acts of hate are attempts to distract oneself from feelings such as helplessness, powerlessness, injustice, inadequacy, and shame. Hate is grounded in some sense of perceived threat. It is an attitude that can give rise to hostility and aggression toward individuals or groups. Like much of anger, it is a reaction to and distraction from some form of inner pain. The individual consumed by hate may believe that the only way to regain some sense of power over his or her pain is to strike out at others preemptively. In this context, each moment of hate is a temporary reprieve from inner suffering.”

Historically the victims of this phenomenon are those who are perceived as less powerful, on a lower rung of the social order. We Jews know this syndrome all too well. Regarded as outsiders and strangers, we often felt this misdirected rage and hatred over two thousand years.

We know the heart of the stranger because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. If we are human, so are they. If they are less than human, so are we. We must fight the hatred in our hearts.

And how do we do this? There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.

How do we spread this message? How does a culture morph from projection to a more sophisticated sense of inclusiveness? How do we live with the other when the other reminds us of our own shortcomings?

I don’t pretend to know any answers here. I can only continue to embrace my credo of unity. I can only continue to teach about oneness, about honesty, about reaching for a greater good. I can only keep trying to see that when I react negatively to another, that it may have less to do with that person, and much more to do with me.

I want to say to Jussie Smollett that while I was never beaten or brutalized like he was, I feel his pain and I applaud his bravery. We were strangers in the land of Egypt, and in Poland, and Russia, and Latvia, and, and, and… We stand with you, Jussie. We pray for justice. We pray for wisdom. We pray for peace. And we promise to continue to work for change by supporting leaders with a shared vision of inclusion, who, through their otherness, know the hearts of others as their own. There is no us and them. We are all strangers looking for peace.