Friday, July 31, 2009

Why Do Some Religious People Act Unethically?

Some Thoughts On The Arrests of Rabbis, Last Week and Last Year.

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping this video, and to Lorne Lieberman for his support of the video project.



You can sponsor these weekly videos with a 54$ donation to TBDJ!Please e-mail office@tbdj.org if you are interested.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Michael Vick’s Reinstatement: One Rabbi’s Thoughts

I’m a serious football fan. (Football has contributed to my spiritual development by teaching me the virtue of patience; I’m a Jets fan). So I paid a great deal of attention to the NFL’s reinstatement of Michael Vick.

Michael Vick is a talented quarterback (drafted first overall in 2001), who by 2004 was one of the highest paid athletes in the world. In 2007 it was discovered that Vick was running an illegal dogfighting ring on a property he owned in Virginia. (This was just one incident in a pattern of troubling behavior that Vick had shown in his six years in the NFL). He was convicted of Federal and State charges, and served nearly a year and a half of jail time. He was suspended from the NFL, and had to declare personal bankruptcy.

On July 27th, Vick was reinstated to play in the NFL. This reinstatement is conditional, provided that Vick follows a set of conditions to ensure he improves his personal behavior.

Vick’s reinstatement is extremely controversial, as many feel that Vick should banned for life because of his crimes. Personally, I don’t agree. Let me explain.

No question, animal cruelty is a serious crime. Rules against animal cruelty are included in the Noahide laws, Judaism’s universal laws for humanity. There is no way to diminish the crime of animal cruelty by claiming “it’s just dogs”.

And without question, punishment must be meted out for crimes. This is true even in cases where the person has changed their ways. As I have pointed out elsewhere, human justice cannot constantly adjust to the spiritual status of the criminal. There needs to be consistent penalties for the justice system to function as a deterrent.

But Vick has been punished for his crimes. There is no need for the NFL to punish Vick a second time for his crimes.

However, the real question facing the NFL is this: does Michael Vick deserve forgiveness? The Talmud is clear that punishment alone doesn’t rehabilitate the criminal. The criminal must commit to act differently in the future, and regret his past actions; in short, the criminal must repent. There’s no reason for the NFL to treat Vick as a citizen in good standing, just because he was released from jail.

To offer Vick an unconditional reinstatement would have been a mistake, because a criminal remains a criminal until he has changed his ways. That is why the current conditional reinstatement is the right way to do things. Vick is not being given a free pass; he must commit to be a good citizen in the future. But if Vick is willing to change his ways, to repent, he should be given a second chance. The prophet Ezekiel (18:21-23) declares that God wants to offer second chances to those who repent: "Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? Says the Lord, God; and not rather that he should return from his ways and live?".

If God is ready to offer Michael Vick a second chance, we should offer him one as well.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

CNN and Michael Jackson’s Death: A Real Tragedy

The death of a 50 year old father is a tragedy, no matter where it occurs. And Michael Jackson’s death was tragic; his unfortunate overdose deprived three small children of a father, a family of a son and brother, and friends and fans of a superstar they loved. Of course, whenever a public figure passes away, many others will join in the sadness.

But the tragedy of Michael Jackson’s death is no excuse for the media coverage that ensued. Multiple media outlets examined in depth every element of the Jackson saga. The media provided careful analysis of Propofol use and trustees and wills, and made sure we could tour Michael’s ranch, and view footage of his last concert rehearsals. CNN adopted an “all Michael” format, following this story with a thoroughness that rivaled coverage of 9-11. CNN and her media colleagues inflated the death of one celebrity into a blockbuster news story.

And this is a tragedy as well: CNN et. al no longer cover the news. Instead of informing people about what is essential and significant, the news media is far more interested in “infotainment”. Stories about Uigher unrest, the Taliban conflict, the Sri Lankan reconstruction and the Iranian election are ignored in favor of yet another learned analysis on the life of a popular singer. In the last two weeks, we have seen the decline and fall of the news media.

News outlets like CNN are addicted to fluff stories. Since the rise of the celebrity media, beginning with the birth of People Magazine, the mainstream media has been integrating more and more celebrity news. Indeed, Larry King Live, CNN’s primetime interview show, is nearly indistinguishable from entertainment shows like Jay Leno and David Letterman. Sometimes, it seems that a comedy show like Jon Stewart’s is the only place you’ll get serious news coverage.

A lack of interest in hard news augurs poorly for the Western World. Ignorance is not a individual matter or a comic flaw; it has an enormous impact on personal growth. The Rabbis of the Mishna tell us that a boorish person cannot achieve piety. This lesson is a reminder that narrow horizons produce people who are spiritually stunted. Without a true thirst for knowledge, a society will become increasingly corrupt, entranced with cheap bread and charming circuses.

Even more troubling is our obsession with celebrity. There are loads of celebrities aside from Michael Jackson; there’s Brad and Angelina and Jennifer and even John and Kate. Celebrities are trendsetters. Young girls dress in the style of their favorite pop divas, while their parents dream of a flashy and fancy Hollywood lifestyle. For many, celebrities are role models.

Role models are important because they represent our highest aspirations. The Mishna tells us that everyone should have a teacher, a person they look up to as a role model of knowledge and character. You can tell a person’s character by who their heroes are.

Heroes aren’t what they used to be. Old fashioned heroes like the fireman, the soldier and the cop, people who risk their lives for the general good, now live anonymous and humble lives, forgotten by everyone else. Today’s hero wears sunglasses, drives a Ferrari, and is talking on a cellphone with his agent.

Celebrities, our new heroes, are poor role models. Many are often “in and out”; in and out of rehab, in and out of marriage, in and out of court. However, their sins are quickly dismissed by pliant doctors, judges, and therapists, all in time for them to return to their adoring fans. Honest redemption and sacrifice are for the movies; in real life, celebrity fame and fortune is all that matters.

A society follows its role models. If our heroes are shallow and superficial, then it won’t be long before the rest of are wearing designer shades, searching for a new car, a new look and a new spouse.

And that’s the real tragedy.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Question of The Week: Zealotry

Parshat Pinchas begins with the end of a story of enormous zealotry - Pinchas killing a wayward prince, Zimri, who was cohabiting with a Midianite princess.

Most contemporary discussions of this event focus on apologetics; explaining why zealotry cannot, and should not, be pursued today. Tolerance is the order of the day.

The Question Of The Week is this: Is there a use for zealotry in contemporary times? Is there anything that deserves a more "zealous" response? When is tolerance misplaced?

Join the discussion here.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Michael Jackson, Heroism, and CNN

Thank yo to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping this video, and to Lorne Lieberman for his support of the video project.



You can sponsor these weekly videos with a 54$ donation to TBDJ!

Please e-mail
office@tbdj.org if you are interested.