Friday, June 26, 2009

A Note from Chicago

As I prepare to return home to Stamford after my brief trip to Chicago for the AJPA convention and the presentation of the Rockower awards (see below), I've been reflecting on my two professional passions. I received my ordination and journalism degree at the same time, and I've been juggling the two ever since. Being a writer has made me a far better rabbi - that is certain. For one thing, I learned how to edit. Rabbis don't always edit very well. For another, it's helped me learn how to listen. The skills I picked up in journalism school have helped me to ask the right questions and really hear the answers in any number of settings, from counseling to teaching to basic schmoozing.

But more significantly, in an age where those booming prophetic voices from the pulpit are so rare, the real prophets of our day are journalists. They are the ones best equipped to stand up to the powerful and persuade the public to change course. In Iran right now, it is the journalists who are the prime windows to the truth, they are the ones most feared by the authorities.

At this Jewish journalism convention, we've heard many prophecies of doom for the newspaper and the news making profession as a whole. One participant glibly asked that without newspapers, what will we wrap our fish in?

But there will always be a need for truth-seekers and while the technology will change, journalists will remain the prophets of our day. At this conference, in fact, non traditional media were well represented, including new and exciting efforts like Zeek and InterfaithFamily, and, in a big surprise, a little blog (this one) beat out the largest print publications for the single commentary Rockower award (see"On One Foot" Blog Wins Prestigious Journalism Prize).

I'm not the first to make the connection between journalism and the role of the ancient prophet. See this article on Jewish sources for journalistic ethics. The author writes,

"The free press justifies its existence in terms of moral imperatives..."

"Justice, justice shalt thou pursue" (Deut. 16:20) commanded G-d of the Israelites, and Isaiah was one of the most eloquent of prophets to fulfill his mandate as a voice for justice. Isaiah was commanded to "Cry aloud, spare not; Lift up your voice like a trumpet." (Isaiah 58:1) He did, and called on the Children of Israel to "Learn to do well -- seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow." (Isaiah 1:17) In modern terms, Isaiah asked that the rights of the most vulnerable parts of society be vigorously protected.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the 20th Century thinker, said of the prophets: "In a sense, the calling of the prophet may be described as that of an advocate or champion, speaking for those who are too weak to plead their own cause. Indeed, the major activity of the prophets was interference, demonstrating about wrongs inflicted on other people, meddling in affairs which were seemingly neither their concern nor their responsibility." As a quality newspaper would do, "prophets remind us of the moral state of the people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible."

There is also an inherent distrust of government by the prophets. "Be careful with the government authorities as they do not come close to a person but for their own need." (Avot 2:3) Furthermore, the prophet Samuel pleaded with the people not to call for a king. And Isaiah lamented "O, my people, your leaders mislead you, And confuse the course of your paths." (3:12)

The prophets were also the first to bring the written word to the people. "Write the vision; Make it plain upon tablets," commands the prophet Habakkuk (2:2). After the Babylonian exile, the prophets introduced public readings of the Five Books of Moses in Jerusalem thus bringing the written word from the elite of society to the masses. Also institutionalized within Judaism is the ceremony of Hakel, where the king appears before the entire people to read from the Bible.

I knew it 25 years ago and I realized it again today. Being a journalist has made me a better rabbi - and being a rabbi has made me a better human being.

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