Friday, January 28, 2011

Twitter: Armed and Dangerous?


There's been this news story floating around Hollywood over the last few years (the incident here took place in March of 2009), about a dispute between music personality Courtney Love and a Texas fashion designer.  It seems that they had a falling out over their business dealing.  Love was seriously upset...and proceeded to start accusing the designer of doing other malicious and unseemly things.

We may never know to what extent any of these charges are true.  What we do know is that the dispute didn't get played out in a trendy LA restaurant, or on the set of one of Love's music videos.  It played out on Twitter.

Now the designer has filed a lawsuit against Love alleging libel.  The designer believes that her reputation was severely tarnished thanks to Love's tweets, and that her business is suffering as a result.  (Love had between 40,000-60,000 followers on Twitter when this all took place.)  According to legal experts, this is the first celebrity libel lawsuit - involving Twitter - that has ever taken place.  Observers are anxious to watch the events play out, as many believe that it will be a landmark case that sets the tone for future legal discussions about free speech and the Internet.

According to this article, it looks like Love's legal team is weighing a few different defenses.  One is their assertion that Twitter is purely a forum of opinion.  People post their thoughts all the time...and everyone knows that you're not supposed to take Twitter posts too seriously.  Alternatively, the legal team is also exploring whether they can claim that she was temporarily insane....because she was addicted to Twitter.  Her attorneys are suggesting that her Internet addiction proves that she did not set out to be purposely malicious to the designer (a requirement in libel lawsuits).

The Jewish response to this pattern of behavior, and these defenses, is clear.  Thanks, in part, to this week's Torah portion (Parshat Mishpatim), we know that Judaism abhors any and all kinds of gossip.  As our parsha notes: "You must not carry false rumors."

Judaism takes gossip and rumor-mongering so seriously because we understand that our words (whether they are spoken or tweeted) have the ability to do permanent damage.    Certainly they can be emotionally hurtful to the person whom we are talking about.

But the dangers of gossip are broader than just hurting another's feelings.  As is illustrated in the Courtney Love case: the designer is arguing that her reputation was permanently diminished, because tens of thousands of people followed Courtney's twitter feed (and thus saw the things that Love had written about her).  (According to Jewish law, it is entirely irrelevant if the things that Love wrote were true or not.)

Regardless of whether the California court system finds Love guilty of libel (stay tuned: the case goes to trial in early February), this incident should give us pause.  It should remind us that how we behave online - especially what we post on social networking sites - matters.  Our actions have consequences.  We are liable when we actively spread gossip of one kind or another. 

And, according to Jewish tradition, we are also liable if we simply take part in the gossiping of others.  The obvious example here is when we buy a copy of People Magazine, or visit a gossip website.  Our purchase of the magazine, or our visiting a website only fuels this industry, and encourages more gossip.

The Talmud famously asks the question: why are our fingers shaped like pegs?  The rabbis' answer: so that when we hear something improper, we can simply plug our ears.

Shutting out all gossip may not be a realistic response, given the day and age that we live in.  But that doesn't mean that we can't aspire to the Talmud's approach.  At the end of the day, we aren't responsible for what other people are writing or saying.  But we can be responsible for what we hear or read.

Let's learn from Courtney Love's unfortunate situation: and stay away from the dangerous gossip that calls out to us online.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Ten Commandments

This week's Torah portion, Parshat Yitro, contains the first of two renditions of the Big Ten that appear in the Torah.  (The other is in the Book of Deuteronomy.) 

For many, the Ten Commandments provide the foundation for a Jewish (and sometimes even Christian) definition of what constitutes an ethical life.  According to this view, the 10 are serious - worthy of our reflection as we seek to be good people in the world.  Some Christians imbue these words with so much significance that they actively seek to have the Ten Commandments displayed in public spaces: in the belief that the display will convince more people to follow them.

Now, when it comes to important parts of the Torah - the Jewish response is always commentary, commentary, commentary.  For thousands of years, our scholars and rabbis have turned this text inside and out, attempting to explain every nuance of its language and meaning.  One example of this approach can be found here.

But I'd prefer, today, to sample some more contemporary and creative responses to the Ten Commandments.

There are the requisite standard film editions:

Here's the last part of "The Prince of Egypt" - it's interesting how they used the giving of the 10 as a sort of epilogue on the story (whereas I always thought of the giving of the 10 in the Heston movie as THE POINT of the movie itself).

We also have the requisite parodies (from Mel Brooks' "History of the World Part 1" and satires (the foul-mouthed but hilarious George Carlin):

As we return to the realm of the serious, it's also worthwhile to point out a significant new commentary on the Ten Commandments that was just published by Moment Magazine. In Moment's current cover story, the magazine features a series of responses from prominent Americans about the contemporary relevance of the Big 10.

Is there a part of the Big 10 that really speaks to you? Or is it an outdated list that no longer speaks to the ethical challenges that confront us?

More to the point: what are the basic fundamental values or rules that guide the way you live?  Where do those rule derive their authority from?  From the Torah?  From American law?  From a philosopher who has reasoned them out and convinced you that it is worth following?

For all of the jokes that George Carlin or Mel Brooks might be inclined to make about these commandments, let's not be so quick to throw them out the window.  They might not always speak to us.  And we certainly don't always follow them.  But, for better or worse as Jews: this is the best we've come up with so far....the best attempt at summarizing the basic expectations that we have one another.  Until we come up with something better, maybe these 10 deserve another look.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, January 14, 2011

Remembering Debbie Friedman

It is with considerable sadness that I devote this week's posting to mark the passing of Debbie Friedman.

Perhaps you've never heard Debbie's name before.  But, if you've stepped into a synagogue in the last 30 years so, I can virtually guarantee that you've heard her music.

She is almost single-handedly responsible for rejuvenating the musical content of American Reform worship.  She drew on her wide knowledge and appreciation of American folk melodies of the 1960s and 70s, and applied the genre to Jewish liturgical texts and themes.

I first experienced her music during my three years as a camper at Camp Harlam, the URJ camp in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, not too far from where I grew up.  My Jewish experience at camp was punctuated by the music.  Like so many others who have spent a summer at camp, my Jewish identity was brought to life through song.  Prayer suddenly became spiritual - and meaningful - in large part because of Debbie's music.

The first time I saw her in concert was at the NFTY National Convention held in Washington, DC in the winter of 1995.  We all piled into buses at the hotel and went to the cavernous sanctuary at Washington Hebrew Congregation, where she performed.  What a moment for me: to have the chance to experience, in person, the composer of all of those melodies that had made such a deep impression on me just a few years earlier!

I remember, at that concert, that somebody made a big deal about insisting that no one should take any flash photography during the show.  I only learned later that she suffered from an illness - and that one symptom of the illness was acute discomfort from flashes of light.

That illness, which was never fully diagnosed - and certainly not cured - stayed with her all through the years.  It is incredible, to me, how she transformed her own sense of pain, suffering, and struggle - into music that would ease the pain and suffering of others.  That's a gift that she gave to anyone who ever heard, and was moved by, her rendition of the Mi Shebeirach (prayer of healing).

There were lots of other Debbie Friedman moments over the years: other concerts, cameo appearances that she made at Jewish conferences that I attended, and even the first time Amy and I played a Debbie Friedman CD for Siona.  Her music was a core part of the Jewish soundtrack of my life.

To get a sense of her impact on the Jewish world (and particularly our Reform movement), watch this tribute which was produced as part of the presentation of the prestigious Schindler Award, which Debbie received at the 2007 URJ Biennial here in San Diego:

You can find obituaries marking Debbie's passing in: the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Forward.

You can add your own reflections about Debbie's music - and its impact on you - here on this blog in the comments section below, or here on a page sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism.

You can buy Debbie's music on Amazon or itunes.

So many of the remembrances that have been flooding in online about Debbie have had a particularly serious tone to them.  Here's something a little bit more lighthearted, offered up in the spirit that 'imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.'  Enjoy:

May her memory - and her music - live on to be for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom.