Sunday, July 7, 2013

When Reality Television Gets Too Real

When Reality Television Gets Too Real
Parashat Matot-Masei, July 5th, 2013
By Rabbi David Baum

I returned home on July 4th as I completed my four day trip to Camp Ramah Darom.  Camp Ramah is located in the mountains of North Georgia, a place with practically no cell phone reception, very limited wifi and no television, and you know what, I loved it!  

Being "disconnected" from technology at camp was amazing, and just yesterday, I had a dvar torah that I wrote about this very subject; but that's not what this dvar torah is about.  Sometimes, we are just moved by something we see, that we may have grown accustomed to, but finally, we've had enough.    

I actually want to talk about television and racism; I know, how did I get from camp to racism?  Hear me out.  

When I arrived at home yesterday, I reconnected with the family, saw some fire works, and after everyone went to bed, I turned on the television to catch up on shows stored in my DVR, and the reality television show, Big Brother, was first on my list.  Big Brother is a reality television show with the following premise:  there is a group of people that are housemates living together in a large house. During their time in the house they are totally isolated from the outside world and contestants are continuously monitored by in-house television cameras as well as personal audio microphones during their stay.  Every single interaction and statement made is recorded for the world to see, but the television show is slickly edited by CBS to show what they want the public to see.  However, for a fee, you can watch a live feed anytime you want, so there are websites that constantly monitor the houseguests, often times posting spoilers online.  

After the show, I have to admit, I searched for spoilers, but instead of finding the usual harmless drama of the show, I found this: 

Big Brother house guests spouting racist and homophobic comments:

http://t.today.com/entertainment/big-brother-rocked-big-controversy-racism-sexism-homophobia-6C10523010

For the first time ever, Big Brother got REAL.  

I woke up on Friday morning very tired because I stayed up late on Thursday evening not because I was watching television, or because the kids woke up throughout the night.  I couldn't sleep because I was angry.  

I thought about myself in the house – What would they say about me, a Jew, a rabbi, if I were there. Would I have anti Semitic comments being thrown at me behind my back?  Some houseguests used the "N" word regarding the African American houseguests, and use the "F" word regarding one of the gay houseguests, they can surely say call me the "k" word, or throw pennies at me.       

No one is perfect, and I for one am glad that a television camera wasn't following me around in my late teens to record every one of my comments, but these people know they are being taped!  What does this say about them?  

But on the other side, what would I have done had I been listening to those comments?  Would I have remained silent or would I have said something?  Saying something would put me in an awkward position, it would make me a target.  Would I risk a shot at $500,000 to do the right thing?  Would you?  Think about it.  

I am sure that you have been in similar situations in your own lives.  What if your boss makes a racist comment?  Do you say something even though it might cost you your job?  

Interestingly enough, the contestants on Big Brother cannot watch television, movies, or read books, except for one book:  The Bible.

So if I were standing in front of the contestants, I would ask them to open to our parashah, Numbers, Chapter 30:3, “We are instructed to “do according to all that proceeds out of [our] mouth” (Numbers 30:3).  For the rest of this chapter 30, we read about the power of the vow, which is actually the power of words.  The power of words in our tradition should not come as a surprise – God created the world through speech, and we in turn do the same, but we can also destroy with words.  We can make contracts, and we can break them, we can begin relationships, and we can end them, and we do it all with words.  Words are like magic, in fact, the term, AbraCadabra is Aramaic for “I create (A’bra) what (ca) I speak (dab’ra).”

Words plant seeds in our brains that eventually lead us to take action, for better or for worse.  It's not just Jewish though, it's human.  There is a common saying, “A man is only as good as his word,” and this is what this chapter is all about.  

In this chapter, we read about a case of when vows can be nullified, in the case of a woman.  The chapter teaches us that a woman's vow can be nullified by her father or husband if he cancels her vow immediately upon hearing it.  I found this text troubling – why should a man have this power over his wife?  But the text goes on, “5and her father learns of her vow or her self-imposed obligation and offers no objection (v'hichrish), all her vows shall stand and every self-imposed obligation shall stand.”  The literal translation for the word, v'hichrish, is silence, literally, he was silent about her.  The rest of the chapter repeats this line a number of times regarding her husband.  

The Talmud picks up on these words and it conveys an important Jewish value:  silence is like assent.  The text is very clear, the husband must cancel his wife's vow immediately, he cannot wait, because if he waits, he becomes a participant in the oath.  

Hateful and racist comments, even if they might be .01% of the speech we say in a day, make a difference; and even if we don't say them, we cannot be silent, even if you yourself are a saint.  The Maharal of Prague once wrote, “While a person may be individually pious, such good will pale in the face of the sin of not protesting against an emerging communal evil.  Not only will such piety not avert the impending evil, but such a pious person will be accountable for having been able to prevent it and not doing so.”  

When I was on vacation, Paula Deen went from queen of the food world to unemployed and untouchable because of racist comments she made years ago.  Immediately upon hearing these statements, the sponsors dropped her because remaining silent would give the message that they agree with these words.  

I read these articles about Big Brother on July 4th, and the Big Brother House is a metaphor for our country.  One can see how difficult it is to build a country and keep it together with its great diversity.  White, Black, Asian, Latino, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, LGBT, straight, and the list goes on.  It teaches me that we still have a long way to go, but despite what some say behind closed doors, or out in the open, we are a work in progress.  Racism didn't end when Barack Obama was elected president, it remains with us, like an incurable virus.  

I am deeply offended, and now, I am watching Big Brother not for the harmless drama, but to see how CBS will handle this blatant and disgusting racism. 

I don't know if kicking the contestants off is the right answer.  Should we hide the things that deep down we are embarrassed about?  Exposing these comments can give the public an opportunity to do some of their own Heshbon hanefesh, and it's coming at the perfect time.  Racism is the ultimate sinat chinam, causeless hatred, the cause of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash (the Holy Temple)  Perhaps the best consequence should be that the contestants watch the show together to see how their comments hurt their fellow housemates who are their fellow countrymen.  Maybe then they would be moved to do tesuvah (repentance)?  

And so I come return to America.  July 1-3rd is also another anniversary- 150 years since the battle at Gettysburg, the turning point of the American Civil War, a war where millions of Americans went to war with each other, brother killing brother with close to 700,00 Americans losing their lives, and I believe that the issue they fought over was really about slavery and the future of our nation.  One people viewed those with black skin as less than human (how else could they justify slavery?), and the other side viewed people of different skin as human beings.  We can see this from President Abraham Lincoln's famous speech on the hallowed and blood soaked ground in Gettysburg, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  A human being is a human being, no matter the skin color.  

In a very real way, our country prevented the destruction of its proverbial Temple when the Confederacy was defeated and slavery finally abolished.  The Republic was saved, and the states remained united.  

It makes me appreciate being in this country, a country that fought this battle for the humanity of one race, and strives to find dignity and beauty in diversity.

President Lincoln not only challenged those listening at Gettysburg, but all Americans, for all time.  

His words, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

There is a poll going to see what views want - So far 43% of over 25,000, the majority, want 
Keep the contestants, but air the comments so viewers know what the players are really like. 

Maybe a dose of reality is what we really need to challenge us to rise in the face of hate, to help us realize that what President Lincoln challenged us 150 years ago, and our the Torah and our rabbis thousands of years ago, because the consequence is the survival of our very nation.  As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”

This challenge makes every generation vital to the future of our great country – to ensure that all men and women remain equal, that we stop using the word tolerance and start using the word acceptance, because humans shouldn't be tolerated, but they should be loved, sanctified, and accepted for the beautiful creations that they are.    

For the first time ever, Big Brother got REAL.  

I woke up on Friday morning very tired because I stayed up late on Thursday evening not because I was watching television, or because the kids woke up throughout the night.  I couldn't sleep because I was angry.  

I thought about myself in the house – What would they say about me, a Jew, a rabbi, if I were there. Would I have anti Semitic comments being thrown at me behind my back?  Some houseguests used the "N" word regarding the African American houseguests, and use the "F" word regarding one of the gay houseguests, they can surely say call me the "k" word, or throw pennies at me.       

No one is perfect, and I for one am glad that a television camera wasn't following me around in my late teens to record every one of my comments, but these people know they are being taped!  What does this say about them?  

But on the other side, what would I have done had I been listening to those comments?  Would I have remained silent or would I have said something?  Saying something would put me in an awkward position, it would make me a target.  Would I risk a shot at $500,000 to do the right thing?  Would you?  Think about it.  

I am sure that you have been in similar situations in your own lives.  What if your boss makes a racist comment?  Do you say something even though it might cost you your job?  

Interestingly enough, the contestants on Big Brother cannot watch television, movies, or read books, except for one book:  The Bible.

So if I were standing in front of the contestants, I would ask them to open to our parashah, Numbers, Chapter 30:3, “We are instructed to “do according to all that proceeds out of [our] mouth” (Numbers 30:3).  For the rest of this chapter 30, we read about the power of the vow, which is actually the power of words.  The power of words in our tradition should not come as a surprise – God created the world through speech, and we in turn do the same, but we can also destroy with words.  We can make contracts, and we can break them, we can begin relationships, and we can end them, and we do it all with words.  Words are like magic, in fact, the term, AbraCadabra is Aramaic for “I create (A’bra) what (ca) I speak (dab’ra).”

Words plant seeds in our brains that eventually lead us to take action, for better or for worse.  It's not just Jewish though, it's human.  There is a common saying, “A man is only as good as his word,” and this is what this chapter is all about.  

In this chapter, we read about a case of when vows can be nullified, in the case of a woman.  The chapter teaches us that a woman's vow can be nullified by her father or husband if he cancels her vow immediately upon hearing it.  I found this text troubling – why should a man have this power over his wife?  But the text goes on, “5and her father learns of her vow or her self-imposed obligation and offers no objection (v'hichrish), all her vows shall stand and every self-imposed obligation shall stand.”  The literal translation for the word, v'hichrish, is silence, literally, he was silent about her.  The rest of the chapter repeats this line a number of times regarding her husband.  

The Talmud picks up on these words and it conveys an important Jewish value:  silence is like assent.  The text is very clear, the husband must cancel his wife's vow immediately, he cannot wait, because if he waits, he becomes a participant in the oath.  

Hateful and racist comments, even if they might be .01% of the speech we say in a day, make a difference; and even if we don't say them, we cannot be silent, even if you yourself are a saint.  The Maharal of Prague once wrote, “While a person may be individually pious, such good will pale in the face of the sin of not protesting against an emerging communal evil.  Not only will such piety not avert the impending evil, but such a pious person will be accountable for having been able to prevent it and not doing so.”  

When I was on vacation, Paula Deen went from queen of the food world to unemployed and untouchable because of racist comments she made years ago.  Immediately upon hearing these statements, the sponsors dropped her because remaining silent would give the message that they agree with these words.  

I read these articles about Big Brother on July 4th, and the Big Brother House is a metaphor for our country.  One can see how difficult it is to build a country and keep it together with its great diversity.  White, Black, Asian, Latino, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, LGBT, straight, and the list goes on.  It teaches me that we still have a long way to go, but despite what some say behind closed doors, or out in the open, we are a work in progress.  Racism didn't end when Barack Obama was elected president, it remains with us, like an incurable virus.  

I am deeply offended, and now, I am watching Big Brother not for the harmless drama, but to see how CBS will handle this blatant and disgusting racism. 

I don't know if kicking the contestants off is the right answer.  Should we hide the things that deep down we are embarrassed about?  Exposing these comments can give the public an opportunity to do some of their own Heshbon hanefesh, and it's coming at the perfect time.  Racism is the ultimate sinat chinam, causeless hatred, the cause of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash (the Holy Temple)  Perhaps the best consequence should be that the contestants watch the show together to see how their comments hurt their fellow housemates who are their fellow countrymen.  Maybe then they would be moved to do tesuvah (repentance)?  

And so I come return to America.  July 1-3rd is also another anniversary- 150 years since the battle at Gettysburg, the turning point of the American Civil War, a war where millions of Americans went to war with each other, brother killing brother with close to 700,00 Americans losing their lives, and I believe that the issue they fought over was really about slavery and the future of our nation.  One people viewed those with black skin as less than human (how else could they justify slavery?), and the other side viewed people of different skin as human beings.  We can see this from President Abraham Lincoln's famous speech on the hallowed and blood soaked ground in Gettysburg, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  A human being is a human being, no matter the skin color.  

In a very real way, our country prevented the destruction of its proverbial Temple when the Confederacy was defeated and slavery finally abolished.  The Republic was saved, and the states remained united.  

It makes me appreciate being in this country, a country that fought this battle for the humanity of one race, and strives to find dignity and beauty in diversity.

President Lincoln not only challenged those listening at Gettysburg, but all Americans, for all time.  

His words, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

There is a poll going to see what views want - So far 43% of over 25,000, the majority, want 
Keep the contestants, but air the comments so viewers know what the players are really like. 

Maybe a dose of reality is what we really need to challenge us to rise in the face of hate, to help us realize that what President Lincoln challenged us 150 years ago, and our the Torah and our rabbis thousands of years ago, because the consequence is the survival of our very nation.  As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”

This challenge makes every generation vital to the future of our great country – to ensure that all men and women remain equal, that we stop using the word tolerance and start using the word acceptance, because humans shouldn't be tolerated, but we should be loved, sanctified, and accepted for the beautiful creations that we are.    











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