Today’s News and Jewish Spiritual Growth

By Rabbi Paul Steinberg

I did it … albeit briefly. I took a “news hiatus” for almost a week. As one might expect, I didn’t miss all that much. I’ve been considering how to cut my news diet down for a while now. I must admit, however, that I’m addicted to the theater and chaos of the politics, and I may also suffer from FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).

So what do I (and we all) see in the daily news? Sickening partisanship, Trump drama, gun violence, Trump drama, the Mueller Report, Trump drama, the border and family separation, Trump drama, climate and environmental concerns, income inequality, anti-Semitism and Israel, and lots of Trump drama. Now, sadly, we are talking about synagogue shootings in plurality, and I have even seen them become politicized within the Jewish community.

No matter on which side of the aisle one sits, we are all inundated with a partisan, political cold war in both the government and the media, as well as a constant fixation on every single thing Trump does and says (which, by the way, only fuels political disunity). Frankly, the daily news is exhausting and “outrage-fatigue” has set in on all political sides.

As a rabbi, this poses a particular challenge. After all, rabbis are tasked with being communal teachers and leaders, especially through morally ambiguous and trying times. Many of us, however, are afraid to raise anything in the news for fear of offending one group or another, depending upon the issue and the language we use. Sure, some rabbis speak from the pulpit unapologetically on certain social and political issues. And that may work for some congregations in certain regions, consisting of certain demographics. But that won’t work for a lot of us, wherein we have congregants clearly representing all political perspectives. The world is so on edge that even moral issues that are deeply embedded in Jewish thought, such as anti-Semitism, lashon ha-ra (immoral speech), and caring for the environment can’t seem to ascend political partisanship. Divisive tribalism is so ingrained in our culture, including our Jewish communities, that even the Passover liturgy was recently employed for partisanship when the Dayenu in the Passover Haggadah was reinterpreted to promote a political agenda.[1]

Beyond serving as a rabbi, the chaos of the daily news is also hard on family life. After all, how do I talk to family members who may disagree with me? With the partisan barrage, there doesn’t seem to be any room for reason or critical debate anymore, even among people who love each other. How do I parent my children in a way that both advocates for my own positions, but also gives room for independent thinking and objectivity? There’s seemingly no objectivity from which to speak in this political climate.

Frankly, the entrenchment of political partisanship makes many of us feel all alone, unable to have a productive conversation about our worries. But worse than that, it often feels as though the situation is hopeless, echoing Ecclesiastes’s nihilistic refrain of hakol havel, “all is vanity.” Isn’t hope and optimism supposed to be a part of the Jewish spirit? And as the news continues to pile on what is apparently unprecedented divisiveness and rancor, there doesn’t seem to be space with which to agree and to make peace, even amongst Jewish brothers and sisters. Aren’t the Jews supposed to respect each other and stick together when things get difficult, as the Talmud declares kol yisrael areivim zeh la-zeh, “all the Jewish people are to assume responsibility for one another”?

The psychological and emotional impact of watching a lot of news is largely … well, exasperating and many of us are certainly experiencing more anxiety, loneliness, and general angst as a result. To be fair, there is a school of thought that holds that the news does not effect us in any significant way. One study (published in 2017, but actually carried out prior to the 2016 election) concludes that there is no significant psychological or cognitive impact for watching the news amongst older adults.[2] That being said, even that study suggests that, although we are “safe” to watch the news, it is still important to take breaks and be wary of obsessiveness.

The majority of literature about the impact of the news, however, including other academic studies,[3] health oriented essays, and opinion pieces, suggests that persistent news-watching increases stress, anxiety, sleeplessness, depression, alienation, and hopelessness. By the way, hardly any of the literature has yet to seriously address the tragic notion of “fake news” in our time, which leads to a) a general paranoia and skepticism about the profession of journalism (even totally legitimate journalism); and b) the confusion and shame that comes from believing and/or propagating such fake news.

So, with all of the potential headache that the news may cause in our time, how might we understand what is going on from a spiritual perspective? First, it is important to understand that human beings seek order. We are uncomfortable with disorder, chaos and uncertainty. The news, especially the 24/7 cable networks capitalize on our impulse toward order by doing two things: first the news “alerts” us to a bunch of questions and problems, which can play into our fears that things are in disorder; and then second, they “break” more news, implying that they are providing novel information which helps us to make sense out of what was previously problematic. It’s a seductive process of raising a problem and then offering the solution, of push and pull, fear and comfort, disorder and order, over and over again. Ultimately, it is important to remember that we live in a consumeristic society and the news is fundamentally a consumer product with the goal of keeping as many eyeballs on it for as long as possible, and this is how it often works.

Of course, it’s also true that much of what the news touches on is critically important and we need to stay informed. We can’t entirely turn it off because we need to remain awake to the issues of the hour, so that we can participate as educated citizens in our democracy; each of our voices is needed. But we also need to be able to take a step back and remain open to the broad-sweeping arc of history and spirit, so that we are measured and reasonable about our positions. We need to pursue the practice of listening to others without judgment, remaining aware of our own biases, as it is all too tempting to remain within the repetitive circles of confirmation bias. We should seek a broad and mature perspective, referred to in Jewish mystical circles as a mochin d’gadlut or “expansive mind.”

Jewish spirituality, especially within the Mussar Movement, holds that with every challenge, our hearts, minds, and souls are given opportunities for growth. Therefore, given the complexities of our day and the daily turmoil that swirls from the 24/7 news cycle, what can we do in order to grow?

Now, perhaps more than ever, we should look to employ Jewish spiritual practices that help us to maintain equanimity; in healthy ways, we can rise above the injustice, hypocrisy and corruption we see in the news everyday. Jewish spiritual practices such as study (Talmud Torah), prayer and meditation (Tefilah), reflective transformation (Teshuvah), exercise and nutritious eating (Shemirat Ha-Guf) help us to reconnect to our purpose as human beings, reengage our moral compass, and refuel our spirits, lending us more patience, forgiveness, compassion, and clear-mindedness in order to confront the day’s issues.

Other Jewish spiritual practices such as communal connection (Kehillah), being of service (Tikkun), and even recreation (Hit’chadshut) help us to see our value and the infinite possibilities of goodness and joy through being connected to others and the world around us. None among us need these particular practices more than our children, who continue to experience stress and loneliness at higher levels than ever before.

Although we may not be able to change the news of the day, and no one knows when our society will reroute toward more steady waters, our Jewish tradition offers us wisdom and practices which will help us to ride the wave as effectively and peacefully as possible. We need our Jewish spirituality more than ever, our families and children need it, as we are all being pushed to grow as human beings in our society through the challenges of our day. Indeed, the Jewish people have survived because its foundation of spiritual wisdom and the practice offers us a way to work through difficulties in healthy ways. Judaism has come to prove that as human beings, we cannot separate our environment from our bodies, our bodies from our minds, and our minds from our spirits – all is connected – and, therefore, it is through the spirit, one person at a time, that we can discover healing and wholeness in our minds, bodies, and finally, our environment.

[2] Caroline Deal, Ryan Bogdan, J. Phil Miller, et al. “Effects of cable news watching on older adults,” Physiological and Self-Reported Stress and Cognitive Function.” International Journal of Aging and Human Development (11/2017).
[3] Attila Szabo. “Negative psychological effects of watching the news in the television: Relaxation or another intervention may be needed to buffer them!” International Journal of Behavioral Medicine (2/2007).

Rabbi Paul Steinberg is the author of Spiritual Growth: A Contemporary Jewish Approach. He is also a leader in Jewish education and an expert on mental health and addiction issues in the Jewish community. His other books include Recovery, the 12 Steps, and Jewish Spirituality, as well as the three-volume series Celebrating the Jewish Year, winner of the National Jewish Book Award. Currently, Rabbi Steinberg serves Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, California.