There is a strangeness to being the People of the Book in the Age of Twitter. For two millennia, Judaism has given the world law without politics. Certainly, Jews have not stood outside of history; on the contrary, we’ve been deeply affected by it. But our national culture, the texts to which tradition demands we devote our energy, could not be more different than the torrent of frenzied pettiness (which we call “news” and “commentary”) that now consumes so many of us.
This thought occurred to me recently as I toggled through a handful of my regular news sources before heading to sleep. But as I slipped into bed and said the nighttime Shema prayer, I was suddenly struck by the contrast between my two nightly rituals. The practice of reciting the Shema before sleeping has always seemed to me to be among our tradition’s most powerful. A Jew literally obeys the biblical call to “to speak [these Words] in your lying down and in your waking up” and to “meditate on [the Law] day and night.” In doing so, one affirms physically and verbally one’s obsession—or at least one’s aspiration to obsession—with God’s Word.
This Word is many things: brilliant and outlandish, infuriating and inspiring, morally clear and morally vexing. But it is not shallow. It is not mundane or petty or produced today with the intent of being gone tomorrow. Instead, Jewish tradition is obsessed with questions of meaning and obligation.
These questions can be fantastically large or frustratingly small. Our sages have asked about God’s essence, and they have explored the intricate details of contract law. But no matter the scale, the issues and the values with which our sacred texts wrestle are, or at least are meant to be, lasting.
I am not naive. Our Bible has Kings and Samuel, and our Talmud has stories of rabbinic power struggles that would, I think, make for excellent television drama. But tradition has never left these stories as mere subjects of gossip. Treated with care and transformed by study, the great scriptural tales of love and intrigue and violence are laden with meaning that transcend their moment and particularities.
But today, there is no time or interest in subjecting today’s politics to such care or study. With our current presidency, politics and entertainment have merged. There is increasingly little appetite for that which is beyond politics. And what appetite there is, is increasingly geared toward even lighter amusements: celebrity, clothes, sports.
The minds that might have once been—that our tradition expected be—directed toward questions of how to live are increasingly distracted. They are increasingly consumed with the bombardment of daily power struggles and the latest petty political outrages. There are think-pieces and response-pieces, a daily maelstrom of commentary and counter-commentary. But even when “reflecting,” one is still reacting. One cannot meditate in 140 characters, nor does one wrestle with ideas in accordance with the 24-hour news cycle. The pundit has replaced the sage. Everyone is talking; few are learning.
For too many of us, our days are framed by texts filled with news stories, not values debates. And as we go to bed, it is Gorsuch and Comey and Kahlon that we ponder, not the meaning of the Exodus or whether I overcharged my most recent customer.
I have always justified my close attention to politics as the satisfaction of my duty to be an informed citizen. Increasingly, the justification rings hollow. The words produced and frenetically pumped out to us daily do provide information, but they offer little that matters. For that, we must recover our obsession with a different kind of words. Perhaps somewhere, someone today is still producing them.