Rabbi's Column | Congregation Beth Am

Rabbi's Column

Should We Stop Reading the News?

by Rabbi Janet Marder

Rolf Dobelli, author of The Art of Thinking Clearly, warns that news consumption is bad for us. Just as too much sugar can lead to obesity and diabetes, gorging ourselves on a constant diet of news flashes can be toxic to our bodies, minds and spirits. Most news stories, he argues, are misleading; they titillate but don’t explain much. They’re mostly irrelevant to our lives, but they constantly jack up our anxiety, leading to high levels of stress, fear and aggression. Moreover, news consumption can act like a dangerous drug; it increases cognitive errors (because it feeds our confirmation bias), inhibits deep critical thinking and creativity, wastes time and inculcates passivity, pessimism and cynicism. [“News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier," The Guardian, April 12, 2013]

We all acknowledge that democracy demands an informed citizenry, but these days people often tell me that they’ve stopped watching or reading the news, because it’s so depressing. Why bombard yourself with negativity, especially when most of what’s reported is beyond your control? A recent op-ed piece in The New York Times made just this point. Arthur Brooks, president of The American Enterprise Institute, cited research evidence that people who consider themselves “very interested in politics” and very attentive to the news “tend to be unhappier than those who pay less attention.” He comments: “We all have political opinions – some of them strongly held. But much of what actually happens in politics is far beyond our individual influence. That doesn’t mean it is intrinsically unimportant, but let’s be honest: Many of us consume political news and commentary in a compulsive, concupiscent way, voluntarily subjecting ourselves to gratuitous information and stimuli, particularly on social media. The unhappiness results speak for themselves.”

Brooks suggests that we control our addiction to news by reading the news just once a day, “as opposed to hitting your Twitter feed 50 times a day like a chimp in a 1950s experiment on the self-administration of cocaine,” and that we “get involved in a tangible way – volunteering, donating money or even running for office. This transforms you from victim of political circumstance to problem solver.” [“Depressed By Politics? Just Let Go,” March 17, 2017]

Responding to the prevalence of negative news stories is also a spiritual problem, as apathy, cynicism and pessimism are spiritually debilitating states. How might Judaism address the challenge of seeking to be informed without being overwhelmed or enraged by large external forces we can’t control?

Fortunately, ours is a tradition with much experience in maintaining resilience and hope in difficult times. I find guidance in the two names by which the Torah refers to the Jewish people. The first name comes from our matriarch Leah, who named her fourth son Yehuda (Judah), meaning “gratitude.” We are Yehudim – Jews – literally “grateful people.” Practicing gratitude is intrinsic to Judaism, for it energizes us, connects us with others, opens us to joy and motivates generosity. The Hebrew term for gratitude – hakarat hatov, literally, “recognizing the good,” teaches us to make a conscious effort to recognize and appreciate the good that is already ours.

When Jacob wrestles with a divine being in Genesis 32, he receives the name Yisrael – literally, “struggles with God and prevails.” This name conveys another distinctive quality of Jewish identity – we don’t merely accept the world as it is, but actively confront the problems we see. As Rabbi Mychal Copeland writes: “We are wrestlers. We will fight until dawn and not despair, no matter how bleak it looks.”

There is an obvious tension inherent in these two names for the Jewish people. One suggests an attitude of appreciative celebration; the other implies a mode of continual struggle to improve and enhance our circumstances. Yet, for Jews, both qualities – grateful appreciation and engaged struggle – are essential. The combination ensures our resilience, our continued ability to thrive despite the negativity around us. Rabbi Copeland beautifully expresses this idea:

“How can we be both the thankful ones, grateful for what is, and also be the ones who struggle because it isn’t good enough? How do we live in awe of life if it is also in our nature to say, ‘This world should be better?’ We must be comfortable living in the paradox. It has been suggested: Each person should carry in each pocket a slip of paper with one of our names. One reads, ‘I am Yehuda: I am grateful for what is,’ while the other reads, ‘I am Yisrael: I will always fight to make it better’.” [“Pirkei Imahot: The Wisdom of Mothers, The Voices of Women", p.131]

The solution, for Jews and for all citizens in a democracy, is not to cut ourselves off from the news; nor are we permitted to fall into despair. Instead, let’s take every opportunity to rejoice in the goodness and beauty that is ours, but never stop fighting to make things better. The dynamic combination of gratitude and struggle will help us to remain strong, and eventually to prevail.

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We strive to live as a holy community whose study and practice of Judaism inspires and challenges us to "do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8).