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Rosh HaShanah 5778: Getting Out of the Echo Chamber

September 24, 2017

 

On Rosh Hashanah it will be posted and on Yom Kippur it will be tweeted…

How many will unfriend and how many will send friend requests?
Who will follow and who will unfollow?…
Who will live in harmony and who will have non-stop arguments in Facebook groups?
Who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer relentless requests to play Candy Crush?
Who will have their accounts cloned and who will have theirs verified?
Who will receive hundreds of likes and who will have to go and try Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat instead?
But reading, liking and sharing this post removes the evil of the decree!  (English comedian Ashley Blaker)

There is one halacha relating to תקיעת השופר that truly resonates with me this year.  The Mishnah Rosh Hashnah 3:7 says:

הַתּוֹקֵעַ לְתוֹךְ הַבּוֹר אוֹ לְתוֹךְ הַדּוּת אוֹ לְתוֹךְ הַפִּטָּס, אִם קוֹל שׁוֹפָר שָׁמַע, יָצָא. וְאִם קוֹל הֲבָרָה שָׁמַע, לֹא יָצָא.

One who blows into a cistern, or into a cellar or into a barrel; if he heard the sound of the shofar, he has fulfilled [his obligation]; if he heard the sound of an echo, he has not fulfilled [his obligation].

The Gemara elaborates:

ראש השנה כז
אמר רב הונא לא שנו אלא לאותן העומדים על שפת הבור אבל אותן העומדין בבור יצאו

Rav Huna said: They taught this only with respect to those standing at the edge of the pit, i.e., on the outside, as they can hear only the echo coming from the pit. But those standing in the pit itself have fulfilled their obligation, since they initially hear the sound of the shofar.

Why my interest with this Halacha?  Though many of us may feel like we are living on the edge of a symbolic cliff or pit, that is not my intention.  Nor am I particularly concerned with the commentators who point out that on a technical, scientific level we are always confronted by this Halacha – the only way we hear ANYTHING is by echo.

No, my focus on this halacha, this year, is the overwhelming sense that each of us is living in our very own echo chamber.

Urbandictionary.com defines an echo chamber as: “an insular communication space where everyone agrees with the information and no outside input is allowed.”

And Wikipedia, the ultimate source for all knowledge and definitions adds, “…Inside a figurative echo chamber, official sources often go unquestioned and different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented.”

Oftentimes we become only aware of the echo chamber when it goes wrong.  To give an example: When I was the rabbi at Brandeis I would constantly get ads in my Facebook feed telling me that single women in Waltham, MA want to meet me.  I could not figure out what was going on, nor did I think it would be appropriate to ask anyone else about these ads that kept popping up.  Until one day it hit me: Almost all of my interactions are with Brandeis students – at least half of whom were single women living in Waltham.  Facebook tried putting two and two together….
That is the echo chamber gone wrong.

Eli Pariser, author of the book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You explains: “Increasingly, you know, every website has a sense of who you are, of what your interests are, and many of them are using that information to try to extrapolate what kinds of content, what kinds of articles, what kinds of ideas are you going to be most interested in. So the filter bubble is the ideas that get through that filter and that you get to see. And what’s scary about it is there’s a bunch of stuff outside of that filter that gets filtered out and that you don’t see.”  (http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=486941582)

It is the echo chamber led to complete shock among so many of Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election.  And it is the echo chamber that has led to the phenomenon of “fake news.”  Or as Tali Sharot, an Israeli-born professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London explains in a number of TED Talks and a provocative article on CNN.com titled “Why Don’t Facts matter?”  She points to countless examples where people ignore clear evidence in favor of their personally-held beliefs.  For example:

  • Climate change
  • How many people were at the 2017 presidential inauguration?

And it is not only politics where facts don’t matter.

  • People avoid going to the doctor or being tested for illness in order to avoid alarming information.
  • People will not check their investment accounts when they think they have performed poorly.
  • And after this season of 3-day yumtifs, I’d guess that many of us will avoid stepping on the scale for a long time.

Of course not everybody avoids uncomfortable facts all of the time, but on average people are more likely to seek confirmation of what they believe.

While the confirmation bias has long been known, Sharot writes that in our digital age, “as information is more readily accessible and people are frequently exposed to different opinions and data points, this bias is likely to have an even greater role in shaping people’s beliefs – moving ideological groups to extremes.  Even more scary – Sharot writes that many would assume that holding such untrue biases is a trait of people of lesser intelligence.  In fact, scientists have discovered that those with stronger quantitative abilities are more likely to twist data at will.

Judaism has long recognized the danger of echo chambers.  In a fascintating passage, the Gemara (Bava Metzia 84a) tells us of the relationship between Reish Lakish and R. Yochanan.  Reish Lakish was a criminal whom R. Yochanan was able to bring to a life of Torah.  One day as they were studying the halachot of tumah and taharah (purity and impurity), they encountered a debate over when a weapon such as a sword or a dagger is considered completed and thus susceptible to the laws of tumah.  R. Yochanan concedes to Reish Lakish and declares, “The Bandit knows his trade.”  Reish Lakish was so hurt by R. Yochanan’s allusion to his former life that he becomes ill and dies.  R. Yochanan is deeply upset by the death of his friend and his study partner.  The other rabbis of the day decide that Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat is a worthy chavruta to appease Rabbi Yochanan and help him get over the loss of Reish Lakish.

אזל יתיב קמיה כל מילתא דהוה אמר רבי יוחנן אמר ליה תניא דמסייעא לך אמר את כבר לקישא בר לקישא כי הוה אמינא מילתא הוה מקשי לי עשרין וארבע קושייתא ומפריקנא ליה עשרין וארבעה פרוקי וממילא רווחא שמעתא ואת אמרת תניא דמסייע לך אטו לא ידענא דשפיר קאמינא

Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat went and sat before Rabbi Yoḥanan. With regard to every matter that Rabbi Yoḥanan would say, Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat would say to him: There is a ruling which is taught in a baraita that supports your opinion. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Are you comparable to the son of Lakish? In my discussions with the son of Lakish, when I would state a matter, he would raise twenty-four difficulties against me in an attempt to disprove my claim, and I would answer him with twenty-four answers, and the halakha by itself would become broadened and clarified. And yet you say to me: There is a ruling which is taught in a baraita that supports your opinion. Do I not know that what I say is good?

Rabbi Yitzchak Blau drives home the point of this powerful passage:

R. Yohanan is incredulous that R. Elazar thinks this will replace Reish Lakish.  It was precisely the ongoing argumentation between R. Yohanan and Reish Laskish that led to a flowering of Torah.  This is what R. Yohanan feels cannot be replaced.  R. Yohanan is teaching us that the ideal chavruta is not the person who quickly endorses everything his study partner says.  On the contrary!  The ideal chavruta challenges one’s ideas.  This process generates growth in learning.  We should add that the same principle also applies to other forms of friendship.  Instead of looking for friends who will always agree with us, we should seek out those who are willing to tell us when they think we have erred, whether intellectually, ethically or religiously…

Indeed, many of the rabbis in the Talmud are known to us in reference to their Bar Pelugta – literally the person with whom they disagree.  Hillel and and Shammai.  Rav and Shmuel.  Abaye and Rava.

So, what are we to do?  We all live in echo chambers and we  may even be aware of this.  But, as we have already seen, simply knowing on an intellectual level will not necessarily change our behavior or our biases.

With this in mind, I want to share with you a bar pelugta  I recently encountered:  J.D. Vance.  He is the author of a book called Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis.  Many hailed this book THE Most important explanation of the current political environment in America.  The author is a proud Hillbilly, whose family began in Kentucky and migrated to Middletown, Ohio after WWII and his book was lauded for explaining the Middle America that voted Donald Trump into office to the great shock of those living on the coasts.

Vance is able to escape the cycle of poverty and violence that has taken hold of his community.  He attended university, served in the Marines and went to Yale Law School.  He does not reject the community from which he came, despite being painfully aware of the many shortcomings and failures.

Rod Dreher wrote about the book in American Conservative:

The book is an American classic, an extraordinary testimony to the brokenness of the white working class, but also its strengths. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read…You cannot understand what’s happening now without first reading J.D. Vance. His book does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square.

In one of the more telling passages of the book, Vance describes the deep despair felt by many in Appalachia.

I’m the kind of patriot whom people in the Acela corridor laught at.  I choke up when I hear Lee Greenwood’s cheesy anthem “Proud to be an American.”  When I was sixteen, I vowed that every time I met a veteran, i would go out of my way to shake his or her hand, even if I had to awkwardly interject to do so.  To this day, I refuse to watch Saving Private Ryan around anyone by my closest friends, because I can’t stop from crying during the final scene.

Mamaw and Papaw [his grandparents] taught me that we live in the best and greatest cocunry on earth.  This fact gave meaning to my childhood…
If Mamaw’s second God was the United States of America, then many people in my community were losing something akin to a religion.  The tie that bound them to their neighbors, that inspired them in the way my patriotism had always inspired me, had seemingly vanished.

For me, reading J.D. Vance’s account of growing up in Middle-America was a wonderful way to get way beyond the echo chamber in which I so often find myself.  Vance is a relatable character.  He is thoughtful and insightful.  And he is not afraid to point out what is wrong with his own community.  There is certainly an echo chamber that exists when it comes to politics, the news.

And it is true when it comes to Judaism and the Jewish people.  We talk about a love of klal Yisrael of אחינו כל בית ישראל. And we are surrounded by Jews of all stripes – to the right and to the left of us.

But let me issue personal challenge to all of us here today.  There is a great irony that exists in our shul and shuls like ours and in the Modern Orthodox world in general:  We are passionate and staunchly committed to our intellectual openness and tolerance.  We talk about pluralism.  Yet, for all of our talk, look around.  Think about who our friends are.  We are an extremely homogenous community.   The challenge as we prepare to hear the Shofar – the true sound of the shofar and not the echo – is for us to break free of the echo chambers in which we live.

The shofar is a powerful call to us:  There are many “voices” and “noises” that surround us all the time.  The shofar challenges us to find the sincere voices among all the echoes.  And those sincere voices exist in all communities among all types of people.

Let me end by quoting one of the most authoritative and authentic voices in America, Bruce Springsteen.  In his memoir he writes:

There are many good, even great, voices out there tied to people who will never sound convincing or exciting.  They are all over TV talent shows and in lounges in Holiday Inns all across America.  They can carry a tune, sound tonally impeccable, they can hit all the high notes, but they cannot capture the full emotional content of a song.  They cannot sing deeply.
If you were lucky enough to be born with an instrument and the instinctive knowledge to know what to do with it, you are blessed indeed

As we prepare to hear the Shofar, let me riff on this – if we are able to HEAR the sincere voices that will carry us beyond the echo chamber, then we are blessed indeed.

Shanah Tova.

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One Comment
  1. Mindy Dickler permalink

    Shanah tovah! I’m so glad you shared this. I was quite moved by it. Glad to be able to be inspired by your drash while I’m in Israel, thanks to the internet! You make such valid points! Good food for thought!

    ~~ Mindy/אמא

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