Rush Limbaugh, The Fairness Doctrine, and Unity Shabbat

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, February 19, 2021 / 7 Adar 5781

Many of us were without electricity this past week. Too many still are. Synagogue staff has tried to find out who has pressing needs. Please don’t try to muddle through on your own. Our community wants to provide assistance, and no one should feel any shame in asking for help. Personally, my family had no power for 65 hours, and we are so grateful for the support we received. Let us know what you need. Let’s also send our prayers to the people of Texas.

Summary: This week, I wanted to share what motivates my rabbinate, and reflect on how the death of Rush Limbaugh fits into that. I also want to invite you to our Unity Shabbat service tomorrow morning when we have a special guest, Pastor Seth Brooks.

Reading Time: Six minutes

There’s a joke that says the best of rabbis only give three sermons, while the rest of us have only one sermon that we give over and over. Most humor contains at least a grain of truth, and this is no exception. It’s not just rabbis. People tend to have certain commitments which help them organize the world quickly with a minimal amount of mental energy.

Image of Pastors Seth and Kaz Brooks

While my interests are varied, and while I hope that my sermons touch on many topics and ideas, I confess that a strong thread ties together much of my thinking, and a fair bit of the programming I am responsible for. That common theme focuses on the need to hear one another, to nurture a sense of receptiveness to ideas that are not our own, and to seek the underlying values that all people have in common, even when the application of those values results in completely opposite policy prescriptions. Those are deeply Jewish and human commitments.

This wasn’t always my one sermon. It’s a sermon I learned from my congregation in Cleveland. Ohio is one of the great purple states, and my congregants reflected that. At first, I tried to steer clear of politics or be neutral because of our communal diversity and because we were encouraged to do so in rabbinical school.

Over time, however, I was deeply touched by the sorts of relationships that were nurtured there. People of completely opposite political persuasions were friends who cared for one another. In today’s climate, that already is an accomplishment. Here’s a story. There were these two congregants, both over six feet tall. In Jewish circles, that’s pretty good and you couldn’t miss them! One was staunchly left of center, the other equally committed to his right of center politics. They respectfully debated each other regularly during our kiddush luncheon, but it never seemed to harm their friendship or connection. As the rhetorical heat in our nation has only grown more intense, it’s my fervent hope that their friendship remains strong. We need their example.

What I came to realize, and what I have studied and read about in depth since those days is that if we can’t find a way to connect with one another and maintain diverse friendships like those two guys, then inequality, polarization, breakdown in trust, and the disintegration of the public square will all grow worse. I have come to see how in our time, the prophetic edge is found where all voices can be heard, and that is in the endangered center where all sides meet. Social justice, economic fairness and racial and gender harmony will best be achieved when a sense of unity and community is strengthened.

For a long time, our nation nurtured those communal habits in which we understood that we were all in it together. As a result, everyone’s boat rose. There are many reasons for why that mutuality deteriorated beginning in the early 1960’s. Understanding the causes, and seeking guidance from Judaism can teach us how we can restore those bonds. I will outline some of those approaches in a lecture on March 7th (4 pm) and hope you will participate. Our country needs Judaism’s wisdom more than ever.

Today, I also want to reflect on the death of Rush Limbaugh, and specifically the elimination of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine during the Reagan years. Introduced in 1947, the Fairness Doctrine basically ensured that different viewpoints would be presented on our media outlets. It operated with the understanding that the public was best served when it heard opposing ideas on matters of the public interest. The rule didn’t fall under the fallacy of providing equal time for every viewpoint, because frankly, not every idea is factual or has merit. Nonetheless, while this law was operational, it was a bulwark against the echo chambers that dominate today’s world.

When it was repealed in 1987, we saw a change in American politics. One of the first people to capitalize on this was Rush Limbaugh, who died this week. Limbaugh often liked to claim he was an entertainer, and therefore wasn’t bound by conventions of truth or other journalistic criteria. He was a firebrand, and began the slow process by which we now easily condemn and distrust anyone who stands on the other side of the aisle—and often those who stand on the same side!

It is important to separate the content of his ideas from their presentation. Limbaugh did explain Conservative ideology, often to people who otherwise would not have understood it. Unfortunately, Limbaugh also regularly demonized people and groups. He seemed to enjoy insulting minorities and lambasting anyone who was left of him. It would be easy to condemn him for this, but that is not my aim here. He is now in Olam shel Emet, in the “world of truth” and will need to justify his actions to his Maker.

When we reflect on Limbaugh’s legacy, what matters is realizing just how effective he was. I now hear that same sort of hatred used by people from all groups and perspectives that I heard when I listened to him. All of us, to greater or lesser degrees, have been coarsened. He got under all of our skins. If the Fairness Doctrine was a phone app, we have all uninstalled it.

It’s time we begin to reinstall a new fairness doctrine, one in which we listen before we defend and seek to understand before we debate. It’s not easy, precisely because we are no longer practiced in how to do so. We all mess up at this. When we do, we need to dust ourselves off and get back at it.

Each of us, in other words, has a role to play. We all can take part in making things better. This Saturday features another Unity Shabbat. While most of our guest pastors for the year are African American or people of color, tomorrow our guest speaker is a white pastor, Seth Brooks. An Australian, his C3 Church in Northeast Portland is remarkably diverse for our homogenous city. Over 40% of his congregants are African American, and when he founded the church, he quickly learned that if he was going to gain the trust of his parishioners, he would have to listen a lot more than talk. That was his fairness doctrine (as was providing over 98,000 meals to the hungry over the course of this pandemic!)

In a time when we have committed to expose ourselves to minority voices, people have sometimes felt that they didn’t know how to go about that on their own. Pastor Seth will share the stories that taught him how to do so, and I suspect we can all learn from his experiences. As a bonus, Pastor Brooks is a great story-teller and quite entertaining. He will join us at 9:30 tomorrow and speak starting approximately at 10:30 (Services are not precise. Please join earlier to be sure of catching his full remarks). After services, we will post a slide with a zoom link so that you can meet with Pastor Brooks and have a free-ranging conversation.

I am tired of giving the same one sermon. But when your American house is in flames, you don’t stand there wishing you could do something else. You join the fire brigade, pick up a bucket, and try to save your home. I hope you will join Pastor Seth Brooks tomorrow.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What is your one sermon? Which idea, concept or commitment is central to how you view the world?
  2. How does your one sermon energize you? What does it lead you to do? How does it blind or paralyze you?
  3. Can you recall what experiences led you to your “one sermon,” to that central narrative or belief?
  4. Have you ever let go of a cherished belief? Describe what happened.

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

Torah Sparks Commentary This Week