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Thinking under the influence

In Leviticus 10, we read: “And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying, ‘Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting ... for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the impure and the pure, and teach the Israelites ...”

The danger with wine and strong drink is that intellectual and motor skills are impeded by the alcohol — that, while intoxicated, people who are otherwise smart and capable can do some pretty stupid or dangerous things. The context of this biblical passage is a warning to the ancient priests about performing their sacred duties when not in full control of their faculties, but the reason the Torah gives is worthy of deeper consideration.

Note the part of the passage that explains the need for clear thinking: “For you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the impure and the pure...” The problem is not just being drunk, but rather our impaired ability to judge precisely and accurately.

Righteous judgment needs to be both precise and accurate, and yet we are being plagued these days by a social environment where drama and excitement are emphasized over truth. We find ourselves in an atmosphere of competitive hyperbole that treats serious issues as entertainment and militates against the sober consideration of facts.

I understand the rhetorical value of exaggeration, but I am a thousand percent sure that hyperbole only works properly when people understand the actual facts that are being exaggerated. When this is the case, the emotional energy can be noted.But, when an audience does not realize that the actual facts are being exaggerated, the deliberative process is impaired, and the solutions to real problems are harder to find.

I would like to suggest a number of issues that have fallen prey to this unsober drama, and I would ask you to consider whether the drama helps or obscures the real issues. I would also ask you to think about how the emotional energy enrages one side to fury and the other side to dismissal — how realistic solutions are rendered harder to find.

▪ Was the “Ground Zero Mosque” really at the site of the former World Trade Center? Was the mosque new construction or just a remodeling of a section of a long-standing Islamic community center? Does not the First Amendment right to religious expression extend to Muslims?

▪ Does any serious thinker believe that black lives do not matter? Is there really a campaign by police to kill black people? On the other hand, is it possible that some police conduct may be misconduct?

▪ Are undocumented aliens a drain on our economy? Do any of them work in industries that are important to us?

▪ Is the presence of a transgender person in a public restroom really a danger? Will same gender marriages actually damage traditional marriage? (Will I suddenly have to divorce my wife?)

▪ When the Supreme Court recently heard the dispute over who has to fill out an exception form — the employer who has religious objections to artificial contraception or the employee of such an employer — was the health care of women really threatened?

▪ What is carpet bombing, and how will carpet bombing the Middle East help matters — and save the population from ISIS?

▪ Did the Obama administration’s political spinning in the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi cause the deaths of the four American diplomatic personnel?

Each of these subjects deserves serious discussion, but serious discussion can get left behind when clever and grandiose statements are more important than facts — when the value of news is entertainment. Lying is not good for the public discussion. Truthiness is not truth. Hyperbole is only honest if the audience understands what it is. Otherwise, our civic and political life is as impaired as if we were drunk — and that cannot be good for a sober assessment of serious issues. Heaven expects better of us.

Rabbi David E. Ostrich is a spiritual leader at Congregation Brit Shalom.

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