From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
December 27, 2013
Duck Dynasty. Honestly, I had no idea what these two words meant written together until they made the news recently. A reality TV show, “Duck Dynasty” raised the visibility of some long beard-wearing men and their families. An otherwise private family with its unique customs and traditions, the genre of reality TV transformed them and others like the Kardashians and Honey Boo-boo into modern day circus side-shows, and turned us into lurid voyeurs who pay admission fees via cable TV. The Duck family, like the Kardashians and Honey Boo-boo, do not, by themselves, warrant our voyeuristic interests; but, once TV producers package their unique habits and regional customs into episodes for entertainment fodder, they do.
In recent weeks, the Duck family drew more unwarranted attention to themselves when they shared their real feelings against homosexuality. They drew a quick and focused reaction from diverse groups. There were those who defended the Ducks and their constitutionally protected speech. There were others who were deeply offended by the Ducks who used their TV celebrity to disparage homosexuals.
Where do I stand on this issue? It’s only because I’m on vacation and promised myself not to delve into weighty matters for a few days that I would even choose to take up this matter. But, because I can find humor in absurd situations, I must tell you that I think the constitutionalists and the defenders of diversity have it all wrong. How many of you recall the day when Rosanne Barr was selected to sing the National Anthem at a televised ballgame? At the height of her celebrity, presumably her agent convinced someone that she would draw a lot of attention to the game. Well, her agent was right, because when they asked Rosanne Barr to match her celebrity to the stature of the National Anthem, the result drew a lot of attention for what became a national embarrassment. However, the only person who should have been embarrassed and also fired was the man or woman who agreed to let her sing. At the time, Barr was one of the raunchiest self-described trailer-trash comediennes around; but, had she done anything but desecrate the National Anthem, she would have blown her cover.
Now, Duck Dynasty has been turned into a sensation because of their trademark beards and their commentary on homosexuality. But, when you pay the ticket price for a side-show at the circus, you don’t get to complain about the attraction and demand your money back. You get what you paid for, which is exactly what every TV reality show, from America’s Got Talent and Wipeout, to Big Brother and Cupcake Wars, is serving up to voyeurs like us. So, we can’t complain when the singer mangles the National Anthem or the backwater boys speak their minds.
My complaint is that TV producers create shows with people who think they really matter to us at all. For money and a bit of fame, ordinary people with relatively good lives often become targets of ridicule for doing nothing but being themselves. In America, there’s really nothing wrong with being Honey Boo-boo, the Kardashians or the Ducks; but, when your life is put on a stage, your conversations scripted with cameramen in your bedroom, and America paying the price of admission, your celebrity star rises and then burns out when our taste for sensationalism is no longer piqued and the next backwater is finally discovered. My advice? In a world of so much junk on TV and the internet, either pick something of greater value and substance or don’t complain about the price of admission to the 21st century version of the circus side-show. I don’t watch reality TV, but not because I only watch PBS. I just find that reality, itself, is all the entertainment and bemusement I need. I hope the same might be true for you.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
On Tuesday, December 17th, Rabbi Sam Karff and I drove together to Houston City Hall. There we gathered with interfaith clergy and citizens of Houston at a press conference. The subject was Payday Loans and Auto Title Loan centers that provide quick cash loans to people who can’t get credit anywhere else. You’ve read about the crisis: cash in exchange for car titles, exorbitant interest rates (upwards of 300%), and fees and interest that rarely reduce the principal amount. After the press conference, we gathered in City Council chambers to hear testimony on the subject from those in favor and those against Payday Loans and Auto Title Loans.
The case for such loans is not easily made. Profits in free market shouldn’t preclude reasonable care for the citizens of a community where their livelihood is ripped from them along with their dignity and last hope. What’s more, the funds they ultimately seek from their houses of worship including synagogues and Jewish Family Service are often used to pay rent and utilities after they’ve paid the loan fees. It becomes a perpetual nightmare that we all pay for in the end.
The case against such loans satisfies a broader and deeper set of interests because it bears up against our expectations for a free market as well as moral codes in all our respective faith traditions. I like a solution that meets the standards of more than one benchmark. Free markets are the hallmark of Texas business but so are the religious teachings often raised up by those who claim to live by them. But, just as free markets come with a price in the form of boundaries and regulations, so do religious teachings come with expectations that they are for all and not just for some.
Interfaith clergy, including myself, Pastor Steve Wells of South Main Baptist Church, and Archbishop Fiorenza of the Galveston-Houston Diocese, testified before City Council for the proposal to limit and regulate Payday Loans and Auto Title Loans just as they have been regulated in San Antonio, Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth. On Wednesday, we learned that City Council passed the ordinance to regulate predatory lending in Houston. Now, we can stand with other Texas cities and push the message to the state level where passage of a strong law will protect everyone from predatory lending practices no matter where they live in Texas.
I’m proud of City Council members like Ellen Cohen, a Beth Israel member, who recognizes the importance of striving to achieve economic justice and moral correctness. I thank Mayor Parker, too, for her courage to advocate for these standards for our city and its citizens. We will not be the worse for it; rather, we will be the better for it. Our economic engine will thrive, our social agencies will help where authentic needs are unmet, and our hearts and souls will be nourished by reaching for a greater good. Judaism and Christianity might cite from different and respective sources, but our joint commitment to a sacred community finds us standing together not only before City Council but also and always before God.
As we enter the last full week of 2013, may it bring you time to reflect on the year that is past, and consider the year that will be. May it be a time for family, renewal, joy and peace. Shabbat Shalom.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
This past week, Nelson Mandela died. There are details about his life that will keep scholars busy for their entire careers. His life’s story will be written about in more books and told in movies for years to come. The laudatory words that have been used to describe his life are appropriate and well-earned. He lived a life that is the quintessential story of a person who endured and overcame, who was beaten down and stood back up. He fulfilled the purpose of his life and inspired others to fulfill theirs. As the world takes note of his life’s achievements, we can learn much about his humanity and ours.
First, Nelson Mandela is not an American and therefore not a uniquely American hero. In the last century, it hasn’t been common for Americans to find their heroes outside the United States. Though the world is freer and we can travel to more places than we could even 30 years ago, we have honored our own leaders and soldiers for greater freedom. Today, the internet breaks down barriers, and Mandela became a man to watch and the world’s hero. He brought us with him as he made his way from prison to the presidential palace. He left behind him in prison more than his personal experience; he left behind a past that every person of the world needed to discard, too. Then he brought us with him into a fragile new world that learned how to welcome his message about unity and peace.
Second, though Mandela possessed all the qualities that made him uniquely able to achieve the stature of a modern day hero, there is no reason to believe that we don’t also possess the same potential. You and I will not be Mandela, but I am suggesting that the humanity he revealed in his life’s work is inherently present within each of us. Extraordinary experiences in his time and place unlocked his rare combination of passion and justice to move him to do and to be the man we remember this week. But, if it’s true that we possess the same humanity, and I believe that we do, then in concert with others whose hands we hold and whose hearts we touch, we can emulate Mandela’s hope for unity and peace at home, in our cities, in our nation and across the world.
Third, Nelson Mandela has a large number of mournful fans but also a fair number of detractors. No person is perfect. Mandela will be lauded for his obvious accomplishments and assailed for what he didn’t or wouldn’t do. Despite his shortcomings, the memory of Nelson Mandela should be recalled for what he did for his people and his nation at home, and then for what he labored to represent in the world around him. Humanity is difficult to find when it’s needed most; so, when it is revealed and allowed to make lasting and permanent change even in a small part of the world, it is for us to behold and for us to emulate in the small part of the world we occupy. For these things we thank Nelson Mandela for his courage and his choices, and we thank God for the gift of humanity revealed and for the wisdom to take note of it. To honor Mandela is to learn from his life and to build on his deeds. If he couldn’t finish the work he began in all his 95 years, then let us pick up where he left off and begin to make a difference today.
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