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Steven Weinberg
Steven Weinberg
PhD Student at Rutgers University

Haftarah Bo: Never let the News get in the way of your Education

Have you ever heard of a man named Hieronymus Franz de Paula Josef Graf Colloredo von Wallsee und Melz? If not, you should have. After all, in the late eighteenth-century, he was a very important man. After all, from 1761 to 1772 he was the Prince-Bishop of Gurk and from 1772 to 1803 he was the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. In fact, he was so important that even Mozart needed to grovel before him. Even Mozart. Indeed, the Prince-Archbishop Count von Colloredo was so important that Mozart spoke to him thus. In a letter from January 1779, Mozart wrote to him: “Your High Princely Grace! Most Worthy Prince of the Holy Roman Empire! Most Gracious Governor and Sovereign Lord! Your High Princely Grace had the Most Sublime Graciousness, after the decease of Cajetan Adlgasser in the service of Your Most Elevated Person, most graciously to accept me: in accordance with which I most submissively request you to install me by decree. To which purpose, as to all other Most Sublime Kindnesses and Favours, I commend myself in the deepest submissiveness to Your High Princely Grace, my Most Gracious Governor, and Sovereign Lord, your most submissive and most obedient Wolfgang Amadé Mozart.” Mozart was applying for a position as court organist, which Colloredo swiftly granted.

The composers of Mozart’s time, and before and after, all had to behave this way. They were servants of the nobility. Bach and Haydn all had to write similarly fawning letters to the dukes and princes and counts. Even Beethoven who was the first “rock star” composer still was seen as a little speck compared to the aristocrats for whom he worked. He often fell in love with wealthy women of the nobility. Much as they stood in awe of Beethoven’s artistic talents, in the end, they always opted to marry other noblemen. (It also didn’t help that Beethoven was highly eccentric, depressive, and insecure.)

Yet, today, all of these great lords have been forgotten. If you go into the city hall of Leipzig, for example, you will be immediately met with a long row of portraits of Leipzig’s mayors over the centuries. Each one looks more or less the same—basically they look like stuffy old white men (not that there’s anything wrong with that). In their day, we can only imagine that they were bigwigs, men about town, who wielded immense power—surely more than Johann Sebastian Bach, who was the city’s composer and who sank into half-obscurity for about a century following his death in 1750. In fact, in this city hall, you can see old Bach’s portrait. It is the only recognizable face in the entire museum. All of these other politicians, despite the influence they held in their day, are long, long forgotten.

In the year 2012, I had a troubling experience. It was the election between Obama and Mitt Romney. For months leading up to the election, I followed closely the polls, the analyses, the predictions. I took the time to learn about Romney’s life and his political positions. I read about how he performed in the various debates with Obama and how things went for him out on the campaign trail with his sidekick Paul Ryan, of whom we hear little today. We all now know how the story ended. On November 6, 2012, Obama was elected to a second term.

All of the articles I had read about Romney, his family, his Mormonism, his success in the first debate, could not have been, post-November 6th, less interesting or less relevant. These articles were now truly “old news.” After all of this time and attention I had given to following politics, the only article which really mattered was the one that came out on November 7, 2012—Obama is reelected to a second term. I realized that, in fact, I had wasted a lot of time reading about Mitt Romney or watching political talk shows—time I could have spent reading something more eternal, like, say, the Torah, or Shakespeare, or a self-help book.

In western countries like America, we like to extol our news as objective and edifying in contrast to the propaganda of other countries. Yet, while our media may not be controlled by the government, it is controlled by other forces—namely capitalism and money. Why did I watch all of those Romney debates and read all of those articles? Because it was supremely entertaining. But not only was it entertaining, it took on the guise of meaningfulness. When it comes to shows on Netflix or professional wrestling or even sports, we accept that these are leisure activities, and we try, perhaps, to limit ourselves. News is all the more clever, as here, the shows and papers brand themselves, market themselves, as educational and enlightening. Yet, I have come to realize that this may just be good marketing. Like any private business, the news relies on viewership and readership to increase its profits. It will do anything to get you hooked—including making you think that what you are consuming is not entertainment but, well, you know, news. But is it any different than sports? I’ve often noticed that it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between Meet the Press and Sportscenter.

The literature of Franz Kafka and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche were both highly apolitical. It is, moreover, not a coincidence, that Kafka and Nietzsche remain some of the most relevant and “fresh” thinkers well into the twenty-first century. They avoided inserting the inevitable decay of politics into their art. Kafka’s stories often read more like tales from the Bible than snapshots into early twentieth-century life. Never in Kafka’s stories will you know what year it is; you also will rarely even find out the exact location. Contemporary events and figures are never mentioned. Indeed, Kafka’s own outlook reflects this style. During the outbreak of World War I, he famously wrote in his dairy: “Germany has declared war on Russia. Swimming in the afternoon.” While Kafka’s close friends buzzed around writing about Zionism and the “Jewish question” in Europe, Kafka remained puzzlingly and even disturbingly indifferent. He once wrote in his diary: “What do I have in common with the Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself.”

Nietzsche also tries to harness a timeless, eternalizing style. His epic work Thus Spoke Zarathustra mimics the language of the Bible. It opens with these lines: “When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake of his home, and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not weary of it. But at last his heart changed,–and rising one morning with the rosy dawn, he went before the sun, and spake thus unto it: Thou great star! What would be thy happiness if thou hadst not those for whom thou shinest!”

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche depicts politics as lowly and as, we might say, “for the plebs.” He writes of “the obligation upon everyone to read his newspaper at breakfast” as an example of parliamentary idiocy; he describes European manliness as “sick” because it requires men to read the newspaper and play at politics.

The prophet Jeremiah was a contemporary of Ezekiel, who I discussed last week, but Jeremiah was older, and he lived in Babylon. Like Ezekiel, Jeremiah wanted to caution against enlisting the help of Egypt during the invasion of Babylon. Like Ezekiel, Jeremiah saw the writing on the wall. He knew that Babylon would utterly destroy Egypt and hence it made no sense for Israel to ally itself with her.

In his prophecy, Jeremiah conveys the idea that political leaders are fleeting; while they may seem important in the moment, they do not possess stickiness; they do not have everlasting value. Jeremiah thus starts off his prophecy by communicating, in chapter forty-six, verse thirteen: “The word that the Lord spoke to Jeremiah the prophet, how that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon should come and strike the land of Egypt.” In this contest between Nebuchadnezzar and the Pharaoh, Jeremiah would say, in verse seventeen, “They are crying in Egypt: ‘Pharaoh king of Egypt, his hour is come, his time is passing.” Like so many politicians, Pharaoh is as evanescent as the wind.

What about Nebuchadnezzar? Jeremiah does not speak of Nebuchadnezzar this way. In his era, Nebuchadnezzar was clearly not going anywhere. He was, quite simply, the most powerful person on the planet. He was like Napoleon or Alexander the Great or Charlemagne. To Jeremiah, Nebuchadnezzar was a lion and a destroyer of nations (4:7-8). Today, we have still heard of Nebuchadnezzar. But because so many centuries have passed, Nebuchadnezzar is now, to us moderns, just a familiar name—our feelings toward him are largely neutral, perhaps with only the slightest hint of trepidation.

Therefore, should we stop following politics? Should we give up on the news altogether. Hardly. Indeed, Jeremiah seems to indicate that there are two types of news stories—those we can dismiss with a wave of the hand (Pharaoh), and those we had better know about (Nebuchadnezzar). But still, even the most earth-shattering news stories are still just “news”—one day, they will be looked back upon only with indifference and faint curiosity. That, however, is a problem for future ages—not for ours.

Not all politics is created equal. In her book Still Alive, Ruth Klüger has an intriguing passage which makes this point. Klüger was born in Vienna in 1931 to a prosperous Jewish family. She and her mother survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz; her father was murdered in a concentration camp. After the war, Ruth and her mother immigrated to the United States where Klüger would eventually become a professor of German literature at UC-Irvine. Her controversial and gripping memoir of her life, entitled Still Alive, was published in 2001. Klüger died last year at the age of eighty-eight.

In this passage, Klüger discusses the year 1938 when the Nazis had “annexed” or “invaded”—depending on whom you ask—Austria. Klüger writes, “Before the German invasion there were enough worries that were closer to home than politics, such as family disagreements, inheritance feuds, and even fitness programs … But after the German invasion nothing mattered more than politics.”

If you have a life where you can largely disregard politics, consider yourself lucky. Because you might not always possess this blessing.

Not all politics is created equal. Some is spewed out at us by the media in desperate attempts to increase the profits of the corporation running the news show. But other times, you really need to know what’s going on.

Meditation can help us to know when we are reading the newspaper or watching CNN to stay informed, and when we are doing so more as a hobby, as entertainment—no different than watching sports but far more stressful. As I’ve discussed in past episodes, meditation shows us how our minds are storytelling machines. They love to latch onto drama, intrigue, suspense, heartache, fear, paranoia, even hatred. These are the elements of good storytelling, and the news is clever enough to capitalize on these emotions. We have all heard the refrain from news editors around the globe: “Get me a story.”

One of the most astute teachings of meditation is not the refrain of news editors—get me a story—but rather its antithesis: drop the story. Drop the story. When we drop the stories our minds are so addicted to creating, we find that so many of our perceived problems were merely illusions—fears about a future which is yet to exist, regrets about a past which is nothing more than a memory. When we drop the story, we allow ourselves to find peace in the present moment. This does not mean that we should never use our mind to reflect on the past or to anticipate the future, just as it does not mean that the news is always there only to intimidate us, entertain us, or distract us. But we should strive to allow our minds to work for us rather than the other way round. And so, too, with following politics: strive to decide for yourself when the newspaper is serving you and when, instead, you are serving it.

About the Author
Steven Weinberg is a PhD student at Rutgers University in the German Department. His dissertation is on Franz Kafka and the Kabbalah. He grew up in Philadelphia, but moved to Israel in his late twenties, where he studied literature at Ben-Gurion University. Currently, Steven live in Berlin, but travels to Israel and America as often as he can. His blog is based off his podcast, The Schrift, a weekly lecture series on Torah, German literature, and meditation. The Schrift is available on Apple and Spotify platforms.
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