Purposeful journalism

The wrongful demise of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi gives us pause.  Beyond how to respond to those bearing culpability, taking a moment to appreciate the importance of journalistic storytelling feels appropriate. If sunlight is a good disinfectant, then those who embrace responsibility for shedding its light have a vital role in transparency and transmission. 

At its best, journalistic storytelling can take shape in Documentaries and Exhibitions.  When it does, it is less about promotions or persuasion, and more about instilling values.  Its aim is not political. Rather it’s purpose is pedagogic.   

This week an extraordinary Exhibition dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust was launched on Boston Common.  Seventy enlarged images of survivors – including Esther Kampler who is part of our Kehillath Israel family – seek to make vivid the realness of the systematic slaughter of European Jewry as we approach the eightieth anniversary of Kristallnacht.  German-Italian photographer Luigi Toscano took upon himself the responsibility to make those who meet the gaze of these supersized portraits into witnesses.  This is particularly urgent given recent findings that one-in-five Americans between the ages of 18-34 is unaware of or unsure about the Holocaust.  Again, documentary storytelling holds a critical role in the transmission of vital values and historic lessons.

Sometimes, however, its purpose can be misdirected.  In last week’s portion of Torah, the builders of the Tower of Babel sought to make a name for themselves.  “Come let us build ourselves a soaring tower that reaches the heavens and we’ll make ourselves a name” (na’ase lanu shem) (Gen. 11:4).  Their self-promoting ways were, of course, diffused.  And this week’s portion opens with God’s promise to make Abraham’s name great (a’gadla sh’mecha) (Gen. 12:2).  Shortly thereafter, Abraham builds an altar and calls out to God’s Name (b’Shem Adonai) (Gen. 12:8).   

What made Abraham’s name great had nothing to do with self-promotion.  Rather, when he stands for something larger than himself he matters so much more.  Abraham becomes the most influential human being of all time.  Today alone almost half of the world’s population, Christians, Muslims, and Jews are his spiritual descendants.

So too with storytelling. When it stands for something larger, it holds enduring influence.  We should never forget that Herzl’s journalism more than a century ago led him to eventually found the miraculous rebirth of the ancestral home.  Abraham is introduced to that home in this week’s portion of Torah.  May we ever esteem the importance of responsible storytelling and the values it brings to life.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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