The Top-rated Restaurant in London or Whatever Happened To The Truth?
This is the 37th year that I’ve spoken with you on the High Holidays, and over the years, I’ve talked a lot about the dangers of anti-Semitism. And every time, at least some of you have let me have it. Just last year, when I warned you that things were getting worse, I was told that I was paranoid because there is no anti-Semitism in America. I just kept saying: “There is a lot of hatred out there.” But of course, I wanted to be wrong about my fears.
And then there was the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and some of the same people who had called me ‘crazy’ were now demanding a security guard at the front door of our shul. It was all so horrible. And now we all know: There is anti-Semitism in America, on the right and on the left. And in a country split down the middle by those who gain power by splitting the country down the middle, we who are in the middle, in the center, have to figure out how to deal with the very severe problems we face.
And so on these holidays, I’m going to talk about what is going on in our country and the world today. Contrary to what you may think, I am not going to be political. We’re in such a politicized environment that you will think that I’m taking sides. But my side is the Jewish people.
My side is America.
My side is Israel.
My side is the truth.
My side is the law.
I do not hope to get you to think about these things the way I do, but I do hope to get you thinking.
So my brother David, an attorney in Philadelphia, loves to give others directions and advice about travel. He even wrote reviews for a social-media outlet called TripAdvisor. If you want to know about any aspect of taking a trip, you can go to this website. David told me an interesting story. A British man named Oobah Butler wrote fake reviews on TripAdvisor. Restaurant owners would pay him $13, and he'd write a positive review of their place, despite never eating there. Over time, he monitored the ratings of these businesses. He saw that the restaurants were more successful because of the ratings he had helped them get.
He even thought for a while that TripAdvisor was a false reality, that other people like him wrote all the reviews. It wasn’t true; most of the reviews were completely genuine. Of course, he thought, you can’t fake the existence of a restaurant.
And then, one day, he had an interesting thought: Within the current climate of misinformation and society's willingness to believe absolute lies, maybe a fake restaurant is possible. Maybe it's the kind of place that could be a hit.
So Oobah Butler came up with the idea of getting a restaurant that doesn't exist, verified on the travel website. He lived in a shed in a south London garden. So he made a website for his fake restaurant, which he called The Shed at Dulwich. The website featured photos of plates of fake food that was really shaving foam and dishwasher tablets. He bought a phone so the fake restaurant would have a phone number. His shed did not have an address so he just listed the road and called The Shed an "appointment-only restaurant." He created an online presence. He even had a concept: every entrée was named for an emotion or a mood.
The fake restaurant was officially accepted and listed on TripAdvisor. Butler asked friends to post fake reviews, hoping to get the restaurant as high as possible on TripAdvisor's list of 18,149 restaurants in London. On November 1, 2017, the restaurant became the Number 1 restaurant in London. He had turned his shed into London's top-rated restaurant.
I think you get the point: The influence of social media is so strong nowadays that people believe anything and everything. Social media provide dangerous tools to those who manipulate people. And people, we now know better than ever, are very gullible and ignorant and yes, very stupid. People are quite ready to believe lies. This is why there are dictatorships. People pick a trip advisor for the journey of their lives and follow blindly.
Anti-Semitism is based on lies. I’ve talked about this topic countless times over the years.
I’ve given you history lessons about how and why these things are made up out of utter nonsense.
I’ve explained that the notion that we are powerful is used by small minds to excuse themselves for their own failures in life. When you won’t admit that it’s your fault, you have to find somebody else to blame.
I’ve explained that these fictions about how we control the media, or the banking system, or the weather, the weather for G-d’s sake, would be funny if they were not so vicious and if so many people did not believe them. I’ve explained that anti-Semites think that we’re some kind of dark conspiracy, when actually, we can’t agree about one single thing.
Just like the restaurant that did not exist, none of it is true. But the liars are using social media to spread their venom. On the notorious white supremacist online forum 4chan, which has been followed by some of the mass killers, someone wrote: “We must create a massive movement of fake Jewish profiles on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Since Jews shapeshift into whites anytime they want, we can do the same to them.” (Shapeshift? Believe me, I’m trying.) They know that they can’t destroy us from the outside. But they also know that we can defeat ourselves from the inside. They create Jewish profiles saying nasty things so that Jewish people will turn against each other.
Anyone can say anything, and at least some people will believe it. When the President of the United States re-tweets crazy conspiracy theories, all conspiracy theories gain new traction. And then there are these anti-Semitic Democratic congresswomen spreading lies about our influence; they know exactly what they’re saying and what they’re doing, and just for the record, they’re not victims. The idea that the Jewish people are some kind of conspiracy fits right into the bizarre world of the evil imagination.
And since America has laws about guns that defy common sense, anyone can read anything and then go and do anything to others. There is an average of one mass shooting in America every day. On the average of once a day, an incident occurs where four or more people are shot in a single shooting spree. But we don’t need to change anything, do we? The combination of free-flowing attack weapons and hate flowing on social media is going to kill a lot more people because we won’t even try to change anything.
And the lies keep on coming. All the things we’ve heard about this year, from the right and the left, from white supremacists and left-wing hatemongers, all this garbage that is presented as new accusations, are old, baseless, evil lies.
And all these lies want to make things simple. There is only one thing that you need to know in the world. It’s all their fault.
Simplification. Believe in one person. Believe anything they say. Whether it’s a dictator or a religious leader or a Trip Advisor or a tv or radio host, don’t think for yourself. And if you hear something you don’t like, just say, “Oh, it’s just noise. Who knows what the truth is?”
Simplification. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr., written in 1959, is one of those now familiar, post-nuclear war dystopian stories about how terrible things will be after a worldwide human-made disaster. In this story, the survivors of the disaster need to blame someone or something. They decide that the world had been destroyed because of people with knowledge, people who knew books and science. That knowledge had led to building the weapons that had destroyed most of humankind and turned the world into a desert.
So they decide to destroy all books, and forego all knowledge of any kind. In a process called The Simplification, they burn every book and film and even every scrap of paper. The survivors call themselves “The Simpletons.” When the Simpletons find a bookseller named Leibowitz who has become a priest in a monastery in order to preserve some books and scientific knowledge, the mob executes him in horrific fashion, leading to the formation of a small sect who reveres him as a saint.
This book reminds me of other science fiction works like Fahrenheit 451, the temperature needed to burn books. If you’re Jewish, you recoil, thinking about the Nazis burning our sacred books. The Nazis were simpletons who believed in a leader who led them to terrible destruction.
This story is bothering me right now because I’m worried about a country where we have some leaders who don’t read at all and many people who get all their opinions from watching television shows that present one side of an issue at best and at worst are wiling to ignore facts, history and science. I worry that some of us are going through a self-induced simplification; many of us are willingly becoming simpletons.
Research shows that when you turn on the TV, you are signaling your brainpower to shut down.
A lot of you are thinking: I don’t just watch tv or my other devices. I read a lot.
Ok, so let’s see what we’re talking about. How many times have you heard me say, “We will now read responsively in English”? Now I want to ask: “Do we read responsibly in English?”
Most of our reading is called “light reading.” Another serial murder book. Another romance novel. Another spy book.
According to research, your love for “light reading” may not be doing you any good. Light reading involves little more than decoding words. Essentially, you’ll likely forget what you read in mere minutes. How many times have people said to me, “I started reading that novel and I got to page 30 before I realized I’d read it before?”
There is another kind of reading called deep reading. This involves reading that is slow, immersive, emotional, and morally complex. Deep reading proves more of an effective brain exercise.
In this difficult time, we’re going to need to keep our brains sharp. We’re going to need our critical faculties so that we can have perspective on what is really true. Real thought and analysis are more important than ever. Information is coming to us from every angle and we have to know how to think. How do we know what’s true when we have leaders who question facts and who call the truth a lie? We cannot be passive observers who are just watching as the lies keep spreading.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is an example of deep reading. And like all great science fiction, it is not about the future but about the present. So for his novel about a society that destroys knowledge and truth, Miller, who was not Jewish himself, chose the very Jewish name Leibowitz to become the Catholic saint of books and knowledge. We have always been called, and we have always been, the “People of the Book.”
But now think about it: Are we still the People of the Book? You’re Jewish. Do you know our books? To be a person of the book means to have made a book part of yourself, integrating its wisdom into your life.
Are we still the People of the Book? And if you say, “Of course,” I want to invite you to three discussions we’ll have this fall.
I want to explore what I will call Jewish reading, which is not just for entertainment, which is an attempt to mold our brains to seek different perspectives, to search for truth in an age of lies.
The first book I want to talk about in the mode of Jewish reading is not a Jewish book at all; it’s a recent novel, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. It’s not an obvious choice for the people of the book. But if you looked at the Bestseller List in the last year, you saw it at the top of the list the whole year. Why is America reading it? I want to talk about why I think it’s a book for Jewish people at this time. It is a satisfying novel that may seem like an entertainment, but read correctly, it is not light reading. It’s about a girl who is left alone to survive, abandoned by her family, betrayed by her friends, hated and scorned by the community. And at a time when we have been abandoned, by our liberal friends who have nothing to say when the anti-Semites on the left disparage us and the Jewish homeland, and when our friends on the right have nothing to say when the President uses us as a political weapon and defends white supremacists and Nazis, how should we act? How should we defend ourselves?
So that’s the first discussion I want to have.
And then I want to focus on us as the People of the Book.
If I give you a pop quiz right this minute and ask you, “What are some of the books of the Bible?” how many could you name without using your phone?
And if I then asked you a second question about a book you named, about the meaning of the book and why it’s in the Bible, could you answer me?
You’re a member of the people of the book and you should know a little about that book that has made us who we are. The Bible is not just some facts and proverbs. When you study it, you find that your mind grows because you must see different perspectives jumping out of the text. It demands deep reading. It challenges your brain. So I want you to give me an hour during which I will introduce you to the books of the Bible.
In a way, it’s another book, the Talmud, which really made us who we are as a people. Can you tell me why the discussions in the Talmud have made us a people who win huge numbers of Nobel Prizes and have filled us with the confidence to ask questions and offer new answers? And so for a third session, I want to introduce you to the Talmud and read a couple of passages with you.
If you are a member of this people, at a time when the left and the right are lying about us, let’s get back to the basic truth of who we are, to remind ourselves just how crazy and bizarre the lies are, to remember why we’re so proud to be Jewish.
But you can’t be a Jewish simpleton; it’s an oxymoron. And no, an oxymoron is not a crazy cow. An oxymoron is a contradiction in terms.
If you’re Jewish, you should not be a simpleton.
Do you know what happens when you really read the Bible or the Talmud? You are encountered by the truth. The Bible tells the truth even when it hurts. It tells you how Abraham and Moses and David made terrible mistakes. It questions G-d and His justice. We need the truth telling of the Bible in an age of lies. We need the different perspectives of the Bible and the Talmud so we will know how to deal with the contradictory information that besets us when we turn from one news channel to the other.
Do you know how, over these years, I’ve always known that there was anti-Semitism in America? I read. I know some history. I know the power of simplification. And I know the power of perspective. And I try to see the truth for what it is, whether I like it or not.
“Alternative facts” is not a joke. It should be a joke, but when many of us either accept lies or excuse lies or just don’t care what the truth is, saying that “it’s all noise and smoke and who knows what the truth is, anyway?” there’s something very wrong.
We believe in truth: scientific truth and moral truth and the truth revealed by the law. These truths, since they no longer seem to be self-evident, must be dealt with even if they’re inconvenient.
The top restaurant in London, according to TripAdvisor, did not even exist. It was just a lie. The liars are attacking us. It’s a scary, strange time right now. But we Jewish people have been on a long, strange trip for thousands of years. And for all these centuries, we’ve had G-d in Heaven and our brains on earth. We will not listen to the TripAdvisors on the right or the left. And if we keep our brains sharp, and we ask G-d for guidance, we will not just survive, but thrive in this country we love so much.
We’re Jewish. We cannot be simpletons. And at this time when the lies are being directed straight at us, we have to speak the truth, and nothing but.