I then reached out to Rabbi Brenner via Facebook. Tonight I sent him these questions and he promptly emailed back his response.
LF: How should Kellogs have reacted when their spokesmodel Michael Phelps was photographed smoking marijuana?
Rabbi: From a marketing perspective? They should have put the photo of him with the bong on the box. But I made my argument in my essay on Beliefnet from the moral perspective of a corporation that overlooks drunk driving convictions but freaks out about pot. That, to me, is just stupid.
LF: When, if ever, is it OK to call someone an idiot? What do you think of the Chofetz Chaim‘s approach to speech? In my view, no journalism is possible if one is forced to follow the admonitions of the Chofetz Chaim. What is your view?
Rabbi: The Chofetz Chaim lived in a world where people were, for the most part, in small communities where there was little privacy. That was why it was so critical to set standards regarding boundaries of speech. The rise of modern media, particularly of trash talking stand up comedy in the 1960s created the environment in which it has become acceptable to call people idiots within certain contexts. Is that a good thing? Not really sure. I don’t do it, though, and when I am called an idiot in public, I want to know the reasons.
LF: What kind of role does journalism and truth-seeking play in Judaism?
Rabbi: Truth seeking – if you mean seeking justice – runs deep in the prophets and in rabbinic Judaism, for sure. And I think that journalism and Judaism are tied at the hip. (Some folks have even argued that the seeds of journalism came from Jewish circles in Vienna).
LF: Perhaps you’ve heard of William Lobdell’s new book, Losing My Religion. He was an evangelical Christian and a religion reporter for the LA Times. He lost his faith in part because he saw that truth had such a small role in the way religion is practiced in America today (particularly the way the Catholic church protected pedophiles).
Lobdell sees Howard Stern as a role model for truth-telling. Have you ever listened to Howard Stern and do you think he is a role model for truth-telling? Who are living people you regard as role models for their courage to tell the truth?
Rabbi: I’ve listened to Stern. I think that most of the time he’s just acting like a twelve year old boy who drank a bit too much Jolt. But there have been times when his humor touched on the level of Lenny Bruce (z’l) or Carlin. I do think that it is sad that his family life crashed – all of a sudden his comedy wasn’t so cute. Living people who have the courage to tell the truth? I like the performance art crowd – Lisa Kron, Karen Finley, Deb Margolin, Danny Hoch – they are in-your-face but wise to the ways in which we live now.
LF: How should we react to friends who smoke marijuana or use other illegal drugs? How should we react to friends who regularly drink to excess and drive while intoxicated?
Rabbi: Each case is different. I have a couple of friends in recovery and I try to support them as best I can. If friends are casual users, I generally don’t comment. If I had a friend who was drinking to excess and driving a vehicle, I would do everything possible to stop them. I have kids—so the idea of drunk drivers pulling up my driveway is not something I can live with.
LF: Is it OK to engage in vice moderately? Vices such as porn, drugs, drunkenness, prostitution, sexual promiscuity, gambling?
Rabbi: I think that each one of these vices presents a different case and that there are different levels. I have a covenant with my wife that excludes a number of these vices, even moderately, so in those cases it is definitely not OK.
LF: Do you believe that drugs such as marijuana should be criminalized? What about cocaine, heroin, speed and the like?
Rabbi: To be honest, I’m worried most about Meth so I’m not about to say that we should legalize drugs. But if alcohol is legal, marijuana should be legal too. I don’t see it as being any more harmful. Not sure what I think about heroin or cocaine. But I’d criminalize the sale, not the use.
LF: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Rabbi: When I realized that I couldn’t make it as a basketball star? A lawyer.
LF: Where were you in the social pecking order in high school?
Rabbi: Voted “Friendliest” in the school.
LF: Why did you become a rabbi?
Rabbi: Wanted to stay in school, study philosophy.
LF: How has your choice of profession affected you?
Rabbi: When I did hospital and prison chaplaincy training I realized that the most important things to learn were not in books. I’ve written a lot about this on my blog www.rabbidanielbrenner.
LF: Why did you choose to become a Reconstructionist rabbi?
Rabbi: Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan might have been a cranky man but he was a visionary thinker. I dig science, so I wanted to study the thought of someone who tried to reconcile modernity and maximal traditional ritual…not that he’s perfect (especially on theology) but he was a brilliant guy who has shaped Judaism for the last seventy years. I also wanted to learn with Dr. Art Green who teaches chasidoot and was prez of the RRC at the time. The idea that one could fuse a rational thinker and a mystical tradition sounded like a good tension to me.
LF: What excites you and what depresses you about Jewish life?
Rabbi: Excites me? Music. There is always good Jewish music coming out — like Deleon and Sway Machinery – I really love Jewish music. Depresses me? The extremes on the Israel front. I am depressed about Jews who hate Israel and about Jews who hate Arabs – they both bring me down. Other things that excite me – Aviva Zornberg’s drashot, going to study at Hartman Institute this summer, my friend Kevin who studies Sofrut, listening to my sons chant Megillah.