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Rabbis Should Stop Sermonizing About Celebrities

I’ll never forget the time I heard a Rabbi spend 15 minutes of his speech putting down Eddie Vedder. I was sitting right behind him right at the front of the Beis Midrash (study hall) facing the students. Knowing how much I liked Pearl Jam, the entire student body kept looking at me for my reaction. I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat, kept my eyes down and tried to calculate the correct response.

As a new member of the staff, I didn’t want to contradict the more established and older Rabbi but his denigration of Mr. Vedder seemed colossally unfair and off base. Was he actually a lowlife? How are we defining lowlife? What do we truly know about Eddie Vedder’s personal life and values? If our definition of a healthy person comes from Torah, is someone who grew up without being exposed to Torah automatically a lowlife? If Eddie is, in fact, a lowlife does that mean that his music has no value? His lyrics do not usually reflect negative values so why should his personal life matter? Questions like these were racing through my mind, and I had no clear answers.

When it was over, I was surrounded by students asking me what I thought of the speech. I answered honestly that I found it confusing and had to think about it. Well, it is 20 years later, and I’ve thought about it. A lot. I have clarity on how wrong that speech was and I’m prepared to identify that speech and others of its ilk as part of a problem Orthodox Judaism is facing today.

Teaching the right way to act by bringing negative examples of people who don’t act that way is not very effective but at least makes some sense if the people in the example were trying to act correctly and failed. However, Eddie Vedder is not Jewish and is not trying to live based on the guiding principles of the Torah. Using him as a foil to teach Torah makes as much sense as teaching someone how to build wooden shelves by showing them pictures of disgruntled postal employees.

Despite the fact that these kinds of examples are nonsensical and cause collateral damage, they are frequently used within the walls of the Yeshiva. Here’s why.

Everyone knows the best way to teach is by example. The most-effective examples are as realistic as possible so the student can relate, maybe even visualize himself in a similar situation and realize that he could learn to emulate the example. As a community, we have a real problem with this as we are not up front about our failures. Rabbis by definition are teachers and intuitively know the power of teaching by example, but the expectation of perfection acts as a handicap.

We have biographies of great men that omit almost any true account of their struggles, and it is almost unheard of for a Rabbi to discuss his own personal moral struggles and failures. Ask a few friends if they can think of a Rabbi in the last 500 years that overcame serious struggles with moral issues or who had any issues (other than poor health and poverty) at all. I can’t think of any. We’ve created a fantasy of perfection forcing Rabbis and students alike to adopt public personae that may be out of sync with reality. Worse, because of this fantasy culture, when a Rabbi does admit moral failure his listeners assume that there is something wrong with him and have a hard time considering him to be a worthy teacher.

So when a celebrity does something not in accordance with the morals of the Torah, Rabbis subconsciously see a safe opportunity to talk about failure and grab it, not realizing the absurdity involved.

A recent example of this is an article on the death of Robin Williams by Rabbi Yaakov Menken. Menken dresses his sermonizing up in the guise of universal values;

“Entertainers are not sharing happiness, they are acting. Comedians practice their art and make people laugh… and then go home, where life isn’t funny. They aren’t creating something real, or (usually) making a lasting difference in someone’s life, so the feelings of accomplishment are similarly transient. Thus the need to escape.

True happiness is not found via entertainment. Happiness is tied to attainment, to achievement, especially to attaining completion as a person.”

Menken then defines happiness for us based on some teachings of Torah scholars from the last couple of hundred years.

A lot of people read Rabbi Menken’s article and reacted negatively but were hard pressed to explain why. There are a number of reasons why I don’t like it – here are two;

  1. I’m not convinced by the premise that entertainment is valueless and that comedians “aren’t creating something real.” We have a comedic tradition in our communities called “badchanus.” Do “badchanim” only have transient feelings of accomplishment? They go home to lives that are presumably not funny too, does that invalidate the valuable service they provide to their communities?
  2. What human being over the age of 25 thinks that true happiness is found via entertainment? On what planet do these people live? Even if there are a few unfortunate earthlings who do subscribe to that theory – does that cancel the value of entertainment as an occasional balance to life’s struggles for the rest of the planet?

The questions I’ve asked above are discussion worthy, and the article does the thinking person a disservice by assuming the most-negative answers as fact. But what bothers me most about the article is that Rabbi Menken uses Robin Williams’ life accomplishments, struggles and failures and suicide as a foil to sermonize about Jewish values and in doing so cavalierly trivializes his life while not helping us much with ours.

(cross posted on rabbiskaist.com)

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rav shmuel

Rav Shmuel is a Rabbi who hangs out in Greenwich Village and plays original compositions on his guitar and ukulele. On the rare occasions when he is not posting artistically rendered photographs on Instagram he can be found posting random videos to Facebook. A few times a year someone holds a gun to his head and says "blog!" So he does.
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2 Comments

  1. themiddle

    8/19/2014 at 1:46 am

    Thanks for the thoughtful article.

    Part of the problem is that for some reason celebrities do occupy significant space in our culture and those who use them as examples are well aware of this. By using them as foils, they are also riding their coattails and seeking to share some of that space. In other words, it probably isn’t going to stop.

    Ironically, unlike the rabbinical history you bring up, very often with celebrities their flaws and errors are part of their public image and persona, partly because it serves them and partly because the eyes of society are upon them intrusively at all times. Rabbis don’t have to deal with this type of constant monitoring. In the instances where I’ve seen rabbis (not Orthodox, since that’s not my world) break this ideal of perfect behavior (namely with affairs), they have lost their jobs and were challenged to find new ones leading congregations.

  2. A.F. Kaplan

    8/27/2014 at 10:33 pm

    Why are Rabbis sermonizing about celebrities? It’s quite simple: To draw attendance of their congregants. Or, to put it more bluntly, to get butts in the seats at the temple or synagogue.

    For better or worse, we live in a world where celebrity is a commodity. The general public is fascinated by them, so much so that celebrity has permeated every level of our society. The influence of celebrity is everywhere and in everything, including religion. Long story short, celebrity sells.

    Using this tactic may work as far as getting congregants into the temple or synagogue, but I cannot help but wonder if going this route is in the best interests of both temple and congregants, both short and long-term.

    Call me old fashioned, but I always thought that temple was supposed to be a House of G-d, not an outlet for celebrity grist. In my humble opinion, using celebrities for sermonizing demeans the experience of worship. The congregants deserve better, and so does our faith.

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