Friday, February 5, 2010

The Bright Side of "Idol" Worship

Spoiler Alert: I'll be using some of this material as part of my remarks on Shabbat morning at Temple Solel.

Well...lots of people are abuzz about the beginning of the new season of American Idol...especially given the pending addition of Ellen DeGeneres as a new judge.  Check out the video here to see Ellen describe her thoughts about the new gig in her own words.

For me, one of the most interesting things about the Idol phenomenon is how widespread it is.  It's not just the top-rated reality TV show on right now.  It's the number one show period.  And it has been for more than five years!!!!! There are only two other shows in American television history that have sustained this level of popularity for a similar length of time: "All in the Family" and "The Cosby Show."

What is it about "American Idol" that gets so many people excited and worked up?'s a reality show.  And's cool that we can have a say in how things turn out in terms of the winner.

But, for me, what is most interesting about "Idol" is that we - the viewers - are given the power to transform someone that is largely unknown into a major A List celebrity.

In America: we LOVE our celebrities.

We are obsessed with them, actually.

We let them take over our movies, and our television shows.  We demand to see them, and read about them, in any number of magazines.

And it's not only that we idealize their lives....we actually want to become them.

Needless to say, our own Jewish tradition has a lot to say about all of this.  And there's no better place to begin than with this week's Torah portion, Parshat Yitro, which includes the giving of the Ten Commandments:

For our discussion today, we'll put aside all of that stuff about not murdering, etc...and focus in on the Second Commandment:

"You shall have no other gods besides Me.  You shall not make [for] yourself a sculptured image – an idol, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or serve them."  Exodus 20:3-5

In ancient times, this commandment really was concerned with the fact that our Israelite ancestors would be worshipping idols from a polytheistic (belief in multiple gods) religious tradition.  And so, in an effort to establish a contrast between polytheism and monotheism (belief in one god), this commandment was put into effect.

But it would be a mistake for us to think about idol worship in those terms today...for two reasons.  First of all: because Jews (IMHO) shouldn't have a grudge with a well respected religion like Hinduism (which includes the worshipping of gods represented by statues).  More importantly: I read the prohibition against idolatry as a condemnation of anyone that seeks to invest the most important parts of themselves: their hopes and dreams – their own happiness and and fulfillment – in a person or object, rather than in God.

I think this is really important, so I'm going to say it again: I read the prohibition against idolatry as a condemnation of anyone that seeks to invest the most important parts of themselves: their hopes and dreams – their own happiness and fulfillment – in a person or object, rather than in God.

Isn't that what we do when we get overly excited about celebrities?  We project so much respect, love (or is it lust?), and admiration onto celebrities that we not only become obsessed about them (needing to know every minute detail about their weight loss/gain, or about what's going on in their love lives).  But - worse than that - our "respect" for them transforms them into these scary "role models."  We want to be like them.

We want to look like them.  We want to have as much money as them (so that we can have the fancy cars and clothes that they have).  Because we think that we'll then be "happy" like them (in quotes because I wonder how many of them are actually happy).  Our own sense of self esteem and fulfillment is sometimes unhealthily tied to whether or not we are somehow living up to "their standards."  

This is the realm of eating disorders.  Of depression.  And of our young people, especially, struggling to find paths of meaning and fulfillment when they realize that they can't all be "perfect" (again in quotation marks because no such thing exists) like the stars we see on our screens.

Check out this blog post from the New York Times a few days lays out some really interesting food for thought about the relationship between the pressure we put on our celebrities, and the pressure we put on ourselves as we unwittingly seek to be like them.

Our rabbis asked the question: if idol worship is so dangerous to our own personal health, and to the health of our community and society, why didn't God just make it (and everything else that is evil in the world) disappear?

The Zohar, the medieval Jewish sourcebook of Kabbalah and landmark mystical commentary on the Torah, answers that question with the following comment:

"One is forbidden to pray that everything wicked be removed from the world.  For had the Holy One removed Terach from the world when he made and worshipped idols, Abraham would not have come into being."

This is an amazing text.  First of all: it really provides an answer to everyone who questions why there is evil and suffering in the world, by establishing the Jewish belief that (however unlikely it may seem) something good and beautiful can always come out of something horrible and devastating.

More to the point of our discussion here, the Zohar teaches us that Abraham (the first Jew!) was born the son of an idol maker and worshipper.  In similar fashion we are taught to seek out something positive from the so-called idol worship (of celebrities) that is so pervasive in our own time.

In that spirit, I would say that we should use the coming days (which are sort of a nexus of celebrity worship in our society, as we mark the confluence of the Super Bowl, the various movie and music award shows, etc.) to step back and reflect on our own attitudes toward celebrities.  And let's be honest with ourselves when we ask ourselves the questions: how much do I try to be like them?  How much do I want to actually be them?  And how healthy is it, really, to rely on them for our sense of self-esteem, and sense of self-fulfillment.

Those are hard questions.  PARENTS: You might consider reaching out to your kids to ask them.  They need to be asked.  I know it from my own work with teens.  This is not some made up issue.  This is a reality that a lot of our kids are inhabiting.  For their health's sake, let's begin having these difficult that something good might come from this weird celebrity obsession that so many of us suffer from.

Shabbat Shalom.

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