Superstar Culture

By Avrohom Birnbaum

“Ford was one of the last Presidents that wanted to be a hero not a superstar.”

These were the words used by the legendary Secretary of State from the Nixon era, Henry Kissinger, in numerous media interviews to describe Nixon’s successor, the late president Gerald Ford, who died last week.

Kissinger, who also served as Ford’s Secretary of State, wrote, “The modern politician is less interested in being a hero than a superstar. Heroes walk alone; stars derive their status from approbation. Heroes are defined by inner values, stars by consensus. When a candidate’s views are forged in focus groups and ratified by television anchorpersons, insecurity and superficiality become congenital. Radicalism replaces liberalism, and populism masquerades as conservatism.”

In Kissinger’s view, Ford was a leader in the heroic mold.

Of course, Kissinger’s words bring to mind the superstar populism of Bill Clinton who seemed to make everything he did be about “him,” not about the nation that he was supposed to be governing.

They also bring to mind his successor, President Bush, who although not nearly as absorbed with the cult of his own personality as Clinton was and is…, still seems driven too often by consensus and superficiality rather than his core values. His tendency to overlook Palestinian terrorism and Saudi state sponsorship of radical Islam are but two examples of times when his core value, of “Either you are with us, or with the terrorists” have been compromised.

It is no secret that in today’s day and age, virtually every politician cares more about being a superstar than being a hero. The people, the country, the basic values of a healthy society have all been sacrificed on the alter of the “superstar” culture.

The Superstar Culture in Torah Observant Society

Unfortunately, as much as we, Torah observant Jews try to isolate ourselves from many of the prevailing norms of the decadent society surrounding us, we do not live in a vacuum. Therefore, the “superstar” culture, the culture that idolizes the “me,” the culture that gives credence to the loud, the brash, the self promotion that so characterizes the American “superstar” culture, has penetrated the walls of our enclosed communities as well.

The Rambam writes that a person is influenced by the surrounding culture and norms of the society in which he lives. This is surely true with regard to the way the “superstar” culture has invaded our little world. There are of course the most obvious ways that it has penetrated and there are other, more subtle, yet equally insidious ways.

Of course, the idolizing of musical performers by many is a prime example. Besides the massive posters plastered on every available telephone pole, announcing a concert and featuring the massive image of one singer or another smiling beatifically at us, one just has to go to a chasunah or venue when one of today’s “superstar” singers or perhaps better put, entertainers, happens to attend. People, especially youth, run to look, watching and in hushed, animated voices talking about him with such awe and avid interest that one would think the godol hador had just entered.

On numerous occasions various publications have chosen to devote articles talking about their lives and even interviewing these singer “superstars”. If the interview would be limited to asking about the singer’s area of expertise—music–it would be one thing, but we find ourselves getting advice from them on other matters too, including but not limited to chinuch habonim, and on Israeli politics.

Why would an interviewer ask them about these matters and why would they answer? Are singers experts in these matters too?

This is a direct by-product of the “superstar” culture where we find Hollywood entertainers are also asked to comment on a whole host of political and social issues far beyond their purview or area of expertise as entertainers.

We should not, however, always be negative. There are many ways in which our generation has even surpassed previous generations.

Limud Hatorah among the masses and chashivus –importance for Torah are two that come to mind. Although the level of knowledge and piety of the Torah giants of previous generations is unattainable today, the degree and level of Torah knowledge that the average layman has today far surpasses that of previous generations both here in America and even in pre-war Europe.

The chashivus for Torah today is also something that in many ways did not exist in previous generations. Today, prospective fathers-in-law fight to get “the best bochur” in the Yeshiva for their daughter and are willing to help support him while he engages in intensive limud hatorah in Kollel. In pre-war Europe the average ben Torah was hard pressed to find a young woman who would agree to marry him. The scope and level on which this has become the norm in today’s society was unheard of in previous generations both in America and Europe.

The Chashivus that we have for great Torah giants is also a wonderful thing that exists in today’s day and age. I cannot forget how recently a nonagenarian spiritual giant from a bygone era visited and, as I was waiting on line to see him and receive a bracha from him, I saw fathers and mothers holding tiny infants in their hands hoping to at least have their baby share a moment in the room in the presence of such kedusha and perhaps even receive a bracha. How wonderful!

Sometimes, however, the yetzer hara is so wily that he can take our most sacred values and unbeknownst to us cause the host “superstar” culture to infiltrate into the kodesh kodoshim too.

I do not know if I am the only one that feels uneasy when I see a massive almost life-like poster of one or another of our gedolei hador, our pure spiritual giants, plastered across a telephone pole or a shul bulletin board. Underneath, the copy writer has found some brash turn of phrase telling us to support that tzedaka as the Rosh Yeshiva/Admor/Posek is doing. Numerous organizations and tzedakos have turned to this kind of advertising of late.

Don’t get me wrong. We should support whatever tzedaka any godol advocates in the most generous way that we can.

The fact that the godol is a tzaddik enough to disregard his own honor in order to help his poor fellow Jews is reason enough to support it. We are well aware of the altruism of our spiritual giants and how they are willing to do anything, even disregard their own honor in order to ease the plight of a fellow Jew. This is but one more example.

Even the fact that askanim have the audacity to even suggest that our great Poskim, Roshei Yeshiva and Admorim should pose for these photo ops, although troubling, perhaps can be given the benefit of diyun l’kaf zechus. They see the terrible plight of the people for whom the money is destined and perhaps as unsavory as it may seem, they are left with no choice.

The question perhaps is how did the superstar culture so infiltrate our own collective tzibbur that the only way that we can be reached and shaken from our reverie is if we see a full length photo screaming in our faces, bombarding our senses, practically clobbering us over the head to give?

How did it infiltrate in a way that the average person is not turned off by the commercialization of that which is most sacred to us. If the advertisers and copywriters would know that the average potential donor is turned off by such an “in your face” way of marketing, they would never do it. On the contrary, the only reason they do it is because it must work.

Why is not the old method of a dignified letter written and signed by the Rosh Yeshiva not enough?

This is definitely not the forum to ask, what came first the chicken or the egg. Did the advertisers create the superstar culture that is now being used or did the terrible plight and unmet tzedakah needs of acheinu bnei Yisroel necessitate a situation of “es laasos l’Hashem heferu Torosecha?.

Suffice it to say, that as a matter of chinuch contemplating how the superstar culture has so invaded our own world and insuring that all that is sacred to us is not tainted by its negative aspects is something that is incumbent upon us all.

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