Rabbi Steven Pruzansky

The Sages of the Talmud understood the value of entertainment, best exemplified by this passage in Masechet Taanit 22a: “Elijah the Prophet pointed out to Rav Beroka two people whom he characterized as worthy of the world-to-come. Asked by Rav Beroka what their special merit was, they answered, “Anshei badochay anan,” we are comedians, jesters. When people are sad, we cheer them up.” Sometimes, distractions are important –  comedians can even merit the world-to-come – but only as long as they are perceived as distractions.

The celebrity world took a big hit in the last few weeks – major stars have died: Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Ed McMahon, Karl Malden, and my own favorite, Billy Mays, the product hawker. All death is sad, but some of these deaths – one in particular – evoked almost a national grief that hasn’t yet ended, as if these were people of real accomplishment who were personally known to the mourners, as opposed to being just entertainers, anshei badochay, entertainers, whom we think we knew but did not at all.

Indeed, these were people who serviced particular needs that we have, and in that sense no different than the plumber or the grocer, who also service our needs. If you doubt that, then ponder this: Michael Jackson is probably the first person in history whose will was filed for probate before his body was placed in the ground. Priorites…! It is apparently more important to find out how much money he had, where he had it and who is to get it than to actually bury him, which to date – two weeks post-demise – has yet to happen. The sycophants who surrounded him used him, as he used them and an “adoring public” that tormented his life – literally made it unlivable. How exploited was he ? Well, his funeral required a producer, which could open up a new line of work for people in these troubled economic times (the polar opposite, I suppose, of the “party planner.”)

So what do we know about these – all talented, to be sure – and how are they different from the butcher or the baker, who are also talented in their own way ? One thing: fame.

They are famous, some are famous for being famous – but we think we know them because they have fame. But fame is a drug, and in America it is one of the most addictive drugs. On some level, we all want to be known; no one wants to toil in anonymity for 80 years and then disappear without a trace. But fame has become an end in itself, and not the consequence of any particular set of accomplishments. That is why America suffers occasionally from young men who mass murder perfect strangers – because, as they concede, at least they will die famous, and they lack the ability to achieve fame in a more productive or conventional way.

Thus, it is no surprise that the United States Senate now boasts a real comedian as a member, to join the other 99 comedians who are about as funny as the professional. Nor is it any surprise that Sarah Palin resigned her office; it is perfectly logical – even taking her statements at face value regarding the media torment she endured, her desire to work for her causes, write a book, etc. Celebrities, not people of real accomplishment, win elections today. The White House offers Exhibit #1 of this doctrine. Sarah Palin, if she runs for higher office, would not have even served one full term as governor – but nor did Barack Obama complete even one term – even sponsor one important piece of legislation – in the Senate. But it is unnecessary, and to an extent counter-productive to winning elections, to actually demonstrate any real achievement. She is in a much better position – if higher office is her goal – giving speeches, writing books, hosting talk shows, perhaps even doing modeling or movie cameos than by actually governing Alaska. Politicans are more advantaged by glibly talking about what they would like to do than by actually doing something. Governance is a slog.

This is the celebrity culture run amok, with an obvious and deleterious effect on governance, nurtured by a mass media that is as insipid as it is shallow, and by an electorate that votes based on the likeability of candidates rather than their policies.

But we are drowning in this celebrity culture, and all of us are affected by it. We all look for attention, even notoriety, as proof of our existence and worth – but in fact it is proof of neither. People are consumed by the mundane activities of “celebrities” who are hounded and harassed by photographers who give them no rest and deprive them and their families of normal lives, all to feed the insatiable appetites of the public, and the egos of the stars (many of whom would find being ignored a worse fate than being harassed). And those who cannot acquire fame themselves often seek to cultivate a false relationship with those who have fame, so they will share in the derivative glory. Hence, the institution of the “fan” – in sports, entertainment, etc. – which begs the question: is life so empty that the distractions are the focal point ? For many people, tragically, the answer is “yes.”

The paradox is that fame is often required to accomplish even important things. Unknown people can’t change the world – so how do we avoid falling into that trap ? What is the difference between good fame and bad fame ?

The answer is apparent from our daily prayers. Every morning we recite verses from Nechemia, including this statement (9:10): “Because of the signs and wonders You (G-d) imposed upon Pharaoh… You brought Yourself renown as clear as day.” G-d became famous as a result of the Exodus from Egypt ! So too, if we Jews are worthy, G-d makes us supreme over the nations “for praise, renown and glory” (Devarim 26:19). In both instances, the word shaim, literally, name, or here, fame, renown, is used. What is a shaim ?

Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch commented that the “name” is the essence of an entity, that which makes him sham, literally “there,” a presence; the “name” is the person’s real identity. Fame that comes naturally as a result of a person’s essence – his knowledge of Torah, his mitzvot, his good deeds, or his moral aspirations – is laudable. It is a reflection of his soul. But fame that comes as a result of a person’s incidental features is often lamentable; in a sense, it detracts from the person’s humanity. He will be perceived as caricature, as a one-dimensional distraction from what really has meaning and importance in life. That one can sing, dance, paint or act – or has twelve toes or two heads – is interesting, a talent, but they do not represent expressions of the soul, and thereby cannot reflect that person’s essence. It is the inner world that is most meaningful and has the greatest impact on the real life of others.

When the heathen prophet Bil’am looked at the Jewish people and exclaimed – “how goodly are your tents, Yaakov,” he saw that the entrances to our private homes were not aligned, so one could not gaze into another’s home from one’s own. That is, he saw that Jews – ideally – are restrained, private, modest, and not addicted to the allures of fame and glamour. He saw that real fame emerges from what an individual accomplishes in his personal tent – his home – and what his reputation is in Mishkenotecha Yisrael, the holy places of the Jewish people. That is true fame that should be celebrated.

That is what matters. All else is of little significance, all else is caricature, all else is the exterior of the person that doesn’t matter much – in the long or short term. Thus, when Micha the Prophet underscored for us, what all mankind wants to know – what is the good, and what does G-d want from us – he answered (6:8): “to do justice and love kindness and to walk humbly with G-d,” mindful that our task in life is not to fawn over the ersatz fame of the distractions but to add renown to G-d and sanctify His name, to give our lives meaning rather than to bask in the illusory achievements of others.

Perhaps this should be one goal of the thinking Jew in our world – to publicize the parameters of true fame and the objectives of the fulfilling life – for our betterment and that of all mankind. Because if we don’t, then an American society that is increasingly decadent and intellectually flabby will be even less capable of living in the real world – of terrorists, nukes, and evildoers who are uninterested in singers and dancers and those who mortgage their years on earth rejoicing in their fame and mourning their demise.

Rabbi Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author most recently of ?Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim? (Geffen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2009). His writings and lectures can be found at Rabbipruzansky.com.