Lady Gaga, Charlie Sheen and Moses: Celebrities and Heroes in American Life
by Rabbi Eric Yoffie
Originally posted on The Huffington Post
For most of the last century, Americans — and especially religiousAmericans — have been expressing concern about who is a hero inAmerica. Religious Americans today are particularly distressed aboutcelebrity culture and the inclination of their children to findsomething heroic in the antics of Lady Gaga or whoever else may be thelatest focus of celebrity gossip. A number of weighty theories havedeveloped about the meaning of America’s celebrity obsession; some claimthat celebrities have been deified by young people who lack a moralcenter and that celebrity worship has become a substitute fortraditional religion. I offer three thoughts on the subject of Americanheroes.
First, young Americans do not worship celebrities. They do not seeLady Gaga, Lindsey Lohan and Charlie Sheen as worthy of emulation orsources of inspiration. They love celebrities and the gossip surroundingthem but mostly as a source of entertainment and distraction. Ofcourse, celebrity status is inflated today because of ourmedia-saturated culture; we can learn more details, engage in moregossip, and be endlessly titillated by inside stories and franklanguage. Nonetheless, young people are fully aware that most celebritylives are devoid of real purpose or value. And even for the young, theirinterest has a strong element of schadenfreude: They watch the rise ofcelebrities, knowing that in most cases the rise will be followedquickly by a fall. Indeed, if young people have a problem, it is notthat celebrities are their heroes; it is that they have no heroes atall.
Second, when it comes to heroes, parents have hardly set a goodexample. Even when they recognize authentic heroes, they seem unable toremember them and honor them in an appropriate way. The 9/11 FirstResponders are the most recent example. At a defining moment in ourcountry’s history, these Americans responded with great devotion, loveof country, and physical courage to guarantee the safety and security oftheir fellow citizens. And yet, a decade later, with many suffering anddying of disease, they were brushed aside by a political establishmentthat had acclaimed their actions and sang their praises. If it had notbeen for the intervention of Jon Stewart — a comedian — it is likelythat these heroes would have been ignored and forgotten. I am notcertain that this is a matter of American self-absorption, but it iscertainly indicative of fleeting attention spans and an absence of moralseriousness.
Third, in a world devoid of heroes, religious Americans have aspecial responsibility to offer the young examples of heroes with whomthey can identify and who inspire personal transformation. We have aready source of such heroes in our religious texts, and especially theBible. There we find accounts of spiritual heroes, moral heroes andmilitary heroes, who can serve as an example to the young and who offerpractical values that enrich their lives. In my own classes, I oftenfocus on lesser known Biblical characters, because the young like tofind their inspiration in unconventional places. As one example, I askthem to consider the case of Pharoah’s daughter. This young woman isgiven no name in the Biblical account and appears in only a few versesin the early sections of the Exodus story (Exodus 2:5-10). Why is she ahero? There are multiple reasons, as young people quickly point out.Because in a heartless society she demonstrated compassion toward anabandoned child. Because she defied the cruel edicts of an absoluteruler who had called for the murder of innocent children. Because shewas courageous — adopting a child, after all, was a demonstrativepublic act, certain to infuriate Egyptian rulers. Because in saving thechild she was defying not only the authorities but her own father — asensitive and difficult point, but an important one. Because inrebelling against the apparatus of the Egyptian state, she was rejectingthe privileges of her own class and siding with an oppressed minority.Did this nameless heroine make a difference? Well, yes. She changed thecourse of history.
Lady Gaga is bizarre and interesting, and celebrity figures are awonderful diversion. Nonetheless, true heroes, such as this bravedaughter of an ancient ruler, are in a different moral category. Asociety without heroes is a society in moral peril, and our children arehungry for role models who can give their lives purpose. Turning to ourancient texts and traditions, religious Americans need to fill thevacuum.