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American Idol

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2006-05-27

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Britain has made some positive contributions to world culture over the years.

But all this counts for very little compared to the impact of Britain’s rude, bad-tempered export, Simon Cowell, and his show ‘Pop Idol’, now transformed into ‘American Idol’. A whopping 34 million Americans watch ‘American Idol’ weekly on television and (don’t ask me how or why), casting as many as 60 million votes by telephone for those competitors they want to win. Of these, apparently 35% believed their vote was more important than voting for the President of the United States. So is this the greatest exercise in democracy, or the sign of the Fall of the Roman (American) Empire?

On the other hand Mattisyahu, the Orthodox nouveau Hassidic rapper from Brooklyn who sounds like the reincarnation of Bob Marley (shame on you if the name means nothing to you, brother), has an album called YOUTH that reached number 4 in the American hit charts and is selling millions. (He is, ‘tell it not in Gat’, outselling the Tanya.) In the words of The Times’ reviewer of his sell-out Manchester concert, ‘His show breathes new life into the reggae formula...He expresses unequivocal support for the aspirations of the Israeli people…He won’t be the first pop ‘messiah’ whose fans have been swept along by the star’s commitment to his cause while not necessarily signing up for the full manifesto.’

Is Mattisyahu a pop idol? And what exactly is his audience focusing on? Is it the music or the way he lives his life and his values?

The very word ‘idol’ gives the game away. Idolatry in Biblical terms is the total abandon to licentious, lascivious self-indulgence as the primary ‘good’ required by the gods of Canaan and Egypt. The more you indulge, the happier you make them. Jewish opposition was predicated on the fact that there was no general ethical, judicial system to protect the weak and disadvantaged. In the words of the Book of Judges, ‘Each man did whatever was right in his own eyes.’ By the time of the Romans, idolatry was no longer a matter of whether there was a legal system, but rather whether wealth and power allowed you to flout it, and whether one exercised any kind of sexual restraint at all. Worship of House Idols was the superstitious expectation of receiving preferential treatment.

An idol, as we know, is an object that humans worship. It has no intrinsic value other than that it is worshipped for quite baseless and spurious reasons.  So a pop idol is someone worshipped unreasonably for no inherent talent, unlike a hero who is, in theory, worshipped or admired for some heroic deed or persona. I accept that to call it worshipping sounds a little extreme. But not having ‘other gods’ means not allowing ones life to be dominated by spurious things. What could be more spurious than the fact that someone should command a salary of millions for the ability to hit a ball with an implement occasionally during the course of the year, whereas a nurse, social worker or teacher (forget rabbis) should only get a few thousand?  This can only mean that ‘market forces’ reflect the idolatry of our material values.

Indeed being led astray by gods of gold is not new. The Children of Israel worshipped the Golden Calf. They knew it was only made out of the gold they had contributed. They invested it with imagined powers and used it as the authority for having an orgy. After Solomon’s son Rehoboam was unable to keep control of all the twelve tribes, ten split off as the new Kingdom of Israel with Jeroboam as their king. He wasn’t going to have his people all traipse up to Jerusalem, in enemy territory, three times a year and spend their tourist bucks in Judea. So he set up two competing Temples in Dan and Bethel. And guess what--he put two golden calves in them. The belief in the Golden Calf must have persisted long after Moses ground the first one in to dust. Unless of course you are a Da Vinci Code fan, in which case the original Golden Calf was really sequestered and hidden until Jeroboam’s sleuths deciphered the clues and reinstated one and made a copy to confuse treasure hunters! Shame about the best-seller!

But why were they so easily fooled? It’s because it was easier to believe in a Golden Calf than to make the effort to try to understand a non-physical untouchable force (or a concept for that matter).

Why even the Archbishop of Canterbury, who should know something about idol worshipping, this week protested at the popular preoccupation with ‘personalities’ who are treated as such simply because they made idiots of themselves on the ‘Big Brother’ television series or ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.’ Once upon time a personality or a celebrity was someone who achieved a degree of distinction for some contribution he or she made to society, culture even religion. Nowadays notoriety in itself is enough. In part this is because most people’s lives are so empty they crave anything instant that will enhance their pathetic existence. The dumbing down of society is a myth. The mass of humanity was always dumb. In the past their excitement came from religion and wars. You see it still in the sadder parts of our globe. Nowadays it comes from television, popular music, drugs and ‘Hello’ Magazine. Humans always gravitate to the lowest common denominator and the easiest fix. That’s human nature. Only a few work hard. The majority skive or do the minimum to get by on.

So many teenagers and adults I know long for the lottery ticket, the big deal, the talent competition victory, as paths to an easy life. Idol and idle sound very similar. In the famous Peter Sellers sketch, Cyril the rock star, is asked if being a teenage idol has changed him. ‘Naa,’ he replies ‘I was idle before I was a teenager.’

I used to believe that if you had a religious pop singer he’d convert thousands, millions to Judaism. But it doesn’t work that way. Will Matisyahu change people’s attitude to Judaism? We’ve got our religious ‘personalities,’ our pop kabbalists, our ‘tele-preachers’ and our rappers, but everyone’s just interested in the surface, the superficial, the idol, not the manifesto. ‘I’ll vote for something that’s easy, not for something that makes me think!’ Or ‘I’ll vote if I can do it on my phone, so long as I don’t have to make the effort to get up and go to a polling station.’

You might think religion has failed. Indeed, it has in the way it presents itself and has come to be identified with all the wrong causes and attitudes. But the religious message has not failed. It’s just that once upon a time religion, religious music, religious art or oratory was the only diversion for the masses. So of course they turned up in their hordes to be entertained. Nowadays they’ve all got digital TV, MP3 player, phone camera and DVDs at home. It’s all so easy and so much less demanding.

That’s why idolatry is back in a big way and 35 million idol worshippers are worshipping golden calves all over again.

Visit Rabbi Jeremy Rosen on the web: www.JeremyRosen.com