Rabbi David Wolpe, one of the most respected rabbis in the nation who’s widely revered for his personal sensitivity and thoughtful sermons, has just apologized for publicly humiliating a 13-year-old boy, who, the rabbi wrote: “poorly approximates a pubescent Justin Timberlake.”

It was wrong to be so mean, Wolpe wrote in a Tuesday (Aug. 20) column in the Washington Post’s OnFaith forum. In that same space five days earlier, Wolpe had unleashed a critique of Dallas teen Sam Horowitz’s over-the-top bar mitzvah party, a professional video of which has gone viral.Screen shot 2013-08-20 at 4.07.48 PM

The article was written in white heat,” Wolpe wrote.

That’s how many of us who care about sacred ceremonies felt after watching the video. It’s an orgy of narcissism and excess. It was also fun, I must admit, to be outraged. That’s only one reason why David Wolpe’s apology can be hard to read.

It’s painful to watch a good soul publicly admit to having acted otherwise, especially if, in the process, he so creatively and precisely described an outrage. But it’s still more painful if you — even privately — committed the same sin.

If David Wolpe feels the need to atone for his reaction to this kid’s bar mitzvah party video, should not I?

In these days leading up to Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, a big-time rabbi’s apology serves to remind that none of us who claim to observe the holiday are exempt from its requirement: if you have wronged someone, own it – and not just in your head. You have to apologize and make the best amends you can.

“The holidays are coming,” he wrote. “I intend to examine my soul, understand my misdeeds and try to do better.”

And though it may be piling sin upon sin to increase circulation of this video, here it is. Watch it if you can without feeling self-righteous.

Here is some of what Wolpe wrote about it:

To turn a ceremony of spiritual maturation into a Vegas showgirl parade teaches a child sexualization of spirit. Apparently nothing in our society militates against the narcissistic display of short skirted dancers ushering an adolescent into unearned stardom.

He goes on:

Bar Mitzvah means something and however beautiful his religious ceremony may have been, and however sincere the Judaism of his family (I don’t know and cannot judge) it is drowned out by the cymbal crash of hip grinding libertinism.

Sam Horowitz’s rabbi, William Gershon, of Congregation Shearith Israel in Dallas, wrote a public and calm but stinging response to Wolpe: you hurt a boy you don’t know.

Before his blowout party, Gershon wrote, Sam diligently studied Torah for years, and has long been an involved and productive member of the congregation. He requested no presents for his bar mitzvah, only donations for  under-privileged kids in Israel.

“The three minute dance he performed at his party, however questionable, hardly portrays a complete picture of who Sam is or his core values,” Gershon wrote.

Gershon continued:

I have no problem with a rabbi railing against materialism, misplaced values, or exhorting the community to understand the sacred nature of Bar Mitzvah and its meaning. I have written and spoken about such issues for years in my own community. My issue with what you wrote, David, has to do with the vituperative tone of your words— the way they mock and humiliate one of the children of my synagogue in the public forum. Sam is not an object. He is a Tzelem Elohim, an image of God, who happens to have a passion for acting, dancing and singing.

Ouch.

Then he minded Wolpe that this is the Hebrew month of Elul, “a month of self-reflection and repentance,” and asked that Wolpe apologize to Sam.

So of course Rabbi Wolpe apologized.

I’m sorry too.

12 Comments

  1. Jana Riess

    Fascinating article — I hadn’t heard about any of this.

    I got to interview Rabbi Wolpe years ago about a book he had written, and found him to be kind, engaging, and humble. It was classy of him to apologize for the personal remark, even though I agree with the general tenor of his criticisms of the video.

  2. Lauren Markoe

    Lauren Markoe

    Article author

    I agree totally: very classy apology, and it doesn’t mean he was wrong on obnoxious Bar Mitzvah parties — even if (and I think Wolpe makes this point well) the Bar Mitzvah ceremonies themselves are approached reverently. There shouldn’t be such a disconnect between what happens in the synagogue and what happens afterward in the party hall, or, in this case, a ballroom at the Omni.

    • Daniel Berry, NYC

      I can’t say that I see anything wrong with the “sexualization of the spirit” (as if our interior lives were, somehow, non-erotic); but this kind of tawdriness doesn’t align too well with my idea of Bar Mitzvah. Call me old-fashioned.

      As to Rabbi Gershon, I’m sure he’s paid well to enable this type of showiness.

      • Lauren Markoe

        Lauren Markoe

        Article author

        Rabbi Gershon did not in any way defend “this type of showiness.” He actually questions it. Go read his response. It’s linked in the piece.

  3. Shalom Freedman

    He should not have had to apologize. The whole thing is ridiculous as part of a Bar- Mitzvah celebration. If he wanted to have a party he could have done this at a separate event but why involve it with the Bar-MItzvah?
    I would not have criticized the youngster, but rather have said a few words about his Rabbi an his parents.
    Where has basic common sense gone?

    • Lauren Markoe

      Lauren Markoe

      Article author

      As the piece makes clear, as do the rabbis — this event was separate from the Bar Mitzvah. Rabbi Wolpe was arguing that it’s still very inappropriate, and Rabbi Gershon, if you read his words, was not disagreeing with that.

  4. “It’s painful to watch a good soul publicly admit to having acted otherwise”

    Is it? I can’t say that has been my experience.

    Surely for an admirer of Rabbi Wolpe the pain would in witnessing him do wrong in the first place. His acknowledgement of, and apology for, that wrong should atone not only for the harm (if any) done to the target of his wrongful act, but for the pain caused to those who thought him a better man.

    When those I admire admit to getting something wrong, whether it causes harm or not, I admire them more for correcting their mistakes than for doubling down. I can only hope most other people feel the same way as such approval is an incentive for all of us to correct our behaviour.

  5. Lauren Markoe

    Lauren Markoe

    Article author

    I do admire him for correcting his mistake. He sets a good example by doing so – that’s why I wrote the piece. But it can still be painful to watch a person apologize, especially a person who tries hard to do good in the world, even if you believe the apology was necessary. I felt for a good guy grappling with his own, owned mistake.

  6. Ok, lets not blow things out of proportion. Its not like they were strippers…they were professional dancers wearing outfits appropriate for DANCING! Its not like they showed up like that for shul. And that cute and talented kid DANCED with them, with choreography he probably worked really hard at to learn. There was no lap dancing, no grinding, no twerking. Keep things in perspective people. While I don’t agree with the criticism, I thought the apology from Rabbi Wolpe was very classy and sincere.

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