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.
“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.
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.
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.
I’m sorry too.