L.A. Rabbi David Wolpe lays into the family of Sam Horowitz, whose viral bar mitzva video has launched a thousand kibitzers. Surprising myself, I think Wolpe overdoes it at the expense of an undeserving kid. Here’s the meat of Wolpe’s oped:
The egregious, licentious and thoroughly awful video that is circulating ‘celebrating’ a Bar Mitzvah contains so much that is offensive that it requires restraint to hold oneself to three ways in which this display slaughters the spirit. Still, in the face of excess what could be more appropriate than abstinence? So here are only three of the worst things about this travesty:
1. 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. If it is fetching, it is worthy. A beat justifies all else, and the rapt attention of an (dare I hope incredulous?) audience, is its own justification. Here is a spectacle on the order of throwing Christians to lions — that is, toss belief into the arena of appetite. Everything is fair game if the show is good enough. The usual phrase set above the ark in a synagogue is “know before whom you stand.” Perhaps it is time to change it to “Flesh Vincit Omnia.” Rockette Ruach.
A couple of things that might give Wolpe pause. First. as Allison Kaplan Sommer reports, the bar mitzvah boy donated his $36,000 in gift money to Israel’s Ben Yakir Youth Village. Would the kids there rather accept such an amount like that from a “thoroughly awful” spectacle” like the Horowitz bar mitzvah, or a lesser amount from a tasteful Kiddush luncheon at Wolpe’s shul? As Tevye might say, ask the recipients.
And, as Adam Soclof points out, Sam’s was hardly the world’s most outrageous bar/bat mitzvah party. (That prize, he suggests, goes to David H. Brooks. “In 2005, the then-CEO of a military equipment defense contractor threw his daughter, Elizabeth, a $10 million bat mitzvah celebration featuring appearances by Tom Petty, the Eagles, Aerosmith, 50 Cent and Kenny G. Two years after the party, Brooks was arrested for multi-million dollar fraud.”)
If anything, the only differences between this bar mitzva party and probably dozens that take place every weekend is that a/ the video went public and b/ the family ramped up the fabulousness by two or three notches. Everything else about it — the dancing women, the name in lights — is de rigueur in many communities.
But here is one other factor Wolpe might consider before judging Sam (and not only his generous gift to an Israeli boarding school): context. Sam’s mom tells JTA that he wants to be “really famous” in the entertainment industry and that he “loves fashion.” So is Sam’s production really a “child sexualization of spirit,” as Wolpe puts it, or a budding young artist’s celebration of the things he cares about most? The act itself owes less to the bump and grind of the dance floor than the kick and strut of the Broadway stage. (Sam has already done some professional gigs as a performer, Soclof reports).
Take a look at the image above. That’s not a horny teen twerking with hired hotties. There’s more than enough to suggest that this a liberating moment for a boy who marches and kicks to a different drummer. (Not that there would be anything wrong with that. ) As the Mishnah teaches, “Judge to the side of merit.”