Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Last week my colleague Rabbi Jason Miller shared the story of a 21-year-old college student named Brett Cohn.
Cohn decided to do a little experiment. He hired a film crew, some body guards, and several photographers with bright lights and microphones. He then asked them to accompany him as he walked through Times Square in New York.
Guess what happened? He was inundated. Kids wanted his autograph. Tourists had their picture taken with him. The film crew asked random pedestrians what they thought of Brett Cohn. They raved that they were his biggest fans!
We All Worship Something
What does this story say about our culture? What does it say about what we value? Do we admire for people for what they do or for how famous they are?
Before we get too hard on ourselves, we should remember that people have always been impressed with what seems big, shiny and new. Before people worshipped celebrities, they worshiped different gods. That’s part of the story told in the Hebrew Bible.
The big celebrity of biblical times was a god named Ba-al. The Hebrew word literally means “master.” He had lots of raving fans. The Hebrew God was very different.
He was not flashy, loud and surrounded by raving fans. The story of the prophet Elijah illustrates this beautifully. Elijah is alone upon Mount Sinai. The Bible tells us that a whirlwind appears. God was not in the whirlwind. Then an earthquake. But God was not in the earthquake. Then a raging fire. But God is not in the fire. Then God speaks to Elijah in a still small voice. (1 Kings 19)
Judaism resists the idols of the ages. Celebrities are the idols of our age. They can block us from appreciating our true heroes.
The great historian Daniel Boorstin makes this argument from both an historical and contemporary perspective. “The hero,” he writes, “was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media. The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name. Celebrity-worship and hero-worship should not be confused.”
How true! Making idols of celebrities not only creates embarrassing stories like Brett Cohn’s experiment. It also undermines our gratitude for the people who really do make a difference. The antidote to a culture of celebrity is a culture of humility.
Humility is not meekness. It is an openness to something larger than the self. It is found in listening rather than speaking. In looking at other people as ends and not means. It is listening not to the loudest voice. But to the still, small voice of conscience within us.