Michael Jackson and God’s Gifts to the World

Posted by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

As I write these words, the memorial service for Michael Jackson is taking place a mere 10 miles away, and is being simultaneously broadcast all over the world. I will begin by confessing that I’ve never been a Michael Jackson fan. I haven’t followed his career, and I can only name a handful of his songs. Yet I found myself strongly moved by his death. And I quickly discovered that this was also true for many others in my immediate circle –  people who can more easily identify Maimonides’ greatest hits than Michael’s, who can readily rattle off the names of the Tzlafchad sisters, but not those of the Jackson brothers.

 When I asked friends why they were moved by Michael Jackson’s death, they invariably began talking about his creativity, and his talent. Being on the planet these last few decades is the only prerequisite for knowing that he was uniquely gifted – for knowing that he was the kind of  artist who comes around once in a century, and redefines his art form. In the poem she wrote for his memorial service, Maya Angelou referred to Jackson’s “creativity that came from the Creator”. As I reflected on these words, I thought about Rav Kook’s perspective on the gift of creativity.

Commenting on the phrase “over the works of Your hands I rejoice”, Rav Kook wrote (in my translation that doesn’t do it justice),  “Song is generated by the soul, and is designed to delight the human being with spiritual delight, to increase his joy and well-being. And one who sees the world with a “good eye” will see the goodness in music. He will see goodness in the fact that the human soul has the capacity to enjoy music. And he will thank God for His kindness in having created the human being in this way.” (From Rav Kook’s commentary to Brachot 58). Unusual creativity in music and dance ultimately derive form God’s design of the universe, Rav Kook is asserting. It is part of God’s blessing to humanity. We can actually sense this Divine influence when we behold breathtaking artistic creativity. And when this kind of special gift leaves the world, we can feel bereft, even if we were never fans. 

But only, as Rav Kook says, if we see the world with a “good eye”, an עין טוב .   I am certain that there are many people who are thinking only about the very odd and disturbing dimensions of Jackson’s life and behavior. And they were odd and disturbing indeed. And some may only be remembering the lyrics to one of his songs that contained words that are offensive to Jews. (He quickly apologized and changed the lyrics.)  But as Rav Kook continues, these reactions are the result of seeing the world with “bad eyes”  (עין הרע ) , eyes through which “that which is worthy of being loved and honored, is not seen. Only the evil is seen when one looks at humanity [through these eyes], and people always appear suspicious.” Rav Kook doesn’t recommend seeing the world this way. 

His argument is, that not only is it more pleasant to see the world through “good eyes”, it is more religiously faithful to do so. It’s only in this way that we can perceive the blessings with which God has filled the earth on our behalf. Our sages of old recognized this too. They enjoined us to judge all people favorably, and to recite brachot over virtually every natural phenomenon, for they are all, we believe, manifestations of God’s good creation. Yes, it takes overt effort to see the world and all its inhabitants this way, but it is apparently the path toward knowing God.

Whatever else there may have been in Michael Jackson’s life, there was an enormous amount of God’s love for humanity that found expression in his talent – talent  which he generously shared. With his loss, something important, unique and Divine has left the world. And whether you thrilled to his music or not, you can be sad, and you can mourn his loss.

5 Responses to Michael Jackson and God’s Gifts to the World

  1. Aryeh says:

    Rabbi Kanefksy:

    He was an anti-semite. One need only look to the lyrics of one of his songs…”Jew me, sue me…Kick me, Kike me.” He did not change the lyrics in the video which was released many weeks after the song, nor in concert performances in the years that followed. To mention the holy and revered Rav Kook in the same essay as Michael Jackson….I wonder.

    In general, I must say while there have been a few excellent essays on the site since its launch, I am disturbed by a number of the articles. I say this as someone who is Modern Orthodox, and would certainly be considered on the left of most Orthodox shuls. I hope the website, which is a needed voice for Moern Orthodoxy, raises its level of discourse, and does not veer to becoming Orthodox lite or Halachic Conservatism.

    I say this with the utmost respect for each of the rabbinic (I use that term purposefully) leaders on this site. Each of you can be satisfied leading your shuls, your local communities who mostly sympathize with your philosophy. However, if you want to affect the greater number of Modern Orthodox Jews, if you want to save Modern Orthodoxy from its terrible slide to the right, then you may rethink some of the ideas posted here. Is it better to affect the few in your local community with the “pure” views you may hold, or it better to affect Modern Orthodoxy as a whole while adjusted your views slightly. Modern Orthodoxy needs leaders like each of you. Many of the views represented here so far are not just on the left, but I would suggest outside the pale of Modern Orthodoxy. If your positions are viewed as outside of Modern Orthodoxy, then Modern Orthodoxy will label you and disregard your views. As a result, the rest of Modern Orthodoxy will move further to the right. This would be an unfortunate result.

  2. Yosef Kanefsky says:

    Please check the following link to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s newsletter.
    Again, I’ve never been a Michael Jackson fan, but I can’t stand idly by when
    someone is falsely accused of a terrible charge.

    http://www.wiesenthal.com:80/site/apps/nlnet/content2.aspx?c=lsKWLbPJLnF&b=4441467&ct=7167457

    • Aryeh says:

      Rabbi:

      I based my comment on the following link which I
      do not feel is contradicted by the link you sent.
      Acharey Mot Kedoshim

      http://www.adl.org/PresRele/ASUS_12/2662_12.asp

      In addition, I cannot find the link, but there was also a reference he made to Jews as leeches which was caught on a tape that wound up airing on ABC some years ago. These incidents caused him to seek the purifying waters of the Wiesenthal Center.

  3. Avraham says:

    Dear Rabbi Kanefsky,

    Michael Jackson was an entertainer. If he was just an entertainer and nothing else, I would still object to the way people are treating his death. Yet, he was more than an entertainer, he actively involved in spreading a culture that is antithetical to Torah. To be mild, I am sure that you do not want your kids to be learning from Michael Jackson anything other than “what not to do.”

    There are many great people who die and we say nothing. On the same day that Michael Jackson died an American soldier died in Afghanistan, yet the talk is about Michael Jackson who, when you think about, did what for society?

    How come we do not focus on the great lessons that we can learn from the family and parents of Israel’s missing soldiers? How about an article on what we can learn from Zachary Baumel’s father who recently passed away? Why not learn from people who actively do good in the world instead of finding convoluted ways to find good from people who are on the fringe of society (at best)?

    There are many people who are talented, but it is up to us to discriminate between people who use their talents for good and those for bad. Michael Jackson clearly did not use his talents for good. Being a good dancer and being creative does not make a role model.

    One final thought, and I do not mean this to be disrespectful: Perhaps before you invoke the name and the Torah of Rav Kook, zt’l, perhaps you should consider if Rav Kook himself would have ever attributed to Michael Jackson what you have. I do not think so and I think it is an embarrassment to Rav Kook that his Divrei Torah are even associated with this.

  4. Abdul-Malik Ryan says:

    Rabbi Schmuley Boteach on his relationship with Michael Jackson:

    http://www.cnn.com/2009/SHOWBIZ/Music/06/30/jackson.rabbi/index.html

    To simply say he was an anti-semite is at the very least a bizarrely misleading oversimplification of a very complicated and very troubled individual.

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