Culture, Politics

In Defense of MJ


I find myself surprisingly saddened by the passing of Michael Jackson. I was never the biggest fan, but I certainly have an appreciation for the musical legacy of perhaps the greatest entertainer of the past 50 years, (truth be told, I’m watching Moonwalker right now). That all said, I was totally surprised to find Eric Yoffie blogging about the Jewish response to MJ’s death:

The most widely distributed article by far from a Jewish source was the one written by Shmuley Boteach, an Orthodox rabbi and friend of Jackson, for the Jerusalem Post. Boteach’s comments were also featured on a number of TV entertainment shows. The Post article was painful to read, and for a rabbi, inexcusable. Boteach congratulates himself for accompanying Jackson to Shabbat dinners and for introducing him to Elie Wiesel. Boteach’s Jackson, far more sinned against than sinning, had no responsibility for his actions. Everything that he did is attributable to the failures of those in his inner circle.

To Boteach, Jackson is a flawed but sympathetic individual, a tragic figure characterized by “nobility of spirit.” No, he is not. There is not a Jewish school in North America that would teach the lessons of Jackson’s life to Jewish children in the way that Rabbi Boteach sees them. True, Jackson was a great musician and the pain of his death is felt by millions; but at a time like this, it would have been far better for Rabbi Boteach and others in our community to just remain silent.

Full story.
In fairness, I’m up in the air about how we discuss flawed heroes who have passed (ahem.. a certain singing Rabbi), but I think that I’d rather see a middle way. Not necessarily letting Jackson off the hook for those wrongs he committed, but taking into consideration the unique set of circumstances around Jackson’s life.
Bob Rossney writes (tip to Boingboing):

The saddest thing about Jackson was not just that his fame ruined him, it’s that it continued ruining him even after he was essentially finished as an artist. In the last decade of his life he was no longer a great singer or a talented composer or a brilliant choreographer; he was someone who had once been all those things and was now Michael Jackson. Here was a guy whose entire existence from early childhood had been wrapped up with what happened when he did things that made other people happy and excited. And that was unavailable to him. He still could make people happy and excited by showing up and having his picture taken, but that’s all he had left.
Someone on the WELL used a word about Jackson’s probable history as a child molester that made me stop and think: “unforgiveable.” It strikes me that it never even occurred to me whether or not to forgive Michael Jackson. In my mind, he was so far away from normative that the question of forgiveness seems totally irrelevant. Not that his no longer really being human in any meaningful sense justified his actions, or mitigated the harm he did, but that it makes no more sense to judge the morality of his actions than it would to judge Henry Darger’s. Their creepiness, sure. But this was a man (it’s a mark of how profoundly damaged Michael Jackson was that it feels strange to call him “a man”, just as it feels strange to recognize that when he died he was older than the President of the United States) who spent every day of his life embedded in a matrix of perverse incentives. The terrain of his personal landscape was unrecognizable. I can understand the choices that my cat makes more deeply than I could understand the ones Jackson made.

Full story.
I’d love for this all to start a conversation about how we remember those who were heroes to many, but also hurt people – for those who had only positive relationships, must those people always reference the wrongs of their teachers? How conscious must we be when singing a song or telling a story of the failings of the original singer or teller? What would the Chofetz Chaim say?

2 thoughts on “In Defense of MJ

  1. It seems to me the Carlebach legacy and the MJ legacy, though with parallels, diverge in one key way. Shlomo’s core message was about bringing love, ecstasy, and feeling back into Judaism. The problem with his sex abuse, in addition to it hurting many many women, relationships, etc, was that it cast a sinister shadow over his message. Perhaps MJ had a similar issue but I don’t know his music and statements well enough to talk about his core message. My sense, though is that in general it wasn’t nearly as much about collapsing boundaries, embracing, etc as Shlomo’s. Sure it touched on those themes but not as centrally.

  2. Uh MJ was a very ill narcisist who ruined the lives of many young boys.We seem to overlook evil when it comes through those who entertain us. How pathetic we are.
    What’s really sad is how black leaders are falling over themselves to praise him.MJ was the 21 century uncle tom. He dyed his skin white, married a white women and had her inpregnated with a white mans sperm and did nothing to help black people.What ever happened to black pride ?
    MJ was nothing more than an uncle tom kiddie toucher who isolated is children from the other children and their mother, never had a creative moment in 25 years and left this world with 400 million dollars of debt.
    If he’s a hero we are in trouble.

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