Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson
Radio Show Transcript – August 29, 1999
Mike Feder: Okay, here we are. This is WEVD and I’m Mike Feder here with Rabbi Simon Jacobson. Tonight’s topic is “Entertainment in American Life.” Our number in the studio for callers is 212-244-1050.
First question: We spend about 25% or more of our waking hours either being entertained or being involved in some entertainment activity. We spend 20-30% of the money that we have to spend on leisure activity. Entertainment takes up a lot of our energy and planning: people work all year looking forward to it, they work all day looking forward to coming home and being entertained. Our lives are centered around this, and my question is: Is there too much entertainment in American life (are we killing ourselves with it?) and is there a “correct” amount and type of entertainment?
Simon Jacobson: Well, Mike, I would like to answer that question as I’ve answered earlier questions, and that is “What exactly is entertainment and is it healthy?” Because if it’s very healthy, then maybe we should spend 50% of our time with it, and if it’s not healthy, then perhaps even 1% is too much.
So I would respond to that question first and then go straight to yours.
Feder: So what do you say entertainment is?
Jacobson: Clearly, people are drawn to it and they don’t need to be taught how to entertain themselves. It’s something that you don’t need to go to school for. What I mean is, people naturally gravitate toward recreation, toward entertainment. A broad definition of entertainment is having a good time, enjoying yourself, finding some type of stimulation…
Feder: You could use the word “fun”?
Jacobson: Fun, yes, stimulation, and again, we’re not discussing the healthy or unhealthy aspect of it. It’s a form of stimulation as a result of some type of activity. Now, I think that per se if that’s the definition of entertainment, I would say overall that it’s a healthy and necessary element for life. Since life can get boring and monotonous, a person needs to feel enriched, invigorated, passionate, stimulated. So with that broad generalization, entertainment is a fine thing.
The question is, what entertains us and what happens as a result of it. For example, a little child sits on the floor and plays with toys, blocks. So you and I may not do that, but we have our toys. We don’t even consider that entertainment any longer, but the child is completely happy, completely wholesome and gratified.
We may get our entertainment from something more sublime, by reading a book. Some people get entertained from watching a movie, whatever it is that entertains them.
Is there a real difference between that child and us? The difference, I would submit, is only in the object of the entertainment: what it is that we consider to be entertaining. A child doesn’t get entertained by something more sublime or intellectual. Adults may need that. Obviously, there are many levels of this and it’s not easy to categorize.
So I would say that the difference between meaningful entertainment and frivolous entertainment, can be measured by its objectives and after-effects. Meaningful entertainment stimulates the human spirit to grow. Frivolous entertainment, which one can criticize (going back to your original question where 25% of the time is spent on entertainment that is essentially frivolous), is essentially a distraction—an entertainment that doesn’t lead anywhere.
That is my next element. The fact is that people need to be entertained—and I’ve had this argument and debate with several friends of mine—one person said to me, you can never package spirituality if it’s not entertaining.
Feder: How do you mean “package it”?
Jacobson: In other words, if you make a film, you have to have some entertainment value. Don’t think you’re going to just speak cerebrally to people’s brains. You have to entertain them. There has to be a plot, there has to be suspense, mystery…
Feder: Or speak to people’s souls.
Jacobson: Well, the point is that entertainment means putting it in a type of story narrative so people will feel entertained. In other words, the masses will not just be ready to listen to philosophy or a dense, intense discussion. It has to be packaged in an entertaining way.
I responded that that may be true to some extent, but I must tell you that I see that what people are searching for is not entertainment. They’re searching for meaning. However, while we are searching for meaning, when it becomes difficult, we look to distract ourselves and entertain ourselves in ways that have no follow-up. And that’s the key line that I would use. The fact that we can, for example, entertain someone’s soul, and their soul is stimulated and they would even say, you know, I was happy experiencing that, for me that would be the greatest goal.
Instead of going to a movie, instead of going to “have some fun,” going to an arcade, or playing with my “blocks,” I find my entertainment in something that is somewhat spiritual, somewhat meaningful. That element of entertainment is very healthy and I would say even necessary, because people when you will get entertained in a healthy way, you will get inspired, you will be moved. Entertainment that will be ultimately destructive is entertainment that has no perpetuation. You feel empty afterwards. Like eating sugar. It may give you energy, that spurt, but then afterwards you’re hungrier or even thirstier than before.
Feder: You know, I read a book by Irving Howe called World of Our Fathers. It’s a wonderful book about the immigration of Jews around the turn of the century—but it could be about the immigration of any ethnic group—and he talks about people working 6-7 days a week, 14 hours a day on the Lower East Side, working themselves practically to death. Their bodies and minds were so exhausted that they flocked to these places where there was vaudeville, sort of soap opera type plays, the simplest low-brow entertainment, and they were able to laugh and to purge themselves of the feeling that life was relentlessly awful.
In other words, at that moment, that type of entertainment was like water in the desert to them. But there was nothing spiritually uplifting about it. Do you understand what I’m saying? It’s a hard world.
Jacobson: Exactly, and I would say that, as a matter of fact, you’re bringing up a very good point because the entertainment factor is interdependent with your life situation. If your life is very tedious and you go to work, and your material pursuit weighs you down, there’s no doubt that you’re going to search for an escape, a vocation, a weekend, an entertainment that does not necessarily have to have value or deeper meaning.
However, if you don’t see your work as tedious, but that your work, too, is entertaining (let me explain what I mean by entertaining—that you see it as part of your mission in life), that when you go to work it’s not just to make a living, or to satisfy my boss. But if you feel that you’re transforming the world in some way, then there may definitely be times for a break, but the entertainment value will also be in direct proportion, you will look for entertainment that’s also meaningful.
In other words, the theme is this: if your life is meaningful your entertainment will be meaningful. If your life is not that meaningful, your entertainment will usually also be of that same nature.
Feder: But look at the nature of most people’s lives. If we’re going to be realistic, I’d say 75% of the people who go work in the city every day, and maybe 75% of the people listening to us right at this moment, are doing things which you would be hard pressed to say are uplifting or spiritual.
Jacobson: You know, Mike, my approach is to always attempt to deal not just with the symptoms but with the underlying causes. It’s easy to be a fire and brimstone preacher, and you and I can say, “Hey look how people entertain themselves today with all kinds of stupidity. These people go out to eat every night and spend so much money. Other people will spend $100,000 just to fly somewhere exotic for the weekend; they could have spent it on something more meaningful,” and all of that. And we can really laugh at that approach and be cynical and critical.
That’s fine, but I’d like to go a step beyond that and say, Why is it that way? They’re smart people. Why is it that they would not give that $100,000 to something more worthwhile? (I’m referring to a story of a certain individual who literally spent that amount a week to entertain himself, on pure entertainment. If you asked him to give $10,000 to a very important charitable cause, he’d say, “Give me a business plan; I have to think about it.”)
So why would an intelligent person be able to do that? The answer is that deep in the heart, beneath the surface, lies a certain lack of focus. Even in his work, even in that person’s productive hours.
Entertainment also tends to be a direct extension of that in areas that are complete escapism that have no perpetual value.
Now I’m not trying to suggest that entertainment means that you have to always be theological or philosophical. Entertainment can be light and constructive when it is not the only activity of our lives, and it is part of a larger picture of your life. However, it is destructive when your whole life is only entertaining yourself.
I will go a step farther. And actually dispel a stereotype. Most people wouldn’t think that a traditional Jew, for example, coming from a Torah background, would need entertainment. What kind of entertainment? Your job is to serve G-d and be dedicated at all times.
Feder: Sober. Serious.
Jacobson: And the fact that some people succumb might be rationalized as, okay, human beings are weak so they need some entertainment, they need a break. I submit this: that a true relationship with G-d is one where your soul feels entertained, your spirit feels nourished. It is an experience that can compete with other forms of entertainment. Obviusly, “spiritual entertainment” is entertainment in a broader form, not in the secular or common way of interpreting, but it is still not just a somber experience that is unenjoyable; it is highly entertaining. It entertains more delicate and sublme elements of the “palette” (so to speak) of the human experience.
Feder: So you might use a word like refreshed or recreated.
Jacobson: But more importantly, that you would take that free hour and say: You know what? That free hour is going to be spent on something that is both entertaining and also meaningful. That in no way compromises our primitive need to be stimulated and entertained.
However, if the whole basis of your life, the foundation, is not one of searching for that type of mission, then entertainment will be very empty and will leave you empty, and you’ll become an entertainment addict, where yesterday is not enough. Where every day you need a new source of fun.
Feder: So it’s a question of living an integrated life. In other words, now we have the kind of a world where our work is split off from our entertainment and it shouldn’t be, you’re saying.
Jacobson: Yes. Take a look at ourselves, and I invite you Mike, as I always do, to challenge me. You know, if I were you I would be challenging me, if I may.
Feder: I don’t know. I always try to be polite! No, go ahead.
Jacobson: No. If you’re going to be polite, you’d better challenge me. I consider it impolite if you just agree.
Feder: Okay. So if I were going to challenge you, what is it that I would be asking you now?
Jacobson: I would wonder: Come on, Rabbi Jacobson. People are people. The fact is, they need entertainment, they need that light moment. Not everything can be heavy, heavy with meaning, meaning, spirituality, G-d. They need to be able to do something with no purpose in mind.
Feder: No purpose at all.
Jacobson: And the facts testify to that. You see, people can lie on a beach without having some deeper understanding or meaning. It doesn’t have to be philosophical. It’s entertaining and they go back to work the next day and feel refreshed. It gives them energy. It’s a very common approach.
So what do you answer?
Feder: Well, I’d answer in the classical, old-fashioned way. I’d ask you another question based on what you just said. What do you do to entertain yourself that doesn’t have any absolute spiritual or immediate spiritual value? Do you just sometimes go and enjoy yourself with no goal or object of deeper meaning involved?
Jacobson: Well, I do. I’m far from the perfect model of an individual whose life is dedicated to G-d every moment of his or her life. But I must say that when your horizons are broadened, and I’ve been blessed to be around people and in an environment that has very high horizons—I don’t want to sit around on the floor playing with my blocks—my stimulation comes from the larger things. The need for fulfilling a mission.
Of course there are many light moments. But even those light moments have a certain sense where, even there, you just get accustomed to living with a deeper perspective, a search for “Ah, maybe there’s a little message here for me.” It doesn’t mean that every moment has an intensity, such as: “What does G-d want of me now that I’m sitting in an amusement park?” but that there’s a general attitude where you recognize that this is part of a bigger picture and you may learn lessons, you may meet people there that you wouldn’t just say, “Where is the next ride?” You may get into a conversation that’s meaningful.
You find that even your recreation is also a stage and an element in your life which—to repeat a concept that I’ve spoken about before—is “redeeming sparks.” The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement (we just celebrated 300 years since his birth), says a very interesting thing: That every one of us, you, Mike, myself, everyone listening, every person on earth, is allocated a certain amount of Divine sparks and these are placed in various places that we encounter throughout our life.
It may be with the people we know, it may be in the places that we travel to, it may be the schools that we go to and the places where we entertain ourselves. There are sparks in all these places and you’re allocated those sparks and it’s your job…
When I say “spark”—it’s a metaphor of course—it means that there’s a purpose; there’s a certain objective to accomplish. It’s not exactly a number, like 50 sparks and then I’m finished, but in a way it’s like a treasure hunt where you’re trying to find the Divine, the extraordinary, the sublime, the unique in the mundane, ordinary life. Extraordinary within the ordinary.
And that’s placed in every area of your life. You go to a restaurant, you meet someone in the street. And when you have that view in life, you generally look at everything you do from the perspective of the holiness moment of sitting on Yom Kippur in a synagogue to when you do, so to speak, entertain yourself, you look, at least with the corner of your eye if not directly, at where’s that opportunity, that spiritual opportunity, how do I excavate that gem, that particular area of my life?
And sometimes we don’t do that. But the overall attitude is such. This doesn’t mean, by the way, that everyone has to be a theologian and a philosopher. I believe spirituality is not an intellectual process that’s only for the elite, it’s a process that each of us (the simplest person in the simplest life) where you find your sparks; it can be through love, it can be through other experiences.
Feder: All this makes perfect sense to me, but give me a little historical perspective on this from your point of view. How did we get to this place in America where, and I’ll venture to say this, 90% of the entertainment that’s presented or available to us everywhere—television, theme parks, video games, movies—90% of it is at best meaningless and superficial to outright destructive and violent, and insanely attacks any value or meaning? I mean, how did we get to a state like this…unless you disagree with me that that’s the state of entertainment.
Jacobson: No. I agree and I’m glad you said it, not me, because I was intentionally avoiding making those types of descriptions, not because I disagree but because I don’t want to distract our listeners from the issue at hand.
I will answer by saying the following.
Feder: Let me also add that if we agree that that’s the way it is, then what do we do about it, obviously.
Jacobson: Well, first we have to talk about the causes, and then we can talk about intervention.
I’d add something to what you just said, which is the classical debate of the chicken and the egg, which came first. Is the media the one creating this type of frivolous, empty entertainment, or is there an audience that will pay for it and so therefore they’re just satisfying the audiences. You know, when they talk about these soap operas or some of the low-level standard entertainment, entertainment executives simply say, hey, this is what people want. Advertisers want to reach people. People won’t watch shows that are of a higher standard. Or, is it the media that is creating it somewhat and the people are just buying or eating whatever is being giving to them?
Feder: Like sheep.
Jacobson: And if you lower the standard they’ll just buy that as well, because that’s the only choice they have, that’s the only television, the only radio, the only newspapers.
I believe, as the Jewish answer often goes: the chicken and the egg were both created equally, simultaneously. I think it’s really a combination of both, a vicious cycle.
Feder: So it’s the responsibility of both the audience and the creator of this entertainment.
Jacobson: Right. Because the fact is that the people who create the entertainment are also people, and should their standards be high enough, they might not want to stoop, even if the people were ready to buy it. I mean, is everyone for sale? Would we sell anything that people would buy? Do we have a standard? Is there a line that you draw…and everyone does have that line.
On the other hand, I really believe that people rise to the occasion. When you expect more of them, they deliver more. I’ve seen it time and again. However, if you make it easy, lazy type of entertainment, where there is no need to really work hard, then people will stoop to that because we’re very resilient creatures.
Feder: But isn’t there a contradiction to what you’re saying? If you’re saying that everybody has a hunger or a need because maybe it’s placed there by G-d for something deeper, some spiritual connection, won’t people finally get fed up? And if so, when?
Jacobson: Yes. On an individual level they’ll finally get fed up. But Mike, there’s another generation that has yet to come to that level of frustration and they’re buying now the media, entertainment.
Feder: Which is more violent and more superficial than ever.
Jacobson: Right, exactly. What we’re dealing with here is not one segment of the population that got fed up, okay that’s great. But there are always new customers, like what happened with the tobacco industry. They’re looking for their new customers. Of course people who have smoked for ten years quit.
Feder: There’s one born every minute, right?
Jacobson: So, the point I’m making is that it’s a joint responsibility. I believe that anyone in a position of leadership in the media and entertainment world has a critical responsibility because you are influencing minds. And I don’t care about anything, money here, money there, but the bottom line is that you are influencing minds, influencing standards.
Look, did you ever see how children are glued to a television?
Feder: I’ve seen it plenty of times.
Jacobson: Hypnotic. It’s frightening.
Feder: And there are video games and the Internet, too.
Jacobson: Now I’m not knocking the technology, but I am saying this, and television is a perfect example of what we’re describing. Television is a level of entertainment that can be very abusive, because you don’t have to put any effort in it. Why is it that children are hypnotized by the screen? Because it’s very easy. It’s visual. It catches your eye. It’s more powerful than listening to something.
Feder: And it’s so passive.
Jacobson: More powerful than reading something. However, it’s also emptier. Now, if television were to present a very meaningful, relevant message, then the visual medium is being used in a very healthy way. But if it doesn’t, then a book cannot compete with that hypnotic power. Once a person has gotten accustomed to the “easy” nature of visual entertainment, it dulls the interest and motivation to read a book, no matter how rich or full of content (I’m talking about a child here, who hasn’t yet been burned by the television age). Who’s going to want to read a book when it’s easier just to sit and watch? It’s effortless. Everything is being done for you.
Feder: Well, it’s not just children who are watching TV.
Jacobson: Right, but my point is… I remember sitting once in a hospital waiting room and the television was on, and there were little children, maybe 7-8 years old, sitting in the waiting room, and they were watching one of these expose-it-all, tell-it-all talk shows…
Feder: Tabloid TV…
Jacobson: They were glued to it, these 7-year-old kids. I was watching them thinking, this is what they’re looking at, hours and hours a day. How can they grow up with healthy sexual attitudes? It has to have that type of negative impact. Even one viewing of it is so hypnotic. Day after day. So I went over to the nurse, who was also glued to the TV, mind you, and I said, (I just wanted to see her reaction) “Look, maybe with these kids here this show is not so appropriate.” I didn’t mean to be critical or judgmental. I said, “Perhaps maybe we should change it to a cartoon (I don’t know if the cartoons are any better).”
So she said, “Of course, of course,” and I saw she got upset with me because her eyes kept going back to the screen and she was waiting for that commercial break. And I realized that she’s like them. She’s just a little older.
Feder: So are you suggesting here that someone with a little more understanding and awareness has to step in and do something about it?
Jacobson: I don’t believe in anyone dictating…
Feder: It’s like a paternalistic attitude…
Jacobson: Right. I believe that a show like ours is trying to add a meaningful dimension to entertainment.
Feder: Is this an entertaining show?
Jacobson: You’d have to ask the listeners. We’ll invite them to call. I would love it if there are any entertainment executives or any entertainment people listening to call in.
Feder: They wouldn’t have the nerve to call, to show their faces on the radio. They wouldn’t have the nerve! I invite them to call!
Jacobson: We invite calls from both ends. If you’re the one who’s producing it or the one who’s consuming it.
Feder: If you’re the gluer or the glued. So maybe this is a good place to a break. You’ve been listening to Rabbi Simon Jacobson, and this is Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson. My name is Mike Feder and we’re here every Sunday night from 6-7pm and you’re listening to WEVD, 1050AM in New York City.
This show is an outgrowth of the Meaningful Life Center in Brooklyn, and this show is based very much on Rabbi Jacobson’s book called Toward a Meaningful Life, in which almost every subject that you hear discussed on the air here is discussed.
We really want to thank everyone who has emailed us or written or called us. Here are some of the ways you can get in touch with us, and we want to hear from you. The most important thing is the telephone number: 1-800-3MEANING or 1-800-363-2646. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can always write to us at The Meaningful Life Center, 788 Eastern Parkway, Suite 303, Brooklyn, NY 11225.
I’d like to also tell you that we have a new website where you can download transcripts of this program, and previous and future programs. It’s www.meaningfullife.com.
Okay, we do have a call here from Jennifer. Go ahead.
Caller: I’m a student of Rabbi Jacobson and I’m also in the entertainment industry so I’m calling in. I’m with a news organization.
Jacobson: So let me ask Jennifer a question. How do you see your position in the media world and your deeper role? What are your responsibilities or are you just a hired gun and you do whatever they demand of you and whatever they pay you for? Do you see any higher spiritual goal in your work?
Caller: I absolutely do have a spiritual goal in my work. We are a news gathering organization and there are certain ethical issues such as calling families after there’s been a tragedy in the family, such as the shooting in the daycare center in Los Angeles. The issue is whether or not a producer should contact a victim’s family immediately after this tragedy for news purposes. So there are a lot of ethical issues that I deal with on a daily basis. However, I do try to get important and spiritual speakers on my news shows when I have the opportunity to get a positive message across.
Feder: Well, you know, everybody understands (this is addressed to both of you from me) that there’s been a blending of information and entertainment, so that once upon a time there was a split between a direct information news program and pure entertainment. Now, of course, I think everyone would have to concede that these two things have been blended almost to the point of where they are indistinguishable or maybe you wouldn’t concede it.
Caller: I absolutely do agree with that. I think sensationalism is what sells nowadays. A lot of news organizations have unfortunately taken this route. I know that some news organizations, not the one I’m working for, pay for stories which also draw various ethical lines. I actually used to work for a tabloid program where we did stories which at the time were sensational, and I’ve seen modern news organizations, prestigious networks, go toward the tabloid angle, because unfortunately, that is what the viewers like. And since I do work in the entertainment industry—I personally do not watch much television at all—I agree it is not a good influence for children at all. I don’t think news is a good influence for children. They’re seeing horrible things going on in the world. I think that it’s important for parents to pre-screen everything that their children see.
Jacobson: Jennifer, so do you think that there’s a trend among executives toward sensationalism or the other way around? Or there may be a backlash at some point?
Caller: I’m not going to talk about executives, I’m going to talk as a viewer of these major networks. It’s sensational, I really can’t speak for executives—I’m just a producer—I just know that is what sells on television.
Feder: Well then doesn’t it feel strange to be involved in a job or a career or even a calling where you don’t participate in consuming the same thing?
Caller: In some ways it is hypocritical; on the other hand, I think it’s important to have people who do have a conscience in this business, otherwise it would just get way out of hand and horrible things would happen: people would be knocking on your door after you’ve been in a car accident without any empathy or sympathy to what you are going through as a human being.
Jacobson: Well, Jennifer, I wish others that worked in the media and in business were as sensitive and as spiritual as you are, and it’s gratifying to hear, because frankly, as I say to you Mike and I say to Jennifer as well, it all comes down to individuals. If individuals do have that consciousness that Jennifer is describing, and have that sense of spirituality, as their standards and horizons broaden and heighten, that will have a direct impact of how they create entertainment for others, and I think that’s healthy.
I don’t think everyone should quit their jobs in the media. Let us use the media and transform it and really lift it to where it belongs.
Feder: Thank you for calling Jennifer.
Okay, let me salt this with another question here. I want to put this to you. It seems to me that the original entertainment, if I know my history here, was involved with religion. In fact, there is a real connection, for thousands of years, between the stage and theatre and religious and spiritual celebrations. In fact, in the olden days, thousands of years ago, the only real entertainment you would see is directly connected without religions.
There were celebrations of births and deaths, harvests, gods’, miracles brought about by the various gods that were worshipped, or whatever it was, and there is an absolute, intricate, relationship between the theatre and the synagogue and the church. If there were somebody, let’s say, at a synagogue and it was just one endless litany of prayers and talking, yet there weren’t singing or pageants involved, it’s almost like the origin of entertainment and celebration were from religions.
Jacobson: As I stated earlier, I don’t believe that G-d wants us to be non-entertained human beings. In other words, I think that spirituality can be fun. I use the word “fun” not in the way that many people attribute to the word “fun” because it’s of a higher caliber, but there’s an expression in the Talmud that the ultimate goal and the ultimate good is a good that is both good for heaven and good for earth.
There are things that are good for heaven but are painful on earth. There are things that are good on earth but are painful in heaven. There are things that are very spiritual, but they don’t seem to have earthly value. I believe that the ultimate objective is where we see that even in our earthly value system, even the entertainment “nerves” inside your system get stimulated by something that is of a higher standard, and I gave the example with the child before because I think it’s a perfect example: A child will sit down and play with toys. You and I may not. You’ll say, “That’s not for me, that’s completely not in my realm.”
Feder: So there’s really no disconnecting these…
Jacobson: …a tzaddik, a righteous person, who really reaches very spiritual heights, do you think he’s having less enjoyment and less entertainment in his life? It’s only coming from more sublime sources. And that’s a key element.
We’re not talking about the need to be entertained, we’re not changing the desire for that type of stimulation, we’re changing the object of the desire. Now usually you hear in the education process, you know, there’s an approach…let’s say there’s a child who behaves or entertains himself in a way that is unhealthy. Everyone agrees that it’s unhealthy. It’s too much, it’s in excess, etc.
One approach is to take away the object from the child or student and say, “You’re not allowed to do that, you’ll be punished if you use that particular form of entertainment.” And that’s it, and you tie them up in a sense, and the child, out of fear, may or may not comply.
What’s wrong with that approach? What’s wrong is that at some point, number one, he’s going to explode. When the child becomes independent enough, he won’t ask you, he’ll do it anyway.
Feder: Behind your back.
Jacobson: Right. Secondly, and more importantly, you haven’t dealt with the cause, you’ve dealt with the symptom. There’s a void that remains now in that person’s heart that needs stimulation. So instead of creating or providing an alternative, you’ve just performed like a lobotomy, you just cut out that part.
Human beings needs to be entertained, they need to be stimulated, they need to feel uplifted. And if G-dliness, spirituality, Torah, doing a mitzvah, doing a good deed, doesn’t achieve that, something else will. You can’t expect people to just deprive themselves, just to cut off that part of themselves. I think that’s a critical element.
Feder: Okay, we have another call here. Shifra.
Caller: Hi, my name is Shifra Herbst, the Rabbi knows me a little bit. I was thinking, listening to you Rabbi, of the entertainment in my life. I’m a person who likes to learn, and there’s a certain type of joy that I get out of that, and then when I go to a certain event—a wedding or a bar mitzvah— or i follow a certain a there’s also a kind of joy of entertainment that I get. But I wanted to ask the Rabbi: There’s another kind of entertainment that I have as an adult, and I only have to say this to give an example. Once when I went out on a social occasion, a gentleman took me to Coney Island and we got on the merry-go-round, and there we were, and there’s that little girl and little boy having fun in a very special kind of a way that’s different from the joy of listening to entertainment and the spiritual aspects of the joy of wisdom and the festivals.
So I wanted to ask what the Rabbi thinks about bringing out the fun aspect, the play aspect in people?
Feder: Almost like the childlike part of things.
Caller: Yes, and you don’t have to do anything. It’s just an entertainment that you have with your spouse or you have it with your children, or if you’re single and you’re going out, it’s that playfulness that seems to lighten up a little bit, just by taking a walk in the park…
Jacobson: Shifra, that’s a very good point and I’m glad you made it, because it should definitely be added into the entire equation. How I would put that is that there are things that you do directly, when you speak about spiritual, meaningful activity, that are directly meaningful, like sitting down to study something, or going out to help a needy person.
But then there are things that we call steppingstones toward things that are meaningful. You can’t put them on the same pedestal, but without them you can’t reach that pedestal. It’s like steppingstones.
For instance, we need to eat. Eating itself can be meaningful. You make a blessing, you understand that it’s G-d’s gift to you, but ultimately, the sustenance that the food provides gives you the strength to go and do something great.
So the meal may not even be considered later as being so much part of the great deed, though it was, because without that meal you wouldn’t have had the strength to proceed. The same thing is, there are forms of activity that we do that—and that’s why I didn’t mention it earlier—that they themselves, by themselves, don’t seem like much, like the example that Shifra gave, “fun,” just free abandon, going on a merry-go-round, taking a walk in the park, even some humor, if it’s not just frivolous and at the expense of someone else, and empty.
That’s part of, in itself, if it leads to something meaningful and it’s goal is that it loosens you up, it lightens you up, you get in touch with your own flexibility and spontaneity, instead of being locked in a hard, adult type of place. That itself is spiritual, that itself is meaningful.
Feder: So something which is apparently or even clearly meaningful, can be like a steppingstone, like a rung up a ladder to some other form of entertainment.
Jacobson: Precisely. The Talmud tells that when the Rava, who was a great Sage and scholar, would teach, before he would begin the actual course, the actual dissertation, he would say something humorous. In Aramaic: “milseh d’bedicuhsa.”
A bedichusa means a humorous statement; a joke (of course it wasn’t a plain joke, the humor had content—if a wise man tells a joke, the humor is also of a higher caliber), but the reason he did that was as a preparation that opened the hearts of the students.
It’s using that ability to entertain, to entice, to open you up, but with a greater objective—it’s not an end in itself. If he just stopped with that and didn’t go on with the course, then he’d be stooping to the level of the students who may just want to have fun.
Feder: We have another Jennifer on the line.
Caller: Hi. I’m in the entertainment industry indirectly, in the sense that I’m a musician and I work for various religious institutions, religious and so forth, providing music, and I’ve noticed that the power of popular culture has become greater and greater in recent years to the point that it’s almost displaced the value of serious religious music. I think that the media, or the forces of pop culture have kind of empowered the fun-seeker or the uneducated, or however you want to define such people, as having a kind of dictatorial power over what kind of music is practiced in churches.
I think this has almost endangered the spiritual message that music can carry. And I wondered if you have a comment on that?
Jacobson: I do. It’s unfortunate to hear that but I do believe that in religion you do find that music plays a prominent role; that’s another example, by the way, of something that’s entertaining. Now music is much more than entertaining. Music can touch hearts and souls and transport you to another place. It’s actually a very spiritual activity.
Prayer is sometimes called music, song, melody. However, music also has the ability to achieve something that just a lecture or sermon or prayer service doesn’t have. It lightens the spirit, it opens you up. Singing along and so on. And it’s unfortunate that the standards that Jennifer just described, the popular standards, are so contaminating this power of song.
I think we should do a future radio show on music.
Jacobson: But I will tell one parable, so to speak. When G-d came to create the universe, He consulted with the angels and asked them, “Tell me, should I give human beings music, art?” and the angels, of course, said, “No, human beings will abuse it. They’ll take music and they’ll make a commercial business out of it. They won’t appreciate its sublime nature. Give us the power of song and we will sing your praises. We understand that song is like wings that lift spirits up high.”
G-d listened to their advice and then chose to disregard it. Instead, G-d said to the angels, “I will give them music. Do you know why? Because I want them to have something to remember Me with.”
So music is a voice, a tool, a language that speaks G-d’s language. It’s a way of transcending conventional vocabulary and language and reaching a deeper spiritual place. However, like in all places, there is room for abuse. But as the Talmud says in one place: “Just because there are sun-worshippers and moon-worshippers, G-d is going to destroy His universe?”
Technology can be used in a very destructive way but at the same time in a very constructive way as well. That’s our free choice, our free will.
So it’s sad that the popular culture is so—I don’t like the word contaminated—is so abusing and so exploitive of music for its own ends and in a way bringing people down instead of lifting people up to that place that it should be. However, religious establishments have that responsibility to use music in a way that is spiritually uplifting. And that’s a perfect example where entertainment can be used both in a constructive way or G-d forbid in a destructive way.
Feder: I think this has been a war that’s been going on since human beings were able to collect themselves in one place and celebrate anything. I mean, there’s always a war between what you might call low entertainment and high entertainment, or entertainment for financial value and entertainment for spiritual value.
It seems to me apparently that the other side is winning, but it’s an endless war.
Jacobson: Well, it’s a war but it’s a war in each of our hearts as well. Because we can stoop to both extremes. In other words, we can give in to our temptations for instant gratification and there are times when we rise to the occasion for a much higher level of entertainment. It’s easy. Look, you turn on the television and start watching something, and it’s very easy to just succumb and just lay back and say, well, if that’s what’s on, I’m so bored anyway.
So you almost need a constant state of vigilance to have that higher standard where you say, “No, you know, I really have a higher perspective.”
But I don’t think it comes with the fear and guilt approach of saying, no, you can’t watch that. I think the approach has to be an educational and inspiring one. Here, you want to sit down and play with blocks on the floor, I will give you an alternative. Not criticize you for playing but give you an alternative game, an alternative humor, an alternative entertainment that is a little higher.
Feder: But here you know you’re touching on something that is almost a separate subject but is almost tied into it (because everything is tied into everything). Once you replace this television, if you’re a parent trying to replace it for a kid, then it requires you to provide or to participate in the entertainment, and there’s the real problem.
Jacobson: I have no doubt, Mike, that if the entertainment industry would apply their brilliant minds and genius to creative programming that has, not per se spiritual value but has that subliminal undercurrent that we’re here for a higher purpose, they could achieve everything and much more than that which is currently achieved without pure sensationalism, pure entertainment without any meaningful content.
Sometimes you hear a good joke, and you really laugh at it. And afterwards you say, I laughed at a joke and it was funny but it had absolutely no content, no meaning. There’s no lesson, no message; it just got you laughing for the moment.
Feder: Well, it really is the equivalent of junk food, where you eat it and it tastes good because of the salt or sugar, but there’s no nutritional value.
Jacobson: Yes, but it’s much worse, because it’s junk food for the soul, and it’s harder to get rid of junk food fed to the soul. You can burn extra body fat and junk food through body exercise. It’s much harder to burn “fat” that has affected the soul. The soul is a very sensitive child. So every little thing matters, like a piece of dust on the eyeball. It’s much more sensitive. But then you listen to humor, a joke that’s really content oriented, and that makes you laugh as well, you could even be in stitches, however, it has that content, it has that message. It could even be revealing a part of yourself that’s so ridiculous, or something that has a twist to it, that helps you understand life in a different or better way.
So that’s a perfect example. Of course, the latter requires more effort, requires more thinking. But it’s not less entertaining. You find that in music, you find that in many areas where there are things in entertainment that are purely, let’s call it primitive, hedonistic, that’s driven by just stimulating the senses. It’s almost like artificially going and stimulating your nerves.
Feder: Not to be impatient about this, but people have been talking about this, and this is obviously the best sentiment you can express, but people have been talking about this for so long that it’s almost as if it doesn’t seem to make any impression on anybody anymore.
I mean, it’s good that you said it, and it’s good when anybody says it. But there’s a headlong rush in the other direction. I mean, Jessie Ventura, a professional wrestler, an entertainer of the lowest sort (and I’ve laughed at wrestling myself once and a while) is the governor of a state. President Clinton is an entertainer. He’s not even a politician. Reagan was an entertainer. I hate to be so gloom and doom about this, but we are headlong like lemmings jumping right off the cliff in the other direction. Is there some sort of emergency treatment that you could suggest?
Jacobson: Well, that’s why we’re doing our radio show, because we believe that this radio show is going to be historical and dramatic and change the world! And you don’t do a show unless you feel that it’s indispensable and absolutely necessary.
Feder: I guess that’s true.
Jacobson: So I have confidence that we can demonstrate the fusion of entertainment and spirituality by continuing to share the message in a way that is both entertaining and spiritual and meaningful, including wrestling—because we do wrestle you and I…
Feder: So are we going to have “Toward a Meaningful Life the movie” coming out soon?
Jacobson: Toward a meaningful wrestling.
Feder: Are we going to go big screen on this?
Jacobson: I’m sure it will come to that as well.
Feder: But no, I agree with you, I guess the desire is to spread the word.
Jacobson: That is my objective, but the point is, in the case of our lives, it’s like that story where someone was walking along the beach and throwing starfish back into the water. So someone said, “What are you doing? There are so many millions of them? What do you think you’re going to accomplish by throwing a few back?”
And he said, “Well, for this one (for this particular starfish) it matters.”
So we have to do what we can to contribute. It’s a collective consciousness—on both ends. There’s a certain backlash resulting from the extent that parents are seeing their children being hypnotized and all that that’s leading to. At the same time, I think there’s also a spiritual yearning and a spiritual awakening, and when the two converge, there may very well be an explosion. It may not be a revolution overnight, but it’s a slow process. Making the point is critical, because when you make people aware, they usually are one step closer to getting there.
If it’s not discussed, saying, hey, what can we possibly add and what are we going to do about it, then the resignation just allows it to accelerate downward—decelerate.
Feder: Let me take a break from this extremely entertaining program here today to remind you that you have been listening to Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson, and I’m Mike Feder. This is WEVD, New York, 1050am. We’re here every Sunday night from 6-7.
Once again, if you want to get in touch with Rabbi Jacobson with comments or questions you can call 1-800-363-2646. You can email us at email@example.com, and go to our website at www.meaningfullife.com to download transcripts of this radio program.
The radio show is brought to you by you, as I say every week, the listeners, and also by the people who underwrite the show. And today’s underwriter is, and we thank him very much, Robert Klein. The program is in honor of the 26th birthday of his son, Abraham David Klein, and may he be blessed in all things.
Jacobson: I’ll second that. He should be blessed. Robert is a very special man and I bless him that he should have much nachas and joy from his son.
Feder: Okay, we’re at that point in the show where I want to remind the listeners that we do receive requests from people asking how they can donate to the Meaningful Life Center, which is the organization that brings you all this, the radio show and the web site among other things. The Meaningful Life Center is a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing a sense of peace, light, inspiration and meaning into the world. All its activities are made possible by donations of listeners just like you who receive the center’s publications and tapes and who listen to this program and visit the website.
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We actually have one more call. Jerry you’re on the air.
Caller: Hi. I want to ask you something. How come generally in religious communities entertainment always has to be done with separate seating, where men and women are not able to even sit together?
Feder: I’m not sure I’m following your question.
Caller: Well, generally, religious groups separate the men from the women. What is the benefit of that?
Jacobson: Well, it’s not really on the topic because it’s not really about entertainment, but what he’s referring to is that in a traditional, observant Jewish synagogue, for instance, the men and women sit separately during prayer services.
And I’m assuming that he’s referring to when that’s carried over into some entertainment, for example, at a religiously Jewish music concert, there will often be men sitting in one area and women sitting in another.
That’s connected to the whole area of the separation of the sexes and particularly where, when it comes to entertainment, you want to avoid a type of frivolousness and behavior. That’s why it says in the Talmud that a Jewish court of law would send out messengers in times of celebration, like holidays, who would just make sure that people did not allow the joy and the celebration to carry over into frivolous behavior that broke down the boundaries between the sexes.
Feder: So there’s a method to this.
Jacobson: So I assume that’s what he’s referring to, but it’s really another topic.
Feder: Well, we have about three minutes left. I’m the one who seems to always be journalistically reporting the end of the world here and you look at it in a more uplifting and more positive, hopeful way. But now that we have a couple of minutes left, people are going to leave this program today they’re going to go watch—as a matter of fact, wrestling is on right after this program at 7 (I can’t rush home to see it)—and there’s all sorts of junk which I occasionally (not to be a hypocrite) consume myself. Everybody’s going to turn to this stuff, they’re going to turn on their TV sets, and VCRs and everything else, not to be judgmental (and this is why I look to you)…what would you encourage people to do who are listening now who feel like they deserve to have this this very night.
Jacobson: Well, that’s a really good question that puts me on the spot here!
Feder: Yes. Because that’s what I find entertaining!
Jacobson: That’s good. I think it’s critical that people find alternatives. And if someone doesn’t recognize that they’re watching junk, I don’t think my saying anything is going to make a difference. But if someone does recognize that they are, and they really want to pull themselves out of that pattern, or vicious cycle, or almost addiction, I would say they should find alternatives.
Don’t just shut off the TV, and don’t just close off that entertainment, because then you’ll ultimately gravitate back to it. You have to find something that’s entertaining, stimulating, spiritual and meaningful.
Feder: On the television?
Jacobson: I’m ready to offer a suggestion and people can email me with their particular questions. However, I’ll say generally, the key is to find fun in your spiritual activity. And usually it’s with whom you do it. If you love the person that you’re doing something entertaining with, it’s not that important where you’re going or what you’re watching.
It’s important that you’re doing it with that person. As a matter of fact, if it is that important where you’re going or what you’re watching, then that person is secondary. Two people who really love each other can just go to a park and talk, or they can go to a show. But if they both mutually say, you know, let’s do something together that is not just junk, then you have two against one, so to speak, you have two people, two minds, two souls that can bond in that direction.
Now, examples of spiritual entertainment—I don’t even like the term “spiritual” entertainment—meaningful entertainment, there’s an example that Shifra (one of the callers) gave. Going to the park or doing something that’s connected to your childhood, and that’s your intention, or you want to just have that freedom to free yourself from the headaches of work, that’s a very pure objective, but it’s not junk.
So perhaps I would suggest that instead of turning on the VCR tonight, why don’t you go outside to Central Park, if you’re in New York, or go for a walk with someone you love, and if you don’t have someone you love, maybe it’s time to start finding someone you love. The point here is to fill the void and the vacuum and not allow the loneliness and the boredom to drive you to something that is “junky.”
Feder: Okay, next week we’re going to talk about Forgiveness. Thank you very much Rabbi.
Jacobson: Thank you.