DAVOS, Switzerland — They say that Justin Bieber says the Shema, the Jewish prayer about the singularity of God, before every performance. That’s beautiful. But it would be even more so if he internalized the words.
Shema dismisses any ideas of a tri-partite God and insists that God is one. What it tells those of us who recite it is that we too must bring together the disparate parts of our nature, the different strands of our lives, and weave them into a coherent, healthy whole.
Justin Bieber’s life is falling apart. Fame is overwhelming him, just as it did my friend Michael Jackson before him and Elvis before him. But Michael and Elvis made it through their twenties and thirties. The new brat-pack of baby celebs are barely making it through their teens. Their lives are being derailed, corruption is setting in, when they are at their most innocent.
Miley Cyrus will do anything for attention—gyrate, twerk and grind. But what will she do when she has no body parts left to flash? How will she sustain our interest once even the places where even the sun don’t shine no longer draw a camera?
It won’t be pretty. She may be reduced to the same outrageous, drunken, drug-induced, spoiled-rotten behavior that has kept Lindsay Lohan and, before her, Britney Spears in the news.
I have nothing against any of these people. The person they are hurting most is themselves. They bought the all-American lie that fame equals money equals significance equals contentment equals happily-ever-after. The truth, of course, is that big money and superstardom are a rocket strapped to your back, but if you lose your inner GPS, you’ll drive your life right off a cliff.
The troubling aspect of Bieber’s drunken, drag-racing arrest is how young he is. Fame is finishing him off at 19. He could have easily been killed, or killed an innocent bystander, as he drag-raced down Pine Tree Drive, a mere four blocks from where I grew up in Miami Beach. I often visit my mother there with my kids, and the thought of this gassed-up teen racing cars as if it’s Daytona is terrifying.
Contrast this behavior with something else I witnessed today: Bono, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, discussing the West forgiving Africa’s debt. Bono has been one of the world’s biggest rock stars for two decades. He doesn’t get smashed in public. Doesn’t flash his privates at paparazzi. And he doesn’t drag-race Ferraris in residential neighborhoods. The difference?
As a religious Catholic, Bono values faith. To be famous is to be worshipped. To be worshipped is to make your own rules. To make your own rules is to ruin your life. Bono worships God rather than himself. As a man of faith, he also believes in the infinite value of life and sees his celebrity as a tool by which to highlight human suffering and alleviate pain.
Bono is also married (to the same woman) for decades. When you’re married, you have a spouse who makes you take out the garbage. I say that figuratively to mean you have someone who tethers you to reality and reminds you you’re not God’s gift. That’s a far cry from a teen idol with 50 million Twitter followers whom no one seems to keep in check.
Whenever I see a young star like Bieber disintegrating before our eyes, my first question always is: Where are the parents? These aren’t adults. They’re kids. They need someone to handle their money and make them spend and invest wisely. They need someone to inspire them with a sense of mission. They are unformed and need purpose.
But we, the public, are also complicit. We love reading of the decline and rapid deterioration of the people we worship. Is it motivated by envy? Is there something inherently entertaining about a young life destroying itself?
We knew that Amy Winehouse was drugging herself to oblivion and had terrible influences in her life that were keeping her flying higher than the Hindenburg. We knew that her lyrics “They tried to make me go to rehab / I said, ‘No, no, no’” were shockingly personal, and biographies of the singer list so many public drug incidents that her body had become a walking pharmacy. Still, the paparazzi gathered. Still, we amused ourselves with tabloid reports of her drunken concerts and slurred lyrics. Still, we were regaled by media tales of her punching people in the face.—until one day, she didn’t wake up, and it wasn’t entertaining any more.
Michael Jackson was also a source of unending tabloid delight until his sleeping pills closed his eyes forever, orphaning three children and leaving us to wonder to whom we could now turn for further watercooler delight.
There is something sick about a society that has so caricatured celebrities that their suffering makes no human indentation, as if they were all cartoon characters who get squashed by a giant hammer only to pop right back up.
It doesn’t work that way. Sometimes, they drive cars into telephone polls before the police arrest them, and sometimes they drive their cars into other children before they run out of gas.
Justin Bieber is lucky to be alive. He’ll be even luckier if he takes this terrible episode to heart, gets into rehab if that’s what’s called for, rediscovers his values and overcomes his narcissism by internalizing the inner unity that the Shema embodies.
Go ahead, Justin. Make me a Belieber.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s rabbi,” is the author of The Michael Jackson Tapes. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.