And your eyes shall see your teacher, Isaiah 30:20
Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn, mara d’atra of the West Side Institutional Synagogue, and I have been in email correspondence for over a year and a half and we were never able to fix a time to meet. So, before he leaves town to his new pulpit and before I have deadlines for the next book we found time to meet. He chose the place to meet, the swank lounge at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel overlooking Central Park.
In the background to our meeting was my monitoring his high-profile synagogue events that use popular culture, his lecturing on pop-psych, and his general trendiness in his programming. He offers a model of a popular culture Orthodox Rabbi to contrast with the Evangelical Orthodox Rabbi or Oprah Orthodox rabbi. His model is so popular and useful that the OU has given him his own group, program, and website called Wings to work with synagogues training and retraining personal and clergy into the new approaches. The OU website describes Einhorn as a musician, “as having developed a critically “Simcha Seminar,” authored multiple books, released a CD and grown his shul by more than 70% in the past four years. On his blog, Rabbi Einhorn shares his thoughts and his research on how to be productive and imbue everything you touch with success.”
I came into the meeting expecting to talk about popular culture, sports, and entertainment and instead found myself discussing spiritual seeking and how to learn from the lives of the gedolim. I also was surprised to be hearing a spiritual autobiography in progress.
Einhorn describes the need for his age group, the younger gen x and older gen y rabbis to seek the experiential. They grew up with a strict halakhic diet and a rationalist worldview which did not sustain their cravings for religious experience that they were taught to value in Israel. They moved from ipad and MTV to a year in Israel where they acquired black hats, allegiance to rabbinic authority and complete submission to Torah. But they also developed a yearning for the spirituality they found in Rav Zilberstein with his ecstatic third meals in darkness or the tisch kabbalah of Rav Morgenstein or Rav Moshe Wolfson. They were not attracted to the slow study of classic Kabbalaistic texts rather the saintliness and supernaturalism. They loved the emotional devotionalism of zaddikim. The recently deceased Steipler, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (d.1985) offered a role model of the aspirational goals of the Yeshiva experience.
Living in a post-lummdus age, Einhorn like the Torah that he learns and teaches to be the short sound bites. Great single paragraph “juicy chaps” as he calls them and he wants them to also have a practical difference. His seforim shelf includes: Rabbi Abba Mordechai Berman, Shiurei Iyun Hatalmud, Businessman Zvi Ryzman Ratz keTzvi, R. Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, Mishmeres Chaim and R. Yoav Joshua Weingarten, Sefer Kaba de-kashyata. His tastes are part a return to Polish Hasidic Torah and part contemporary Haredi. In haskafah, he likes Rav Dessler Miktav miEliyahu and Rav Schwatz’s Bilvavi. Like a Polish Rabbi, he attempts to finish Shas once a year And unlike a Brisker approach, he returns Torah to its thick weave of unrelated questions and answers, satisfied with a cleaver answer. Einhorn attended the non-hesder Ohr Yerushalayim and then YU, spending four years under Rav Schachter, but this method seems more reflective of his generation that was no longer satisfied with halakhah or the rationality of Hesder or Lumdus approaches.
His is a generation that did not know the lumdus of Rav Soloveitchik, the heart of Reb Shlomo Carlebach, or a regular Shabbos in Modzitz. Nor do they know the third meal in darkness from the old-time world of Satmar, the Bobover rebbe or mussar. Their character formation was in the beis medrash in gap-year programs in Israel and they returned to the US – either YU or Ner Yisrael to complete their formation as a ben Torah. They continued college in the same natural, but sheltered, way that they achieved high school, as something that is done. But they are outside of high culture, and lack any rubric for philosophy, psychology, or religion. He represents a generation wide-eyed in search of its own spirituality.
Einhorn found his spirituality when he discovered the world of motivational management books and could not get enough of them. He devoured the books on how to improve one’s leadership, how to motivate those under you and how to push yourself to your potential. An action centered gregarious form of self-fulfillment in the real world. He also read Rick Warren and the other motivational Evangelical but they were only part of the broader quest for tips and ideas for self-motivation.
Rabbi Einhorn is absolutely sold on Tony Robbins’s program for fire-walking to be transformed and to release the potential within. Not only has he undergone the fire-walking seminar, he encourages other Orthodox rabbis to do the same. Einhorn has also attended Landmark seminars (a derivative from Werner Erhard’s EST) and appreciates the importance of Neuro-Linguistic Programing for motivating others. (Be prepared for ever new emphasis on emotional manipulation in the Orthodox youth organizations.)
For Einhorn, these seminars show our potential to grow in our service to God and be like the gedolim. If we overcome our fears and hesitance we can be anything. The conversation in the cocktail lounge was entirely on the amazing heights of the gedolim and their worship of God; they lived up to the potential human in their service. Rarely was Torah mentioned, the focus was on avodah. He rejoiced in telling me how he was using social media to get people to click on pictures of gedolim they liked. For Einhorn, even though the Gedolim are anti-modern anti-social, and certainly anti-social media, we use social media to spread a need to serve God the way the gedolim do. Gedolim don’t do facebook but they have the worship of God that we want. We shared a common interest in the need for exemplarily of saints as a necessity in the religious life.
I asked him: what is the avodah, the service of God that he seeks and preaches? He answered: Meaning in their everyday life. I asked: Like Victor Frankl? Einhorn answered: “I want people to find meaning in life like Rabbi David Wolpe teaches.” He has met Wolpe and is especially proud that Wolbe has quoted him. Yet, he consistently puts Wolpe’s teaching in the mouth of the Gedolim because they are frum and offer an imaginary ideal of a humanistic way to serve God. Wolpe is not connected to the gedolim so his message has to be put in their mouth. Wolpe runs Friday night live as entertainment but achieves religious commitment, Einhorn does the same. Yet I ask: Why cant it be done in the name of Wolpe, admit you differ with him over theology and mizvot and that you have a deep ideological divide but your results match his and not that of Rav Eliyashiv?
What is avodah? It deals with our deep issues, all of life is an avodah, not just the finding of mizvot in our day but the process of fully living. God is in the heart and the currencies of the heart are inspiration, peak moments, life’s meanings and our personal relationship with God.
Einhorn repeated several times that his presentations of the gedolim, whether the Steipler or Rav Eliashiv is imaginary. They serve as aspirational foci but Einhorn bears no responsibility for the actual ascetic, stringent, and anti-social life of the gedolim.
The source for his daily examples of how to live life are from Rock stars, athlete, celebrities, and other avatars of pop culture. They are the appropriate mussar to reaches us where we are at. According to Einhorn, the rock stars are not the source for how to lead our daily lives, gedolim are. He uses lyrics, especially the ability to tap into deep wells of angst or hope, to point us in the direction of doing the things the gedolim do.Bono’s religious quest is ideal for sermons. Yet, it is important to note that many Evangelical leaders are weary of Bono, despite his religious quest, because he “still hasn’t found what he is looking for.” While Einhorn embraces the human journey of rock stars and his congregants. The justification for pop culture is because it will bring us to the spiritual levels of the gedolim.
Prior ages focused on Hasidic tales and made them into Romantics, or popularists or Renewal But Rav Nahman is dead and Besht is dead so one does not have to live with their sectarian nature of Hasidism. But here Rav Eliyashiv is equated with gregarious social marketing and manipulation. He told me a story of Rabbinic friend of his of the same age who found himself by traveling to Wyoming with only $150 and his ID. In order to get back home, his friend had to build resilience and the ability to open up to people by learning to work odd jobs and chat with common people. That is the way to grow and the gedolim stories, told by Einhorn, show that they did similar things. Extrovert self-help and human potential is the image of the gedolim.
In his opinion, his approach is not cruise ship Orthodoxy or just entertainment because he sees lives touched. He seeks to actively change people lives as a rabbi, and people do change their lives and their observance and attain a meaningful life.
Yet, the real source of Einhorn’s teachings is the motivational literature, especially Tony Robbin’s Leadership Academy seminar, in which participants learn to “[c]reate an identity for them self as someone who can help ‘anyone’, no matter what his/her challenge may be. Participants walk barefoot over hot coals by the end of the first evening. The aim of the seminar, demonstrated in the firewalk, is to illustrate that the main quality shared by those who achieve greatness is the ability to take action called personal power. The physical is ALWAYS rules by thought; nothing can happen on the physical plane until or unless it first happens in the thought plane; The power of focus will get you through even the most seemingly impossible obstacles. For, Robbin’s people pursue an imaginary someday of satisfaction. And Einhorn offers the imaginary perfection of the gedolim. People can “transform” by simply declaring a new way of being instead of trying to change themselves in comparison to the past.
He recounted a curious side story when he was bombarded by 1000’s of calls and emails from the Hadar community when he was going to speak at a memorial for Meir Kahane. In general, people don’t protest cross denominational lines. Members of BJ or Anshei Chesed were not the ones to protest WSIS. This belies a sense that they share a common social group even if the two institutions are ideological poles apart.
Einhorn noted that the current major Orthodox educational institutions are not contributing to this quest for meaning and religious experience so students have no need to attend them.
As we ended our discussion, I mentioned that his approach may come under scrutiny in the upcoming years because structurally there is an inherent clash between Talmud Torah to produce gedolim and popular culture. He noted the warning and we parted.