The chanteuse Miley Cyrus, a subject of much controversy these past several weeks, mainly owing to her performance at the MTV “Video Music Awards” (among other things, she mimicked masturbation with an oversized foam finger, twerked, and, unforgivably, sexualized teddy bears), is unhappy, despite her temporal success, with some of the advice she has lately received.
In an interview with something called Hunger TV, she complained that unnamed senior corporate types are “out of touch” with the desires of today’s youth. “With magazines, with movies, it’s always weird when things are targeted for young people, yet they’re driven by people that are, like, 40 years too old.” She went on, “It can’t be like this 70-year-old Jewish man that doesn’t leave his desk all day, telling me what the clubs want to hear.”
I was saddened by this comment, because she carries the name of one of the great heroes of Jewish history — the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great, who freed the Jews from Babylonian captivity — and also because, in my experience, 70-year-old Jewish men (and 80-year-old Jewish men) are often sources of great wisdom and counsel. Cyrus’ career, as Slate’s John Dickerson recently suggested on Twitter, is evidence of the moral, spiritual and creative exhaustion of much of American culture, and her comment made me think that she could stand to listen to some wise thoughts from old Jewish men.
I asked three friends — Erica Brown, a widely respected Torah teacher in Washington; Rabbi David Wolpe, of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles; and Rabbi Andy Bachman, of Congregation Beth Elohim in New York — to share with me some relevant quotations.
Wolpe offered these, from the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the late non-rabbi Saul Bellow. Heschel: “Self- respect is the root of discipline: The sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.” And Bellow: “You can spend the entire second half of your life recovering from the mistakes of the first half.”
Brown offered this, from the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan: “To believe in God means to take for granted that it is man’s destiny to rise above the brute and to eliminate all forms of violence and exploitation from human society.” And this, from David Ben-Gurion: “Thought is a strenuous art — few practice it, and then only at rare times.”
Bachman suggested these words from Judah HaNasi: “Three things shorten a person’s days and years: Being given a Torah scroll to read and refusing to read it, being given a cup of blessing to say grace and refusing to say it, and taking on airs of authority.” Along the same lines, he suggested this from Simeon ben Eliazer: “If young people say to you, ‘Build the Temple,’ do not heed them. But if elders say to you, ‘Destroy the Temple,’ heed them. For building done by young people may be equivalent to destruction, while the destruction done by old people is equivalent to building.”
Bachman went on to explain by email the meaning embedded in this quote. “Miley might do well to look at the landscape of hubris-infused rock stars who tumble into self-destruction, usually out of a misunderstood sense of their own power and popularity (dangerous addictions in their own right that only get worse when drugs and alcohol get mixed in).”
I would offer Cyrus three more thoughts, from old Jews who have succeeded in her industry.
From Leonard Cohen: “The older I get, the surer I am that I’m not running the show.” Cohen also made this wise statement: “When you stop thinking about yourself all the time, a certain sense of repose overtakes you.”
Bob Dylan, in “Love Minus Zero, No Limit,” sang, “In the dime stores and bus stations/ People talk of situations/ Read books, repeat quotations/ Draw conclusions on the wall/ Some speak of the future/ My love she speaks softly/ She knows there’s no success like failure/ And that failure’s no success at all.”
Finally, apropos of the licentious misuse of bears, this, from Paul Simon: “Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo. I do believe it, I do believe it’s true.”
Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist.