Oprah, Religion, and Orthodoxy

I sat next to someone recently who told me that they loved the stories of Hanoch Teller. Since he was very far from our projected image of Teller’s audience, I asked him: what other books does he likes? What has he read recently that was similar? He answered that he loved the recent Keith Richard’s autobiography. In both cases, what mattered was the human narrative and how the people responded to life. In neither case, did the protagonist have a heroic change or a transformation, just little moments of everyday life. He volunteered that he also liked the stories of Studs Turkel. This human narrative was the rubric for his religion.

This human narrative is also the rubric for the Oprah Winfey show, The role of this narrative theology is the subject of a recent academic work Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon(University of California Press, 2011). Lofton, a scholar of religion is interested in the religious views of the show. Oprah is not interested in abstract knowledge or knowledge that does not relate to one’s life. All books that one reads have to fit into the “first-person journey of my life.” How does that book make a better me or a vision of an alternate reality?

And this dovetails with my current looking at the role of popular culture in the Centrist community. Popular culture plays an increased role in Orthodoxy because one needs products that relate to the first person journey of one’s life. Talmud study, halakhah, and philosophy do not deal with the individual. The huge amount of Neo-Hasidism, self-help, evangelical purpose-driven Orthodoxy, and narrative books are all needed to offer suggestions of a better self or an alternate reality. Rav Sooveitchik is not filtering down through his students and transforming the popular worldview of suburbia, rather the religious teachings of Oprah (and other popular teachers) are filtering down and the world of Orthodoxy is being transformed into Oprah. Halakhah will somehow gain a self-improvement packaging to compete.

Oprah creates a social ethos where people think they are part of a tight knit group even though they have less actual connection. She holds the model for bringing religion into the social network age. If everyone is reading the same book and posting on the same message board and feeling they are telling their story they feel a personal social connection. She praises her followers for their forming bonds and people want the praise. Oprah is against institutional religion and has spirituality outside institutions, but in a way that followers see her supporting traditional values. She has an online institution. Some of the media based forms of Orthodoxy will grow at the expense of the local version, Chabad and Aish come to mind, but there will be greater forms of Orthodoxy by media connection. Don’t think in linear terms of a web site that will discuss halakhah as much as an online community that offers the feeling that one has a God given means of self improvement and first person journey’s that can only be found in Orthodoxy.

Oprah’s religion postulates a daily life of a false self having to make pragmatic decisions and a true inner self that possesses infinite potential for solving problems, creativity, and individuality. The religion of Oprah promises you the oxymoron of instructions for personal creativity and how precious is each person’s story. It is not that one is promised a better marriage, better children, better health, and richer life in an ordinary prosperity gospel sense but that the true self, the inner self, the inner spirit needs to grow. I do think that much of the new expansive “Eyn Od Milvado” and cruise ship Centrism is heading in this direction. As well as those recent works on Hashem having a plan for all of us to personally actualize. At some point, it will clash with the top-down teachings of following a Rosh Yeshiva.Living for personal insight and the higher self is not the same Orthodoxy as submission to the halakhah. In the meantime, the writing of self-help books has moved from the Engaged Yeshivish community to the Centrist community. I noticed several new life cycle books that seem to go in this direction, but I do not own them to analyze them.

The inner self is know through commercial commodity products. Lofton Shows how the inner self is pre-packaged as ready to buy units. They pre-package the statement that people are not alone in their problems and they can buy into solidarity with others in similar situations.

I loved the fact that Lofton was self aware that she came to this through ironic application of high theory to TV and stayed to write a book when she saw that Oprah was a great test case for theories of religion. I think that she has a virtue over the academic students of Hasidut who are not self-aware and do not see where they fit into the applied real world of new-age, spirituality, popular religion. A reader of Hasidut who watches Oprah will differ from someone who reads the same passage of Hasidut and listens to Evangelicals or Keith Richards. Any further thoughts on Oprah and Orthodoxy??

From an interview on the Immanent Frame
NS: What would Oprah think of your book?
KL: This is not the sort of book she reads—or, rather, this is not the sort of book that the product Oprah endorses—since it neither prescribes a better reality nor posits an alternative reality to which you could escape. If she and I were talking, though, the first thing she’d want to know is how this book fit into the first-person journey of my life. Then I’d find myself quickly formatted into her production as a signifying woman of one sort or another. This is her real legacy. After Oprah, what first-person iteration is not a commodity?

NS: As an American woman, do you feel some responsibility to confront what Oprah represents, in the form of an active, engaged social critique?
KL: The social is incredibly absent from Oprah, even as she praises the idea of girlfriends, of groups, of clubs. The social is a rhetorical formulation leaving women exposed in their extremity without any public held accountable.
“Girls, I’ll guide you to your total originality.”

KL: Oprah is a passionate advocate for a kind of prosperity gospel, insofar as she believes in a correlative relationship between one’s disposition and one’s materiality

NS: So all else becomes subservient to the commercial?
KL: Her reply would be that, no, all else becomes subservient to the spirit. The first question everyone should ask is, “What is my spirit telling me to do?” How do you tap into your spirit? How do you re-enchant your spirit after being pulled upon, tugged upon, by the false pragmatism of men, family, work? The replies to that are frequently flattered by the commercial, but not solely comprised of it.

NS: Tell me about what brought you to the study of Oprah. Was it fandom, or irony, or what?
KL: Undergraduate irony. As a student at the University of Chicago, my dorm had a communal room with a television, and Oprah repeated late at night on the local ABC affiliate. I would be sitting with a group of friends who were, because of the Common Core, all reading the same high-brow social and political theory and applying it colloquially to The Real World:
As I began to teach courses in religious studies, I found she was a great way to test theories of myth, ideology, and ritual for students new to religious studies abstractions. So, since the early nineties, I haven’t been able to get her out of my head—she seemed pervasive in the world and persuasively central to any given narrative of the West.

9 responses to “Oprah, Religion, and Orthodoxy

  1. “Rav Sooveitchik is not filtering down through his students and transforming the popular worldview of suburbia, rather the religious teachings of Oprah (and other popular teachers) are filtering down and the world of Orthodoxy is being transformed into Oprah.”

    Whoever said that Rav Soloveitchik’s teachings even made it to his own students to begin with?

  2. The Rav was not integrated as a teacher or a philosopher. He taught like he gave a shiur-one topic at a time. He is therefore an enigmatic thinker whose teachings are very difficult to.integrate and apply. He is a perfect foil for personal MO philosophies, even Opra’ since you can his richly worded and obscure language to support almost anything.

  3. Does this mean that Orthodoxy has stopped worshipping God and is now worshipping the self?

  4. What bothers me (not that this is a new critique) is that the solidarity fostered is totally pacifistic. Self-help internalizes social problems within the psyche (just as psychopharmacological approaches to well-being place them within ones’ brain) and the result is an acceptance of the social reality as the given.

    If this sounds too much like a marxist critique of popular religion — well, it’s a pretty damn good critique.

    • That critique would apply equally to “unpopular” religion. The “frum” jew who learns all day, even the most Litvish type, who is not into “popular” religion, is not moved in any significant way to address the problems of the larger society.

      • There is a huge difference between promoting a way of life that is detached and telling people that their social maladies are to be addressed by looking within. The former is quietistic, that latter actively channels discontent and away from its legitimate target.

        Are you among the working poor, have too much stress in your life, can’t find fulfillment in your crappy job? the solution lies within.

  5. I was happily following along and agreeing with you until your claim of a great tension between self improvement, being a better self on the one hand, and mainstream Judaism on the other, as implied in the following phrase: “Talmud study, halakhah, and philosophy do not deal with the individual.”

    The thing is, there is quite a lot out there in traditional Judaism that does deal with exactly these Oprah-esque topics. Mussar, for example, but also a decent part of the literature about teshuvah.

    I would rather see the difference in the end goal. For Oprah, self-actualization is an end into itself, for mainstream Orthodoxy, it’s a tool put to the use of avodah. However, even so, is the gap between Oprah as presented here, and the doctrine of sheleimut haadam and even certain forms of deveikut (granted, not the deveikut of the Baal Sem Tov’s brother in law, which is about the dissolution of self awareness) so great? It would rather seem that they are analogous, but operate on a different plane, O of Oprah on the plane of materialism (OK, she’d claim, the spirit) and narcissism, and O of Orthodoxy on the plane of the revealed spiritual path of Torah.

    IOW, Aren’t those who adopt this poplar culture doing so because they recognize some memes from their spiritual heritage?

  6. I drew more general lessons from Oprah’s success. I think what it takes is that the star or tradition express certain themes that the audience desires to re-experience in different variations in the private theater of their own consciousness. Consider the case of the Belzer Rebbe, perhaps the most spectacular success story with the exception of Lubavitch. From nothing to thousands of chasidim. If you look at the man, and there are many videos available, he has absolutely no virtues. Larger than a sumo wrestler, dour, walks and talks very slowly, slurs his speech, never makes eye contact and never smiles, few if any interesting torahs at his tish, megalomaniac hasagos and horrible taste…he’s the anti-Oprah. (See the witty and erudite discussions by gevezinerBelzer in recent posts of Tzig.) But in some anti-charismatic way he’s a chusid magnet! How can he do this? I don’t know, but there must be themes that are implicit in his message that are especially appealing, such that there is a great happiness in thinking of oneself as a Belzer and not a chusid of some other rebbe. And the cue is not visual; the Belzer’s main competitor in terms of lineage , the Machnovka -Belz Rebbe is straight out of Hollywood casting. The current Belzer has somehow turned his life story into a Holocaust romance how the then Belzer Rebbe escaped the Nazis, and how his orphan nephew was able to rebuild and recreate the old Belz in an authentic way. Belz, as a dynasty, was itself an uncanny success, coming so many years after the Besht and capturing the imagination of Galitzya almost immediately. Belz as a chasidus has I think something to do with the very pleasureful wish of being maximally pious, the most frum.

    I point out three other great successes in Orthodox life, Satmer, Lubavitch, and the world of yeshivas understood as a unity in their escape to Shanghi. Each comes with an enormous romantic story, stories so appealing that it becomes enjoyable to dream and think about being a member of these groups. I think centrist Orthodoxy needs such a story. To focus on the particular narrative of Oprah’s limits the possibilities. I point out that Religious Zionists and the Hesder Yeshiva movement, because they are integral to the great themes of Israel and preserving Orthodoxy have none of the problems found in American MO. No need there for rock ‘n roll shabatons. In short we need to create the excitement of romance, quest, adventure, and not new variations on Christian Evangelical themes.

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