A chat with Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn

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.

17 responses to “A chat with Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn

  1. Very interesting. Does he grasp that, qua Orthodox rabbi, he is making (adroit and perhaps thoughtful) use of motivational, meaning-discourse to reinforce extremely strong claims of authority over other people’s lives?

  2. So in this scheme having a “meaningful (religious) life” means attaining a subjective sense of fulfillment.

    Notice the equivocation between this usage and how we use the term “meaningful life” normally. Do we say that Gadol X, or dear departed relative Y or civil rights leader Z, or whomever had a “meaningful life” because they woke up every morning feeling like they could accomplish whatever they set their mind to and had a profound sense of self-satisfaction as a result?

  3. I read this post with great interest as I feel that I have grown up in a similar world and had (or didn’t have) some of these same shared experiences. To me it is sad that this Rabbi was not able to find solutions to his spiritual quests in the world of Torah. I too devoured ‘the 7 habits of highly effective people’, Dale Carnegie et. al. upon returning from my gap years, but such wisdom is highly circumscribed by its lack of divine underpinning. Marrying it, as others have tried to marry other types of wisdom, to torah yields an alluring but sterile kilayim.

    I believe it would do our mechanchim well to better understand Rabbi Einhorn, clearly a talmud chacham, as an example of spirituality unquenched. Pop-torah and “Juicy chaps” does not a gadol make. Elst we produce a dor, like Andy Warhol, who are deeply superficial.

    • Hyde, my friend, i disagree with your point that “to me it is sad that this Rabbi was not able to find solutions to his spiritual quests in the world of Torah”. It makes me negate finding inspiration from a cool breeze on a summer day, just because that wasn’t in the Torah. I guess this hovers over the issue of inspiration outside the Torah which i know was the subject of letter in Torah U’Maddah Journal once before. Can’t remember where but somebody had some debate about going to Basbeall games.

  4. I have to say that this is utterly refreshing. I think that you are trying to pose some inconsistencies but i believe this is a thinker who is acknowledging something that nobody attempts to say, “hey, we’re all flawed, nobody is perfect, but we do have roll models who we can all look up to even though they’re not perfect.” This is so unique. I feel like this is creating a movement toward greater avodah, as you put it, while still revering gedolim and still enjoying the best of Clapton.

  5. The use of the Tony Robbins model I find interesting. I know a few 30 something women, successful professionals who were raised in the Modern Orthodox world, went to well known Modern Orthodox NYC day schools, and are now no longer observant. Their Facebook and Twitter accounts are filled with many Tony Robbins postings about his seminars, and the “speak” taught there on self improvement and motivation. They have traveled far and wide to participate in these seminars much like they traveled to shabbatons in their youth. It makes me wonder if we all really need something like Robbins and if the Modern Orthodox world is not fulfilling for these successful young women.

  6. Is he a kiruv rabbi? Kiruv training programs have been using Carnegie and NLP for over a decade.
    With regard to Bono, I admit a soft spot. I’ve darshened him before;

  7. This us of “gedolim” seems to me to be an innovation, one which perhaps takes the whole modern institution of “gedolim” even farther than it has come thus far. How does R. Einhorn’s use of Gedolim compare with practices in other religions?

  8. Great post. I am big fan of Bono and Bilvavi. Tony Robbin’s GET THE EDGE program is chock full o’mussar.

  9. A goal of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytically informed therapy is to enable people to become more flexible and empathic, a sign of which is humor and irony. By way of contrast self help books are addictive, create no inner structural change, and set up rigid robotic ideals. Generation Y and Z are way too serious, way too humorless and way too focused to begin with. Putting this generation on these success/management/little engine that could steroids is deliberately aiming at creating a generation of Aspberger robots. Rabbi Einhorn with the backing of the OU gives a seal of approval to a specific type of inner work that deters the person from greater subjectivity and individualism. So why does his approach have any priority? Is this also a matter of daas torah MO style. One answer is R. Einhorn’s combo works, makes people more frum, a world where subjectivity and individualism are not particularly desirable. But many things work. Giving out frozen yogurt after davening would cause people to have sweet and happy associations with the shul. Walking past a shul would be like walking past a Baskin and Robbins. Another advantage of the mind over everything approach is that it costs relatively little in time and money, and promise a quick and easy formula for self renewal. That it does.
    Even if we decide power and wealth are half the tachlis haadam beolawmo, self help books are not good models how to achieve these goals. I offer two proof texts as case studies, the Jeremy Irons character in the movie Margin Call and a TED talk by Sheryl Sandberg. Both exhibit and have great presence and strength. Does anyone think these two, (or Lehman’s Fuld, Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein and on and on through the Fortune 500 ) came up in the world using Tony Robbins Leadership Tapes? What exactly do such people have and how did they become such leaders? All I know for sure is that it took more than having an Amazon account.


  10. I have read this post twice and now, at the suggestion of Dr. Brill, am offering an expanded comment. Yes, I learn Bilvavi and know the pre-1992 U2 discography pretty darn well. I found Torah concepts in Tony Robbins.

    As a 41 year old who is fully aware of pop culture, yet chooses not to engage in most of it, I found this posted discussion w/ R Einhorn to be great. I am just at the fringe of the demographic that R Einhorn is focusing on, yet he speaks to me.

    Many of my peers are in one of two categories:
    Either they are observant slackers, sometimes only davening with a minyan on Shabbos Kodesh or simply going through the motions on the same intellectual and emotional level of their high school years.

    I read this post and thought of R Moshe Weinberger (Cong Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY), who also has an eclectic library and has found a way to speak in a language his congregants understand.

    My generation and those Gen Y’ers or 15th Gen’ers are in need of substance and a Yiddishkeit that allows to to both inspire others and be inspired.

    Dr. Brill’s observation about those not knowing the Rav and Reb Shlomo is so true.

    I think most institutions would help with the quest for meaning, but don’t know how. Even AJOP tried to address this in Jan at their “In Reach” seminar.

  11. Shlomo Argamon

    I’m not in the target demographic, I think, though I do find a great deal of value in the “motivational leadership” literature. The thing is, though, what these books and seminars really provide are *tools*, not goals, even though they might have you think they provide both. In fact, the tools can be very useful in one’s development of one’s avodas Hashem, but one must go to Torah for the goals.

    A wonderful term I got from the title of a book by a Tibetan Buddhist monk (of all things) is “Spiritual Materialism.” The idea is that many people today look at spirituality as a kind of “acquisition” and develop a selfish acquisitiveness which they think of as “spirituality.” Needless to say, this is NOT avodas Hashem. If you’re not thinking about how to do Gd’s will, but rather on your own “spiritual fulfillment” or “growth” or “leadership” you’re totally missing the point, and that’s a big danger with all of these motivational approaches. Self-development must be in the service of improving avodas Hashem, not a goal in its own right.

  12. Actually, “tools” is an excellent point. Obviously the point is Avodas Hashem.
    I think that in our leadership orphaned society, we have to use whatever tools we can find to empower ouselves to make a difference in the klal.

    I recently heard a shiur (ok, I’ve listened to it three times) about leadership that is highly recommended:

  13. To continue Neil’s thought… I would define mussar as the approach to Judaism in which the Torah is a means of becoming the person Hashem intended us to be. (And upper-case-M “Mussar” is perhaps when that perfection is viewed in terms of refinement of middos.) Halakhah is central to that, but so is working the program in ways beyond halakhah. It may very well be that people like Tony Robbins or Stephen Covey found the tools that work in today’s Western milieu. It can’t be any more off than Rav Yisrael Salanter promoting the republication of Cheshbon haNefesh, a book outlining a tool first developed by Benjamin Franklyn.

    But I think the approach described is lacking the picture of the ideal. Self-help and management gurus are teaching people how to become the people they wish they were. We therefore are missing the “make His Will your will” peice — closing the possibility of a gap between who I want to be, and who my Maker wants me to be.

    I think this is actually exacerbated by how Rabbi Einhorn is described as using quotes from and stories about our gedolim. Yes, our gedolim tend not to fit the Mod-O mindset of his congregants. (Largely because the notion of putting a rosh yeshiva up on a pedestal is more central to chareidi life, which then skews the demographics of who gets quoted and has tales retold about them.) But taking sound bites out of context to find those elements a Mod-O Jew would agree are worth emulating (I assume that is what is meant by putting someone’s “teaching in the mouth of the Gedolim”, as opposed to making things up) does not produce a coherent picture of who it is I am aiming to become.

    If Rabbi Einhorn is building an approach for people to whom Tony Robbins’ message of human potential speaks, then the population sees the world through the eyes of the greatness and majesty of man. Territory already developed by the Alter of Slabodka. Perhaps exploring his Or haTzafun would produce a vision of the Torah’s ideal that fits with the direction RHE is heading.

    If the notion of a well-defined ideal me is neglected, one will be left with a Judaism that is reduced to being “a spade with which to hoe” the ground of self-help: Keep Torah, it’s the only way to really be happy. We not only need a vision, it — unlike the tool-set — much be firmly grounded in traditional sources.

    In general, we are in the territory of providing meaning through lower-case-m mussar. It would make sense to explore and adapt the work the Mussarists already did, rather than reinventing the wheel from scratch.

  14. Without R Einhorn commenting, we really don’t know what he is teaching, regarding Gedolim. I think that there’s nothing wrong getting people, who are not familiar with Gedolim, to find a way to relate and a desire to strive to emulate them.

    The problem is, and I find this with those within the 32-45 age bracket who are MO in the sense that they are not thinking about growth, that many hear about Mesillas Yesharim, Alei Shur, or even Michtav M’Eliyahu and they get that bad taste in their mouth that they associate with Mussar. They don’t think of it as self-growth or a route to being a better Jew or person.

    This is why marketing a program as a “Mussar program” has been highly effective for The Mussar Institute. They are reaching a demographic that doesn’t have a negative view of authentic Jewish self-growth.

    Using the proven techniques of Evangelicals or Tony Robbins can be useful in reaching out to people, as I’ve said before.

  15. Neil, you may be talking to a more primary problem. By noting that we have to avoid certain sefarim because the typical Orthodox Jew already formed a negative impression of them, you make me wonder why? How is it that initial exposure to growth-oriented spiritual sefarim (as opposed to Chassidic texts which tend to focus on experiencing spiritualism) is so often done wrong? I realize that the typical contemporary Westerner isn’t naturally fascinated by something that postpones gratification by years or decades. But is that causing us to try to present Mussar in a warped manner? Or is it just that the “think of the day of death” attitude that Mussar started with in R’ Yisrael Salanter’s day has so slanted how prior generations see the movement that rabbeim are still subconsciously conveying it in how they teach?

    You inadvertently raise an interesting paradox. Mesilas Yesharim is unfortunately on many O Jews’ “feh” list. R’ Itamar Schwartz’s Bilvavi sefarim are very popular among O Jews seeking spirituality. Even though Bilvavi very very heavily leans on MY and the Ramchal’s other works!

    So, let’s think about how to get to the next step… We find that many people are excited by a spirituality based on the same kinds of growth that are popular in the general society. (No surprise.) And yet we find a barrier to teaching most of the texts from within the tradition that are based on self-refinement and growth. So, how do we take ideas like that described in this discussion and anchor them in a vision of what “refined” means — teach what it is those tools we’re taking from society are supposed to be used to build — that is drawn from the Torah?

  16. “Refined” might be the goal, but if presented that way, I think it might turn some people off. “Growth in becoming a better person [Jew]” is a more digestable approach, I think. If it’s a trend in the non-Jewish world, then for sure (sadly) Jews will buy in (just look at everything from “chulent bags” to sushi).

    True, BME is rooted in Messilas Yesharim, but R Itmar Schwartz only brings in the quote in the beginning of MY about devekus and that is repeated over and over and over again. Most of the first two vols deal with our relationship with the Creator. Now, his commentary on MY is another story.

    Re: “How is it that initial exposure to growth-oriented spiritual sefarim (as opposed to Chassidic texts which tend to focus on experiencing spiritualism) is so often done wrong?”
    I think that it depends on who you are approaching. You and I love Mussar (and mussar), but not everyone has the sames tastes.
    I dislike pickles. No matter how you dress up a pickle, I won’t like it. I can’t stand the smell (really it’s the salt brine solution). Drives me crazy, man. However, I happen to like cucumbers. A pickle was, at one time, a cuccumber.
    If a person’s view of mussar is based on a scolding from their mashgiach or a casual reading of a classic text (without really understanding it), then I can totally understand why their “inital exposure” might be wrong.

    Your answer, “Or is it just that the “think of the day of death” attitude that Mussar started with in R’ Yisrael Salanter’s day has so slanted how prior generations see the movement that rabbeim are still subconsciously conveying it in how they teach?” seems to make sense to me.

    Ohr Yisrael and Madregos HaAdam are chock full of the importance of “Yiras Hashem” and ‘Yiras Shamayim”. These were yesodos that were lacking in that generation (and still are lacking). However, there are other ways to package it. R Y Blazer explains that Yiras Shamayim is the fear or concern that our avodah/mitzvah observance won’t be the best it can be when serving Hashem. That is very different that the common view of “fear of Heaven”, which implies (to me) onesh and an accounting before Hashem.

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