Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > “Return to Your Treasures”: On the Dangers of Blind Admiration

“Return to Your Treasures”: On the Dangers of Blind Admiration

Why do we admire certain figures? What does it give us, and how can we avoid the ‎pitfalls such admiration creates? Blind hero-worship can be deeply damaging, and it is incumbent upon us to differentiate between mature appreciation and childish admiration.‎

Adar I 5782 / February 2022

A great eagle arrived, knocked on the tower and told them: Desist from your poverty, return to your treasures, and employ them (Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, Maaseh Mishiva Kabtzanim)

I first heard about the Walder affair traveling on an intercity bus. A woman sitting behind me was making a public broadcast of the news as she spoke on the phone. “I just don’t believe it, I can’t believe it, it just isn’t possible…”‎—‎that was the gist of it. I, too, could not believe it. I assumed we would soon hear refutations and explanations of how actions were taken out of context. Later, after new information strengthened rather than weakened the initial allegations, the community entered a state of general distrust, or more precisely one of trust that had been shattered and unraveled.

Walder easily lent himself to mythologizing. For years, we believed he was someone who knew how to manipulate our passions (for the good), who understood children, who could translate the mess of life into a language anyone could understand

The sense was that something had been taken from us, that we had been deceived by an illusion. The man had given us pearls of language, culture, and thought. How many children had thought of writing their own version of Kids Speak? And how many friends and colleagues, within Charedi society and outside of it, have employed his books for therapeutic purposes?

Walder easily lent himself to mythologizing. For years, we believed he was someone who knew how to manipulate our passions (for the good), who understood children, who could translate the mess of life into a language anyone could understand. Our discovery that the myths protected a secret evildoer produced a dull painful vacuousness.

This was not a sobering up. This was a collapse.

The question I wish to address in this article is what this says about other people who serve as compasses, moral and otherwise, for our lives. What does this say about us, who trust in people so that we can ourselves feel understood? I will discuss how and why we project ourselves onto others, and what we gain and risk by doing so.

 

Mind the Projection

We are well aware of the fact that there are sinners in the world; we also know the Talmudic dictum whereby “He who is greater than his fellow, his evil inclination is also greater.” Why, then, does it so shake us when the actions of people we admire verify the truth of this adage? There is a complexity here that I cannot fully clear in the space of the present article. I will merely address one part of our conundrum: the part I call “projection.”

Projection is the psychological act of attributing parts of ourselves to others. Usually, we project unconsciously. Doing so can be incredibly useful. We use projection to experience relief from guilt and anxiety, as well as procuring other benefits. Projection is coming home mad with frustration about injustice at work and taking it out on the kid who left his Lego construction in the middle of the living room. Lashon Hara is also a good means of projection: instead of facing up to my failures, I talk about those of others, which provide me with the consolation of fools.

Projection is thus a “distortion of the other, in which we see a side of ourselves in him ‎instead of seeing him as he is” (Halpern and Halpern, 1983). By means of ‎the projection mechanism, we attribute urges, feelings, and entire emotional outlooks ‎to others that actually originate in our own internal world.‎ We all know the joke about the grandmother who presents her three-year-old and five-year-old grandchildren as Simon the doctor and Ari the lawyer. This is a projection of unfulfilled desires and ambitions onto children, in the hope that they will someday realize them.

Erikson argued that although projection involves distortion and is often replete with hostility and fear, it contains a kernel of deep significance that the projecting individual attributes to the other person. It is something we should take note of.

I wish to discuss a very specific form of projection: mythical projection. Mythical projection involves the attempted transformation of somebody we admire into a sort of legend. The idea derives from Carl Jung, and its focus is the attribution of incredibly powerful archetypical images to others. Through mythical projection, we treat others as extraordinary, almost superhuman creatures.

The object of projection is covered by stardust, and if I am among the fans doing the throwing some of it might stick to me

Mythical projection is usually employed to cover for some deficiency in ourselves, an inability on our own part to be excellent or virtuous. It compensates for an unfulfilled need for uniqueness. When we don’t find ourselves worthy of admiration, we are excited to find others who are: a singer with an incredible voice, a mathematical wunderkind, a prodigy who can pass any Torah test, an author who plays with words as Perlman plays the violin. Our relationship with this alleged one-of-a-kind person nourishes us and helps us share a halo of wonder and value.

This is why mythical projection is so infectious. The object of projection is covered by stardust, and if I am among the fans doing the throwing some of it might stick to me. In addition, the affirming judgment of the mythologized person also validates those parts within me, telling me that for my admiration of the person I will also be admired by a large proportion of the obsequious crowd.

Mythical projection magnifies the object we project onto and idealizes it. The more it grows, the greater the value of my connection. In this sense, the object is the label I wear. The motive for the murder of John Lennon perversely illustrates the point. The murderer, a rabid fan, wanted his name to be forever associated with his idol.

 

Disqualifying With One’s Own Blemish

What is so bad about all this? Why should we ween ourselves or our kids from the habit of intensely admiring others? Should we not cast our eyes towards role models worthy of imitation?

I am not suggesting we all sign up for “admiration rehab.” There is no need to fight the phenomenon (and probably no use in trying to). We simply need to understand that what we project onto others is a part of ourselves, stamped with our personal production stamp. What we find in someone else attests to something we ourselves value. We will not admire someone who effortlessly sinks jump shots on the court if we do not value excellence in sports. It won’t resonate; at most, we will smile and nod upon seeing it. In the wider world, documentaries on royal dynasties attract millions of viewers, and not for nothing. They play on a deep-set desire for honor, admiration, and a sense of being chosen. Those who admire greatness in Torah demonstrate their love of Torah and the value they ascribe to its acquisition and knowledge.

I once attended a professional women’s panel on which sat a mother- and daughter-in-law pair. They were asked various questions about family affairs and answered them to the best of their abilities. At the end of the panel, I asked a friend about her impression of the conference. I meant professionally, of course. She responded: “I was really amazed at how much respect they have for each other, these are wonderful relations between a daughter-in and mother-in-law.” It almost goes without saying that she herself is a very pleasant and respectful person. Indeed, everyone sees in others what they admire in themselves.

Everything that bothers us when it comes to others echoes something familiar inside. Sometimes it is wrapped in defenses and layers of justifications, but it is always ours

The Sages knew about projection and described it as follows: “All who disqualify others do so with their own blemish.” Everything that bothers us when it comes to others echoes something familiar inside. Sometimes it is wrapped in defenses and layers of justifications, but it is always ours. And as the Baal Shem Tov said in a play on the Sages’ words: “Every affliction someone sees outside is his own affliction.” What we see outside is a reflection and projection of parts of ourselves.

What’s Wrong With Projection?

“Psychoanalysis tells you that you are no longer at the center of yourself, since you already had a lost subject – the unconscious.” (Lacan, 1993)

The greatest potential harm caused by projection is losing parts of ourselves. Instead of doing the work of self-discovery and development, we suffice with admiring those who already embody our hopes. This can paralyze us, leaving us small and unaware. Worse, outsourcing our hopes and ambitions leads us to justify their actions and interpret them accordingly. We make excuses for those we admire as we would do for ourselves, but without any ability to improve their (or our) behavior. So do all sorts of demagogues, flatterers, and pretenders who tell us who we are and what we’re worth. And we give them our approval, thus abjuring responsibility for our own lives.

If “they,” those upon whom we project, didn’t say anything ‎or do something about it, then things are obviously not so bad.‎ Then who are we to do anything?

We are thus trapped by a conception we cultivate for our own emotional ‎needs—needs that clear us of responsibility, leaving us childlike and ‎innocent, and sparing us the need to mature, to grow up. The result is a group of adults, wise and brilliant, who often fail to invest even minimal time in considering core issues that affect all of us; others ostensibly do the thinking for us. But placing all that is good and great in the hands of others is a recipe for small-mindedness. This is how ‎terrible injustices can take place under our very noses. If “they,” those upon whom we project, didn’t say anything ‎or do something about it, then things are obviously not so bad.‎ Then who are we to do anything?

In addition, there is a tangible danger of crisis when the “projected” person doesn’t meet expectations. ‎Mythical projection begins in childhood, and while we ‎are supposed to sober up from this perspective as we grow up (with a pause during ‎adolescence, which has a role in shaping the emerging personality of the teenager), sometimes it ‎seems that we remain within a long, sheltered period of childhood, expecting the amazing people ‎around us to serve as a model. We cultivate a primal wish that someone should understand us without words, ‎identify our needs, and decide what is best for us. It gives us a sense of returning to the arms of ‎omnipotent and omniscient parents. We forget that people are just people. Such crises can ‎bring us to collapse like a child abandoned by its parents.‎

Worse, projection leaves us in a show, dazzled by the stage lights, instead of investing and working on ourselves. ‎Working on oneself is Sisyphean, grey, dirty, but also stimulates growth. We thus project parts of ‎ourselves on others, leaving ourselves with a partial, limited personality, with an inability to contain ‎complexity and imperfection, and with an inability to know how to be both small and big simultaneously (borrowing from the brilliant expression of Chaya Hertzberg).

And like every time we place our judgment in the hands of others, our natural critical sense dulls, our ‎antennae weaken, and our conscience is furloughed. Admiration creates idealization and idealization idolization, leading to the crowning of all sorts of ‎charismatic figures, even when an objective examination would raise many questions. ‎It filters out the facts that don’t support our perspective, and either doesn’t see them or creates a ‎distorted rationale for them.‎

What did the Gedolim say? Did they know? And if so, why didn’t they do anything? One of the confused among us said it best: “He mingled with the Gedolim, he spent countless hours with them. How did they not see this with their holy spirit?”

During last year’s unprecedented rioting in Bnei Brak, someone with deep involvement in the episode told me: “Those people [with reference to a particular Chassidic court] do whatever the Rebbe says. They have no God.” This tragic statement just demonstrates how short and direct is the road from establishing god-substitutes to losing one’s moral judgment. Consider cases of suicide in the wake of the disgrace of an insane guru, a fanatical following of a dubious rabbi that endangers entire families, or the persecution of a rival religious faction due to pressure from those in power. And what of our mouthpieces? Why are so many of them making comments on Twitter and Facebook while instructing us to keep the communal sphere pure and pristine? Why are we not allowed to check the reliability of the information they filter down to us? Why do they receive the automatic branding of holy writ? Why do we live by their word?

Because of this situation, episodes like the Walder affair strike us with what is often dubbed “pluralistic ignorance.” Encountering an emergency, we base our reactions on those of others. The unpredictable event confuses us and the search for others who can provide us with behavioral cues renders us paralyzed. What did the Gedolim say? Did they know? And if so, why didn’t they do anything? One of the confused among us said it best: “He mingled with the Gedolim, he spent countless hours with them. How did they not see this with their holy spirit?”

When we do discover that our role model has let us down, we do not shrug and say “We were wrong, impressive people also have an evil inclination.” Instead, our world collapses. Something inside us is destroyed. For us, this is not a localized discovery that someone else let their urges get the better of them, but rather an internal calamity. The myth we projected onto that person, who was supposed to do the hard work for us in being better people, is shattered.

 

Thou Shalt Not Admire

We need to distinguish between sober appreciation and blind admiration. The latter creates a barrier: he can, I cannot; He is a god, I am merely flesh and blood; he knows, I have no idea. Therefore, I need to blindly mimic him and do whatever he says.

Deep down, the simple fan does not believe he can be great, sufficing instead with a pinch of stardust belonging to others. This he finds in heroic tales, in irrelevant selfies. “That was me. I was next to him. He stepped on me.” Oh, the touch of a holy foot.

Admiration grants exaggerated meaning to marginal things: a hand movement or gesture or some banal statement. It takes random sentences and turns them into generalizations, elevating answers given to individuals into authoritative guidance for the masses. It attributes magical, supernatural power to the object of admiration.

By contrast, sober appreciation and respect make use of our images of others to learn about ourselves and our own potential. Respect for role models reveals a spectrum and articulates belief in our ability to move forward along that spectrum. Admiration, by contrast, sees things in black and white. Deep down, the simple fan does not believe he can be great, sufficing instead with a pinch of stardust belonging to others. This he finds in heroic tales, in irrelevant selfies. “That was me. I was next to him. He stepped on me.” Oh, the touch of a holy foot.

Admiration grants exaggerated meaning to marginal things: a hand movement or gesture or some banal statement. It takes random sentences and turns them into generalizations, elevating answers given to individuals into authoritative guidance for the masses. It attributes magical, supernatural power to the object of admiration

Absolute admiration weakens us, placing responsibility for our lives in the hands of others. Respect, meantime, is selective, recognizing human complexity and understanding that even stars can also fall off the stage. A student of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach zt”l was once reprimanded by his rabbi for smoking. “But Rabbi so-and-so also smoked,” the student responded defensively. “But that part you don’t need to learn from him,” Rabbi Auerbach responded.

 

Rediscovering What We’ve Lost

There are upsides to mythical projection, too. By contrast with other kinds of projection, mythical projection assigns to others qualities we might potentially acquire, even if we are unaware of it. Mythical projection can thus help us to discover what is inside of ourselves, buried for reasons unknown to us. Awareness of this does not abolish the hierarchy between us and those we admire, but rather the false sense of unattainability: if someone else has it, I do not and cannot, for the horizon they represent is always too distant.

A well-known joke tells of an acrobat walking a tightrope between two buildings while playing the violin. Someone standing below was unable to understand the hubbub around the acrobat. He shook his head and said dismissively, “Yasha Heifetz, he sure ain’t.” The inability to see virtue within ourselves is our biggest problem. Awareness of it will do us a valuable service.

We need to ask ourselves what we admire about others. It is likely to be a trait or behavior we find lacking in ourselves, perhaps one that belonged to us in the past and that we gave up on. It is hard to admire musical ability when we’ve always been out of tune. “The crucible for the silver and the furnace for the gold and people according to their praise,” said King Solomon in Mishlei (27:21). Do we admire learning skills? Diligence in learning? Generosity? Brilliant deconstruction? Solving a Rubik’s Cube? And behold a shortlist of our hidden talents, our life aspirations in miniature.

[T]here is nothing that more gladdens the soul than the knowledge of one’s increased maturity, of growing up, of becoming different from and better than who we were yesterday. Identifying the parts of ourselves we can cultivate will help us become more complete human beings

If we’re speaking of greatness in Torah, then at one end of the spectrum sits the exalted talmid chacham and at the other end is the ignorant baalabos. But there are many Torah-true people along this spectrum who have learned as much as they can and for whom God’s voice resonates loud and clear. The cleaner a person is of projections, biases, and self-told lies, the more they can hear the divine voice. It isn’t a matter of “either-or.” There is no particular moment at which you transit from being a baalabos to being a “sage is greater than a prophet.”

This is a clarion call to develop in ourselves those things we admire in others. Positive virtues, dedication to Torah, judgment, and concern for the many. Something in us is touched by what we see in those around us. But we have no control over how others behave, and instead of hanging on their every word, we should seek the greatness within ourselves.

This way, we won’t need to mourn when others let us down. This way, we will reclaim ownership of the parts of the world that actually belong to us. As Rogers argues, there is nothing that more gladdens the soul than the knowledge of one’s increased maturity, of growing up, of becoming different from and better than who we were yesterday. Identifying the parts of ourselves we can cultivate will help us become more complete human beings. Or as Rabbi Nachman tells us: Let us return to our treasures; return to them and make good use of them.

3 thoughts on ““Return to Your Treasures”: On the Dangers of Blind Admiration

  • When our normal communication about important matters is stifled (we can’t write about THAT!, we can’t talk about THAT!” we start relying to an unhealthy degree on the rumor mill and on the PR efforts of interested parties. The rumor mill often produces lashon hara and the PR often produces hero worship.

    • Nice article. I think it misses the essential point.

      We have been taught to rely on the judgement of others – or to emulate Pinchas. We should be taught that you stand being judged alone, and not with a list of excuses for your various actions written by your rabbi(s).

      People weren’t mistakenly blind to this. They turned their head away so that they didn’t see. The only pity of Walder killing himself is that it let society off the hook for their complicity – we wring our hands in fake concern for the “poor man” instead celebrating the death of a predator.

  • Gedolimolatry is the avodah zara of our time. One the one side we have hereditary chasidic rebbes who often come to their thrones by way of disgusting internecine battles. On the other hand we have terminal, superannuated masmidim who have always been at a total disconnect from the real world, and who are horribly manipulated by their grandsons and other self-invested gatekeepers. in the Mishneh we are told ‘asei lekha rav’ yet today we are told who are ravs are supposed to be.

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