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Why we are honoring Sean Penn as a champion of Jewish values

Politics aside, the Academy award winner uses fame as a vehicle to save human life

Sean Penn will be honored by our organization, This World: The Values Network, on 18 May, at Cipriani in New York, for his work in saving the life of Jacob Ostreicher, a Hassidic Jew who was unjustly accused and rotting in a Bolivian jail for three years. Joining him as co-honorees this year, the silver anniversary of my time in the Rabbinate, are Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Ambassador Ron Dermer of Israel, both of whom served as my student Presidents at the Oxford L’Chaim Society. John Prendergast, the great anti-genocide campaigner and former under Secretary-of-State for Africa under Bill Clinton, and Bret Stephens, who won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished commentary, will also be honorees. The hosts for the dinner are the world’s foremost Jewish philanthropists, Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, and Birthright Israel co-founders, Judy and Michael Steinhardt.

Penn not only electrified the world by saving the life of Ostreicher by apparently secreting him out of Bolivia at considerable personal risk. He has also remained in close contact with Ostreicher and is extending himself significantly to help him rebuild his life back in the United States, after the horrors to which he was exposed.

This is a small part of the humanitarian work Penn does.

I traveled to Haiti days after the 2010 earthquake. Never will I forget the stench of death that filled my nostrils in every part of Port Au Prince. Never, as long as I live, will I forget the human bodies being eaten by scavenging dogs and having to walk across city streets without stepping on human vertebrae and tissue. Never will I forget the giant morgue, filled with the bodies of dead children.

The world descended in force to help with Haiti. Then stayed for a while, did what they could, and mostly left.

Penn stayed on. For an entire year. Living in a house he shared with more than 20 people in a tiny room in a house covered in plywood. And he remains, four years later, intimately involved with Haiti, raising millions of dollars, building homes, building schools, creating hundreds of jobs, clearing the rubble from the streets, and serving as Ambassador at large.

At one point he was running a refugee camp with an astonishing 60,000 people, nearly all of whom his organization has helped relocate and rebuild their lives. These are humanitarian acts largely without parallel in Hollywood.

They say Elvis Presley used to ask spiritual gurus and religious leaders he met, “Why did God give me all this fame? What am I meant to do with it?” His inability to answer that question meant that ultimately his fame became a burden to him that slowly killed him.

I saw the same thing happen to Michael Jackson. Michael was a noble soul and wished so desperately to consecrate his fame to a cause much larger than himself. I used to watch Michael cry when there were stories on the news of children dying. Sadly, his inability to fully execute his program for helping the world’s children – despite many attempts – meant that his unequaled fame became a prison incarcerating his spirit and slowly suffocating his soul.

We are honoring Sean Penn because, as an organization that promotes universal Jewish values, he has achieved what few other Hollywood superstars have done before him, namely, demonstrate that the highest goal of celebrity is saving human life.

Fame is nothing but a tool, a megaphone to the world, the locus of immense attraction which, when shined on the helpless, can call the world’s attention toward reversing the plight of the suffering masses.

Close friends of mine called me when we announced that Penn was to be honored. “Shmuley, this is the guy who met with Tariq Aziz in Iraq before the war. He’s the guy who met with Castro and befriended Hugo Chavez.”

Yes, he is. And I was, at the time and have since been, critical of these moves. I believe that well-intentioned men and women can find themselves being used by dictators to whitewash their crimes and solidify their regimes.

But my ideological and political differences with Penn, and my objection to those meetings, pale beside my awe at the number of lives he has saved, the degree of his commitment to the world’s most desperate people, and the example he shows to a nation obsessed with celebrity of how fame must be utilized for good.

I have become suspicious of celebrity. Having revolved somewhat in those circles, I have learned what would appear self-evident: that for the vast majority fame is self-serving. And having served as Rabbi to Michael Jackson, whom I loved and whose life I tried to save, I have become somewhat inured to the seduction of fame. Noone I meet will ever be as famous as Michael and yet Michael was all too human, just like the rest of us.

What has made me even more suspicious of celebrity, of late, is the number of performers, like Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, who are out-and-out Israel haters and Anti-Semites, comparing the Jewish state to the Nazis, and the failure on the part of Jewish Hollywood celebrities to defend the Middle East’s only democracy.

So when I come across a celebrity like Sean Penn whose fame is not self-serving but is rather dedicated to saving thousands and thousands of lives as well as sharing in their privations, I will go out of my way to show that they are heroes to me, regardless of our differences.

Judaism as a religion is profoundly action-oriented. We judge a man and a woman based on their deeds and not their beliefs. Political differences be damned. Those who love God’s children and subordinate their careers toward the protection of human life should be held up as examples that all should emulate.

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network. He is the author of Judaism for Everyone and 30 other books, including his most recent, Kosher Lust. Follow him on Twitter@RabbiShmuley.