The Bar Mitzvah Boy Who Went Viral

Is Sam Horowitz's glitzy Bar Mitzvah performance as 'egregious, licentious and thoroughly awful' as some rabbis suggest? Or is it actually morally laudable?

If you haven’t yet heard of him, Sam Horowitz is the American Bar Mitzvah boy who’s gone viral. A video of him dancing, Las Vegas style, with a bevy of showgirls has fast dominated the Jewish blogosphere. According to the wires, the Dallas-based Bar Mitzvah boy had dreamed of “descend[ing] from the ceiling” since he was seven and saw a Cheetah Girls show. And boy, did he ever get to.

Writing in the Washington Post, L.A.-based Rabbi David Wolpe, who recently made headlines for liberalizing his synagogue to embrace marriage equality, was particularly incensed, calling the video “egregious, licentious and thoroughly awful” and “an historical outrage,” and asking, “our ancestors struggled and suffered and fasted and prayed so Sammy could cavort?”

Rabbi Wolpe issues some fair critiques—about a culture of entitlement, ridiculous levels of extravagance and what it means to drown a moment of spirituality in crass materialism.Now, there’s no doubt that the video is entertaining. Good Morning America even thought to interview Sam himself. But entertainment value aside, here’s why I think the video—and specifically Sam’s performance—is actually morally laudable.

Many of us have been to what are known as “over the top” Bar Mitzvahs, where glitz and glamor stand in for soul and spirit: NBA cheerleaders hired to surprise a stunned Bar Mitzvah boy, or Jon Bon Jovi serenading an eye-rolling Bat Mitzvah girl.

But to my mind, there was something quite different going on in the case of the Sam Horowitz video. Despite the hosiery-dominated, mildly burlesque-dancing introduction, once Sam entered that stage (and yes, he fulfilled his dream of descending from the ceiling, this time hidden in a drum chandelier), this was no longer about the spectacle of the female body or about sex or simply about showing off a price tag. For those 60 seconds, this was about Sam showing passion, taking a risk, and, despite being encased in white sequins, indeed displaying a dose of vulnerability.

Rabbi Wolpe is right that a Bar Mitzvah is a life stage rather than an event. It is a moment in time where one reflects on entering a new—and typically pretty frightening—phase of life. In religious terms, it’s daunting to now be morally and legally, in the eyes of Jewish law specifically, responsible for one’s conduct. In everyday terms, it can be scary to continue to individuate and grow into one’s true self, a process that for many people never actually ends.

Sam’s got moves, but he’s not a perfect dancer. He nicely kept the beat, but he’s no young Michael Jackson. What he is, is an everyday kid with a dose of talent and clearly a lot of guts, who obviously is blessed with an inordinate amount of material privilege. But what struck me is that he may in fact be a dugma—a model, in Hebrew and Judaic parlance—for every preteen kid who, in a time of tightly-bounded peer-pressures, prescribed roles, and rapidly changing norms and expectations, wants to take a shot at writing his own script, at least for one glittery night.