Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Bruce Springsteen and the Jewish People

DOES BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN'S MUSIC contain the key to future of the Jewish people? Can a man who made an international career singing about teenage blues in Asbury Park, New Jersey teach us something about Jewish identity?

In a fascinating column in yesterday’s New York Times, David Brooks writes about his experiences going to Bruce Springsteen concerts in Europe. The fans there are younger and more intense than those in the U.S.. Brooks was amazed that a concert filled with 56,000 Spaniards could be enthralled by mentions of Asbury Park and the Meadowlands. Trying to explain Springsteen’s appeal to people who live far away from New Jersey, Brooks writes:

“The most interesting moment of Springsteen’s career came after the success of “Born to Run.” It would have been natural to build on that album’s success, to repeat its lush, wall-of-sound style, to build outward from his New Jersey base and broaden his appeal. Instead, Springsteen went deeper into his roots and created “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” which is more localized, more lonely and more spare.


That must have seemed like a commercially insane decision at the time. But a more easily accessible Springsteen, removed from his soul roots, his childhood obsessions and the oft-repeated idiom of cars and highways, would have been diluted. Instead, he processed new issues in the language of his old tradition”.

Stuart Ramson | AP

The Boss has managed to transcend small town New Jersey, not by leaving it behind, but by immersing himself in it. He has been able to articulate a world view while maintaining his authenticity. The question is, whether the Jewish people can do the same.

The question of Jewish continuity has dogged our community for quite some time. Some have turned to the universal aspects of Judaism in order to make it more appealing. As Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove recently argued in a sermon:

…for a non-Orthodox Jewry that does not have a natural point of contact with Jewish observance, is it really such an odd tactic to seek Jewish engagement by way of common ethical concern? After all, when a would-be convert asked the ancient sage Hillel to summarize all of Judaism while the questioner stood on one foot, Hillel responded, “that which is hateful unto you, do not do unto others.” For this you need to go to a rabbi, for this you need Judaism?! This is the most universal statement of interpersonal ethics I can imagine. I suspect Hillel knew what many Jewish leaders today know, that for the initiate to our faith – the first task is to find an agreeable point of entry and establish common ground. I imagine Hillel’s goal, like that of my peers and myself, was to cultivate Jewish communities filled with learned, observant and passionate Jews.

There are benefits to this approach, but enormous costs as well. In emphasizing the universal, we overlook a lot of what Judaism is about. A recent essay by Jack Wertheimer (to whom Cosgrove was responding) argues that overemphasis on inclusion and universalism can undermine Judaism:

“Such is the current Jewish ethos. It demands a global consciousness and rejects tribal allegiances so that the Torah might evidently no longer be described, as the Pentateuch itself does, simply as morasha kehillat Yaakov, the inheritance of Jacob’s community, but as God’s gift to all humanity. Evidently, for something Jewish to be meaningful, everyone must find it meaningful; it must speak to the world.”

Wertheimer and Cosgrove both write with the awareness that Judaism is both particularistic and universalistic. They argue, and argue profoundly, on how to negotiate the dialectic between these two aspects of Judaism. (And yes, for those rolling their eyes, I recognize the irony inherent in posting an entry on a blog named “Pop Jewish” about Jewish authenticity).

Rav Kook, who grappled profoundly with the tensions between the particularistic and universalistic aspects of Judaism, understood that when you authentically embrace a tradition, that embrace can allow an even deeper universalism to sprout forth. And in a sense, Springsteen’s ability to transcend the particular is enabled, not hindered, by his very embrace of the particular, in a way R. Kook envisioned for Judaism.

Perhaps the last words in Brook’s column should be considered by all who debate Jewish continuity:

Don’t try to be everyman. Don’t pretend you’re a member of every community you visit. Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible. People will come.


Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is a rabbi in Montreal.