Monday, July 9, 2012

Jewish Phish Food for the Soul

THE BAND PHISH COMPLETED two sold out performances on July 3rd and 4th at Jones Beach NY. To be clear, I am not a “Phish-Head” (a serious fan/follower of the band) but I do enjoy their concerts and Vermont vibe.

For those who don’t know, Phish is a rock-jam band from Vermont, in the spirit of the Grateful Dead. They have inspired thousands of, dare I say it, religious followers who travel great distances to see them and keep track of how many concerts they have attended. I know people who have attended hundreds.

It is a well known fact that Mike Gordon, the bass player for Phish, is Jewish, grew up in Newton MA and attended the Solomon-Schechter Day School of Greater Boston. A certain subtle Yiddishkeit is known to waft throughout the band’s vibe, and indeed, at any given Phish concert, among the dreadlocks and crunchy granola 100% organic types, one is also sure to find any number of kippah wearing dudes with titzits flapping in the wind, and their girlfriends, wives or sisters with long flowing skirts.


In exploring the way concerts may function as spiritual/religious experiences for the attendees, the Phish concert at Jones Beach on July 4th, for sure crossed that wavering, amorphous line. At the 6th song of the evening’s first set, the band launched into Avinu Malkeinu. Allow me to repeat, in front of a sold-out crowd (their concerts are almost always sold out) of 15,000 (or more), a contemporary, popular rock/jam band launched into an ancient Jewish prayer, possibly dating back to the first century of the common era-, a fixed, central piece of our High Holiday liturgy. Avinu Malkeinu literally translates to “our father, our king.” It is a supplication to G-d.
Call me “late to the party,” but while Avinu Malkeinu at a Phish concert was new for me, apparently this is not a new experience for Phish. The Wikipedia entry for Avinu Malkeinu notes that Phish plays this piece in a 5/4 time signature. Phish-Heads confirm, the band has played this song from time to time at their concerts over the years.
It is amazing to think of how many non-Jews are exposed to Avinu Malkeinu in this deep and prayerful way. How many people might cite Avinu Malkeinu as their “favorite Phish tune,” without ever knowing its broader context? Does it matter?
A religious prayer, performed at a “rock” concert? What is going on? Are the attendees praying? Are some of them praying? Has the prayer been diluted somehow by its introduction into a ‘secular’ environment? Is a Phish concert a secular environment or a religious one? Is prayer turned into art? Is art turned into prayer?
Thanks to the internet I found this quote attributed to Mike Gordon from 2007:
Music, fills many of the holes that religion leaves open. The philosophical feeling behind religion, a religious upbringing, and even the notion of praying to God is very abstract. This transfers directly to my relationship with music. While you cannot necessarily touch music, you can feel it and it is something to believe in. I've always compared my movements on stage to davening [praying]. To me, music has always served as that type of religious release.
For many Phish-Heads, a Phish concert is an intensely spiritual (religious) experience. The band’s songs (not only Avinu Malkeinu) are their liturgy, and these words help them to express the most profound parts of their experience, and their deepest longings. These songs and the sense of community created at the concert environment transport some individuals to a place deep inside themselves, so far beyond their waking consciousness that they feel intimately connected to something greater, which of course they are. Many of them move continuously, dancing in place, they don’t sit down for hours. In fact, it all looks suspiciously a whole lot like shuckling. (swaying the body while praying, a way many observant/religious Jews pray) On the other hand, some are just really, really high.

It is clear to me that a concert can absolutely function as a spiritual/religious experience. The real question is, how do the concert attendees live the next day? From a Jewish perspective, there is an inherent risk and danger in transcendent experiences, which is one reason why the rabbis eschewed the Nazirite (a Biblical solitary spiritual seeker) and Jewish Mysticism. The danger is that the experience will become the end in itself rather than information that positively informs one’s life choices. The danger is that the spiritual (or physical) high of the Phish concert will become the goal of the attendees, rather than a tool to help them live more righteously in the days, weeks, months and years following the concert/transcendent experience.
While a Phish concert certainly can be a religious experience, if it is only a personal, self-serving, “feel good” experience, then it is not necessarily a useful spiritual/religious experience, and in fact has the potential to be a dangerous one. If a Phish concert helps one to “recharge” their spiritual batteries, and therefore go out into the world to live more righteously, performing more acts of kindness, and mitzvot, then it can certainly be a valuable and valid religious experience to pursue.
Thank you, Trey, Page, Mike & Fish. I look forward to seeing you again soon, somewhere around the bend.
Rabbi Darby Leigh is a rabbi in Montclair, New Jersey and in NYC. He is an alum of the Rabbi Without Borders fellowship and tweets at @RabbiDarby.