Friday, July 6, 2012

Rock Music on Shabbat

AS THE ONCE DUBBED "HEAVY METAL RABBI" I’ve recently been exploring the question of whether Rock and Roll music can support a deep spiritual/Shabbat experience. Given a rather conventional and full life as a congregational rabbi with two amazing children and a partner who is an OB/GYN resident, the truth is I don’t really get to rock on a daily basis- even though I need it man, oh how I need it!

Sure, I infuse my daily routine with rock when I can. Lately, I listen to Anthrax’s Worship Music on my commute to work and I write sermons while listening to Perry Farrell and Jane’s Addiction. Rock lyrics find their way into my teaching and preaching, but nonetheless, my relationship to rock is not what it once was. It’s not the same as being in the mosh pit. It’s not the same as being pressed up against the barricade in front of the stage. It’s not the same as watching the house lights grow dim, waiting for the band to emerge and feeling the collective roar as the stage lights go up and the first notes wail. In the crowd you melt into an enormous community, when your voice merges with thousands of others, your individualism and ego are dimmed. For a brief moment, you can lose yourself to a collective consciousness and experience being part of something much greater than your individual self.

Over the years I have been paying close attention to the experiences people have and cultivate that they consider to be “spiritual.” Spirituality today is so often characterized as meditation, yoga, chanting, or sitting in a circle contemplating unity, oneness, and the truth of our interconnectedness. In other words, for many of us, cultivating spiritual experiences is about trying to turn down the volume and pace of our daily lives. In the Jewish tradition, the spirituality of Shabbat often receives the same monochromatic treatment.
It is not a new or radical statement to suggest that the concept of Shabbat, -and the experience of Shabbat is one of the greatest gifts the Jewish tradition offers its followers. We are commanded to “take a break” every week, to not permit our lives to be solely about work and the mundane. Indeed we engage in the unique joy and pleasure of being in the company of family and friends sharing meals and thoughts about deeper matters, and about Truth. This core Jewish tradition and observance is a profound teaching in and of itself.

There are different spiritual personalities in our world and for some spiritual types, increasing the volume and speed is an equally powerful way to access an authentic Shabbat experience. In fact, while turning the volume down and becoming more still can support our experience of the spirituality of Shabbat, so too, turning the volume up on the Marshall Amp stacks can do the same thing. Rock & Roll can generate for me, joy, delight, rest, and a break from work and the mundane. Since I can’t rock out everyday, when would I rock, if not on Shabbat?

Not only is my spiritual personality occasionally better served on Shabbat with a dose of Rock & Roll, but it is an authentic Jewish experience to do so. Every Shabbat we symbolically reenact the moment of revelation at Mount Sinai. The Biblical account of revelation at Sinai seems to be more like a Rock concert than a silent meditation. “There was thunder and lightning, a dense fog covered the mountain, there was a loud horn and everyone shook. Mount Sinai was smoking, and trembling violently, the horn grew louder…all the people saw the sounds of the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and of the mountain smoking.” (Ex. 20) One might argue that attending a rock concert, with a laser light show, fog and smoke machines, booms of horns and thunder, pyrotechnics perhaps, and a crowd of thousands all listening for Truth, would be the most accurate way to symbolically recreate revelation.

There is also an implicit sensuality that runs through Rock and Roll, ever since Elvis’ hips first gyrated. While some might argue that rock and roll with its sensuality, passion, and intensity is counter to the religious spirit of Shabbat, I would argue that on the contrary, Shabbat is an extremely physical, as well as a spiritual time, when we are meant to take delight in sensual experiences of touch, taste, and smells. There is a long standing Rabbinic tradition, both in mystical Judaism and in the Talmud, that erev Shabbat, the evening of Shabbat, is a particularly auspicious time for sexual relations. Sexual relations on erev Shabbat are viewed in these texts as acts of joy with spiritual and potentially profound mystical ramifications. Sexual activity is viewed in this context as a sacred spiritual act with purpose that goes far beyond a simplistic notion of sex as an act of procreation.

In honoring the part of myself, and of many members of our community that crave the spiritual experience of “rocking out,” I worked with lay leaders to create Bnai Keshet’s first ever, “Rock On Shabbat!” At this service we moved our way through the matbeah, the traditional structure of a Friday night service by setting some liturgical pieces to rock and roll or more upbeat tunes. We also inserted rock songs into certain ‘thematic’ prayers at key moments in the service. Of course, the service was followed by a concert and party. For some, it was the most powerful Shabbat experience they have ever had.


Rabbi Darby Leigh is a rabbi in Montclair, New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiDarby.