It was 1984 when Dee Snider first asked me what I wanted to do with my life. The answer was, and still is, "I want to ROCK!"
As the once dubbed "heavy metal rabbi," I've been exploring the question of whether rock 'n' 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 become part of 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.
Today, almost everyone tells me they are "spiritual but not religious." Over the years I have been paying close attention to the experiences people have and cultivate that they consider to be "spiritual." Spirituality is so often characterized and caricaturized 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 reductive, overly 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. The observance of Shabbat is said by many to be the "first labor law" in the history of humanity. We are commanded to "take a break" every week, to not permit our lives to be solely about work and the mundane. Shabbat, we are taught, should be an oneg, a joy and a delight. 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.
Somehow, the current normative American idea that spirituality is about slowing everything down has become prevalent throughout the organized liberal Jewish world as well. In one synagogue after another, and in one Jewish community after another, the prevailing wisdom and practice is that the "spirituality of Shabbat" is to be experienced by slowing everything down, by becoming more quiet and still. To be clear, this is not a bad thing at all. Shabbat prayer services including moments of silence, chanting and Shabbat meditation retreats for example, can be exciting, vibrant and authentic ways of experiencing the gifts of Shabbat. However, they are not the only way.
There are different spiritual personalities in our world and for some spiritual types, increasing 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 'n' roll can generate for me joy, delight, rest and a break from work and the mundane. Since I can't rock out every day, when would I rock, if not on Shabbat?
Not only is my spiritual personality occasionally better served on Shabbat with a dose of rock 'n' 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 me 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" (Exodus 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 'n' roll, ever since Elvis' hips first gyrated. While some might argue that rock 'n' 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.
So in honoring the part of myself, and of many members of my community that crave the spiritual experience of "rocking out," we have created our first ever "Rock 'n' Roll 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 'n' roll or more upbeat tunes. We also insert rock songs into certain "thematic" prayers at key moments in the service. The service was, of course, followed by a party. For some, it was the most powerful Shabbat experience they have ever had.