Rock & Orthodoxy

In a prior post, I asked Jon the following questions. He never responded but I did receive the following from a reader for posting.

>As a side question(s):What role does popular culture like heavy metal play in your life? How does it relate to your religiosity? How would you want educators and rabbi to treat, or relate to, your musical taste?

My answer to your question is, in retrospect, quite a big one. I’ve loved music since I was a kid. I even remember exactly where I was and at what age when I discovered the Ramones; it was the beginning of July 1988, not yet 11 years old; I know this because it was on the Sunday of my sister’s shabbos sheva brachos, where we had gone to a hotel in the Catskill’s and there was a TV in the room. I saw the movie “Rock n’ Roll High School.”

Through all this, I turned bar mitzvah, put on a black hat, went to [redacted yeshiva], where I stayed for 7 years, and lived a more or less double life. By day I was a yeshiva bochur, by nature fairly conforming, and by night I would hole up in the dormitory with my illegal walkman and listen to the very exciting early 90s music scene. I must stress, again, that I was a sincere and decent yeshiva bochur. I woke up, went to minyan, davened sincerely, learned Gemara, Rashi and Tosfos yeshivish style. I just happened to love rock and roll. By the time I was 17 or 18 I had developed a real tayva to see bands, and I began to secretly go to concerts (sometimes with friends from within the yeshiva – I wasn’t the only one – and without).

I actually have an awesome memory from 1997 or 1998, which was right at the start of Williamsburg becoming a hipster scene. Until that point I had only been going to shows in Manhattan, at the Academy, Roseland Ballroom, or if I was in a sleazier (and cheaper) mood, at CBGBs, the Continental and Coney Island High (of these only Roseland and the Continental are still open – I feel old). But on this occasion I went to see Sonic Youth performing somewhere in Williamsburg, which at the time meant only Chassidim and Puerto Ricans to me. I remember milling around in the room, and all of a sudden – I made eye contact with a guy I know only by face, who was in my yeshiva too. He must have been about 27 or 28. Perhaps a BT? But the thing is, I was wearing a baseball cap (yeah, of course I looked like a yeshiva bochur in a baseball cap) and he had a beard, peyos, and a yarmulke, in this crowd of proto-hipsters (people were still wearing flannel then). We both stared at each other, probably thinking “Oh, crap.” I had never come across anything like it. I didn’t know the guy before, and I didn’t know him afterward.

Blah, blah, blah – I grew out of being yeshivish and am still Orthodox, at least theoretically. I’m fairly observant, and I sure do learn a lot. But having years of reflecting on it, I realize that my great love for rock and roll played no small role in my evolution, because it was a constant, graphic proof to myself that I was incapable of swallowing the dogma wholeheartedly. I really, really tried to. I even have a specific memory – a funeral of all places – of being part of a crowd of hundreds of guys wearing black hats, and feeling almost euphoric. It felt like being a part of Something. I really tried to be a good yeshiva guy, and to grow up to be a good yeshiva man. But this slight deviation was a wedge and opened the door fairly wide. I’m sure of it. I guess my choice was to consider myself a mumar leteyavon, or refuse to see that what I was interested in was really no different from eating a cheeseburger. This was a patent disagreement with the rabbis, was it not? I was allowing myself this, and there went yeshivish Orthodoxy for me.

I do not think that the same would have occurred at YU. There seems to be a greater taking pop culture with ease. People do go to rock concerts without loss of faith. YU produced bands that imitate Coldplay and Green Day. They see less of the tensions and contradictions. This may be a real dividing line between Yeshivot and YU. Some at YU may have compunctions and feel it is entirely treif but the community as a whole does not. YU baby booomers still rock to Springsteen’s concerts. There was a culture of rock around the station WYUR and Vin Scelsa’s first hero of rock was a YU student. Now, there are even rock and roll shabbatot. For public performance, the lyrics are cleaned up but the original watching of gangsta videos to produce a clean version occurs naturally.

I also feel that some of my posts are getting sucked into the loss of faith confessional vortex of this era. It seems the web pulls one in. I do not get long emails on my posts about Maimonides or Zohar.

Gabba Gabba Hey

3 responses to “Rock & Orthodoxy

  1. As a former “all punk-all the time” music listener (now regulated to the last 5 minutes of bike riding), I can relate. Great post.

  2. Dr. Brill, your correspondent is a friend of mine (he can confirm that). Below is my slightly redacted email I sent him about this post.

    My feeling on reading it was how different and yet the same our experience was. We’re both intellectual defectors from Orthodoxy–the observances are not problematic for us (though I’ve no doubt you’re adjusted them to your comfort just as I have). We even went to the same yeshiva. But rock was never an issue in my home and personal life, so it could never serve as a fulcrum from which to pry off Orthodoxy. My parents didn’t necessarily like the music I listened to, but it was not a big deal. It was a lot like eating pizza: something the school forbade and that my parents ignored.

    Growing up, my house was pretty liberal. Some movies, some TV, rock music, and books galore. It wasn’t a party scene; movies and TV were subject to limits. But what normal home of any religious type or subtype doesn’t have limits on that? This created a unspoken sense in me that the yeshiva’s stances were not sacrosanct. The “policy” played out in other ways too: [redacted yeshiva] pressured me to go to Camp [redacted], but my parents went me to much more MO camps (e.g. [redacted]).

    Because of this rock music never created a conflict with my Orthodoxy; it just never occurred to me that it should since it fell into kosher-for-OJ-but-not-for-yeshiva in my mental categorization.

    What did for me what rock music did for you was evolution. Evolution was something that (from my POV as a kid) was universally treyf for OJ, but, to my discovery upon reading more widely, was something that was actually as certainly true as anything we know. That put a nice, healthy crack in my Orthodoxy, into which the lever was comfortably inserted. Other fields played roles too, particularly books on critical thinking and skepticism, but minor roles. I didn’t even discover modern Bible scholarship until I was (mentally) long gone from Orthodoxy.

    That’s not to say either evolution or rock music is a unique, better, or more effective cleanser of Orthodoxy. In retrospect, what they had in common was something not intrinsic to themselves: they were perceived as foreign to OJ. However, even with that caveat, it’s important to note that in the end result we’re both intellectual defectors from Orthodoxy. The thread we pulled was different, but the unraveling itself was only possible because Orthodox Judaism is not true. We arrived at the same endpoint from different starting points because while there’s lots of reasonable places to get started, there’s only one reasonable conclusion. You can’t “solve” the problem of people like us by integrating (or at least not forbidding) rock music or evolution into Orthodox Judaism. People like us, who enjoy Shabbos, take pleasure in Chanukah, study Judaica for fun, etc. are not responsive to the same remedies as those for whom observance, family, or school is or was a source of pain. To “fix” us they’d have to make Orthodox Judaism true; allowing rock music and evolution can’t do that.

  3. Article I did a couple years ago in Spin Magazine that touches on this issue:

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