Buying Two Stairways To Heaven

A few months ago as we drove to an appointment, one of my daughters and I bonded around the British rock band, Led Zeppelin’s 1971 classic, “Stairway To Heaven,” which Rolling Stone Magazine put at #31 in its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. All that week she and I had been humming or chanting fragments of Zep’s masterpiece, and finally, with some uninterrupted time and the windows rolled up tightly in the car, we let loose. Every word, melody change, and voice inflection of lead singer Robert Plant’s that we could remember, we imitated. We even tried our hands at imitating the instrumentals that build the song up in a crescendo from a quiet renaissance style recorder solo to a battle of angsting, angry guitars and screaming lyrics. Finally, we put our voices together to echo Plant’s heartrending acapella solo ending: “And she’s buying a stairway…to heaven.”

My kids are far more immersed than my wife and I ever were in the world of rock, rap, and hip hop music. Thus, I earned major parent points from my child, for being able to sing every word with her and for clarifying some of the more obtuse – some would say drug addled and nonsensical – phrases. For me, a middle aged father who by a teen’s definition is from outer space, little compares with being able to decipher those garbled “outer space” rock lyrics for her such as, “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now// it’s just a Spring clean for the May Queen.”

Because this newest generation of rock fans has adopted it as its own, “Stairway To Heaven” still lends itself to all types of overwrought interpretations of its questionable poetry. I recognized my young audience’s car captivity and her being briefly impressed with my pop music knowledge. That is when I seized the moment and engaged her in a game we have played since all of my children were little, by pointing out all of the so-called Jewish references in the song. I suggested that the stairway to heaven could be taken as an ambiguous reference to olam haba, the traditional concept of the afterlife; or it could be a critique of the wholesale embrace of shallow materialism by the “lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold.” Robert Plant sings that, “Yes, there are two paths you can go by//but in the long run//there’s still time to change the road you’re on.” We talked about how this might be understood to be about moral freedom and teshuva, the Jewish concept of repentance. Plant further sings that, “As we wind on down the road// our shadows taller than our souls// there walks a lady we all know.” We wondered whether “the shadow” is the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination that struggles with the good inclination within the soul? Is the stairway to heaven a reference to Jacob’s ladder that reached from earth to the sky? We even considered who the lady is that the band keeps screaming about in the song. Maybe Mary, the Jewish mother of Jesus? Perhaps the internalized superego whose harangue some Jewish writers imagine as their own mothers? This of course is a fraction of the veiled allusions and “pop-Jewish” hints we could have discussed.

My daughter was sufficiently receptive to this game, as well as able and willing to comment on my ideas, at least for the duration of the car ride. Several weeks later, as she prepared to leave for her beloved Jewish summer camp, she started singing “Stairway To Heaven” again. When I asked her to sing something in Hebrew that she knows, without missing a beat, she belted out a camp favorite made famous by Shlomo Carlebach, an ancient mystical text that is part of the traditional nighttime prayer:

In the name of the Lord, God of Israel:
On my right, the angel, Michael.
And on my left, the angel, Gabriel.
And before me, the angel, Uriel.
And behind me, the angel, Raphael.
And above my head, God’s Shekhinah presence. (Shekhinat El)

Heaven’s metaphors reside in these two radically different poems from two radically different parts of human experience. Both types of experience reside in my daughter’s soul: in her consciousness of herself and society, in her speech and song, in her developing capacity to live integrally in the Jewish and non Jewish worlds; even in her ability to read and critique Led Zeppelin through Jewish eyes. Conversely, both poems represent the challenging, colliding dialectic of different worlds that struggle within her generation’s soul. Led Zeppelin’s “heaven” to which “the piper will lead us” and where “the forests will echo with laughter” essentially ignores God; our nighttime prayer trusts that God and God’s angels will hold us through the “mini-death” of sleep and back into the waking world. My task – our task – for her and for every Jewish child is to help them climb heaven’s many stairways, living with courage, conviction, and comfort in their Jewish and general worlds, and allowing each to inform the other. Perhaps that is one way they will help to build heaven on earth.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.