The Temptations. The Grateful Dead. The Runaways. Nirvana. Destiny’s Child. The names of rock and roll heroes insist on spiritual liberation and an endless quest for love and completion.
As rock and roll emerged as a cultural force in the 1950s and ’60s, much of its audience had already distanced itself from religious practices and ideas honed for thousands of years to sustain, sanctify, and celebrate spiritual life.
Even if God may not have left the building entirely—as Elvis was said to have done after his glitzy, over-the-top shows in the 1970s—the possibility of experiencing meaning and purpose with the divine was fading for many of the people who would become popular music’s biggest fans and stars. When it came to houses of worship, the people—not God—had left the building.
Popular music has always followed a beat of spiritual restlessness, a roving pantheon of prophets, priests, shamans, and wizards. It’s a mystical ramble at the edge of the world in a certain song by Led Zeppelin about a lady, a stairway, and all that is glitter and gold. It’s Joni Mitchell (and then Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) enshrining the faces of the pilgrims of Woodstock in holy light, or anytime Aretha Franklin opened her mouth to sing—”using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me [her] to use”—while mixing images of romantic and divine redemption in a single verse.
When it overreaches, perhaps especially when it overreaches, popular music—just like religion—seeks personal and communal transcendence. It mixes this-world grit and world-to-come glitter and gold to reinvent the contours of a life of the spirit in times where spiritual roots have become harder and harder to hold on to for so many.
So what’s the Jewish take on rock and roll and spirituality in the three or so minutes of a pop song or less? Let’s answer this question with the ultimate, eternal Jewish questioner: midrash.
In ancient Hebrew, the word “midrash” is associated with a person’s inquiry or demand of the divine, kind of like a question for an oracle. For the Jewish culture of the late Roman Empire, the most profound intersection between human and divine identity and experience was embedded in words. After all, according to Judaism and the religions that followed it, words created the world itself as described just a few weeks ago in the Book of Genesis.
Midrash came to mean a demand or inquiry not in the sense of going to a sage sitting on a hill outside of an oracle, but in delving into the hidden meanings of sacred texts passed down from generation to generation: What does this text mean—in its time, in our time, for all times? the midrash asks.
Here’s an example from my favorite rock and roll midrashist, Bob Dylan, the subject of my forthcoming book, About Man and God and Law: The Spiritual Wisdom of Bob Dylan and a companion podcast found wherever podcasts are heard and at www.mangodlaw.com.
One of Dylan’s great love songs is “Shelter from the Storm,” released on the album Blood on the Track in 1974.
In Hebrew, a language based on three-letter roots that build a web of words with similar meanings, “shelter” comes form from the root for “mishkan”—the letters shin chaph nun. “Mishkan” means “tabernacle,” the structure that served as the precursor to the Temple that the ancient Israelites built in the desert. And this word, “mishkan,” relates to “schunah,” or “neighborhood, or community,” the closeness derived from proximity. And this word, this root, the rootedness of the word for community, relates to the word “shekhina.”
This isn’t a Hebrew lesson, nor is it a pitch for the “Jewish element” of Dylan’s story. Great works and great artists require all kinds of methodologies to be appreciated. We know that Dylan has been both curious about and committed to things Jewish over the years. This has not defined him, but in “Shelter from the Storm,” Dylan lands upon a mythic, mystic worldview essential to Judaism, and one that enriches the understanding of a song that is already an embarrassment of riches.
In Jewish mystical terms, the godhead is divided, just like we are, including a so-called female aspect, the shekhina, which seeks its so-called male aspect to create wholeness. The storm in “Shelter from the Storm” describes those elements without order, without a vessel, without a home.
(Spoiler and heteronormative alert: Though it might be wrongly read that way, this is decidedly not a binary story. It is a metaphor attempting to map us all based on the limited linguistic, symbolic tool kit at our disposal.)
“If only I could turn back the clock to when God and her were born,” Dylan sings.
If only my mishkan, my shelter, my fullest mythical self, could house me with the shekhina, the ultimate lover, at the right time and place. But there’s a problem Maybe this can only happen when time itself has both stopped and begun. That’s why Dylan sings this aphorism as an “If only” phrase. He knows that we can’t quite access that clock of love. We don’t really know what is ultimately possible in the divine timekeeper’s realm. But in theory, all in good time, there’s still a chance for that kind of love to bloom and stay.
The voice of love and its questions contains all of our secrets even if love is often highlighted by its lack, how it competes in our souls with grating fears, unwieldy needs, or the risks of hurt and exposure. All of our quests concerning nirvana, gratefulness, facing temptation, running away, and our very destiny from the time we are children (See Under: Names of Rock Bands) relate to a hunger for intimacy. All are on the divine clock doing divine work. Love is a mystery, requiring us to invite into our intimacies something greater than ourselves in order for us to feel and be something greater than we are.
Rock and roll contains a mix of spiritual secrets and hints on the nature of things just like our greatest religious traditions. With a touch of midrash, some of those hints and secrets can be found in this rich world of references and understandings—a gateway to spiritual wisdom always just a song away.