By now the story is well known. A mega-nonprofit conglomerate masquerading as a Yeshiva puts out a PR video about Rosh Hashanah which, while it has no content, features quite impressive feats of breakdancing. Predictably, the breakdancers are not recent returnees to the faith showcasing their talents, but a professional breakdancing team dressed in the black and white uniform of the particular sect they are advertising. This all seems utterly harmless, although we might need to add a term to the astroturfing lexicon to adequately describe this particular ejaculation of corporate free speech (and I welcome suggestions in the comments). Which all begs the question, 24 hours later, why am I still so upset about this stupid video?
I think the answer to the question revolves around my very human need for religion, and a deep feeling of rejection by and alienation from Orthodox Judaism. Without bogging ourselves down in the theological minutiae, we can all agree that the themes of Rosh Hashanah could appeal on some level to lots of different people’s needs. Ideas about sacred time, connections with creation, religious and interpersonal stocktaking—all of this seems like a fairly fine idea regardless of one’s religious or philosophical beliefs. Even a committed atheist, while taking issue with the liturgy’s specific content, can enjoy the seasonal foods, the mood of introspection and solemnity, the various fine tunes, and even the poetic structure of the various piyyutim.
If we turn to the first scene of the video, we discover that our Jewfro clad friend is bored by the prospect of Rosh Hashanah. It’s understandable that shul might be too long, and some people prefer not to spend the entire day there. But any thinking person could appreciate the various themes of the day and find something not boring about it—gustatory, social, intellectual or literary. It is fair to say that thousands of years of work on sanctifying time have left some payoff in terms of a day that a person with an aesthetic and intellectual sense could appreciate. After all, that person can look at the Duccio in the Metropolitan Museum without their eyes glazing over. Duccio’s Madonna expresses the concatenation of religious longing, maternal love, glorification of the divine; an entire world view. This picture might not be my picture. But it forms an integral part of my history, and a useful counterpoint to my own spiritual world. When a mother cradles her infant son, why isn’t that a religious moment?
When looking at the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, we can appreciate lots of similar moments. In the introduction to the Shofar service, the paytan has Isaac plaintively ask his dad:
וְיַעֲנֶה יִצְחָק לְאָבִיו כָּכָה
אָבִי רְאֵה אֵשׁ וַעֲצֵי מַעֲרָכָה
אַיֵּה אֲדֹנִי שֶׂה אֲשֶׁר כַּהֲלָכָה
Whether or not the Akeidah represents a historical scene, it’s the paradigm of countless acts of Jewish martyrdom. This is in no way boring or irrelevant. Rather, it’s the scene of countless people just like me or you who were substituted for the goat and burnt alive. The deference Isaac shows Abraham, even as he knows and averts his gaze from what’s really going on, interpretively glosses both the Torah reading of the day and the Shofar.
Representing the terminus ad quem of paganism, the Akeidah marks a decisive moment of stepping into the humanity we all inhabit. It is not the primal scene, but the curtain call of primal scenes, where a merciful and domesticated God says he will demand less of us, so we can live in the world. In this sense, it’s the beginning of the world, another theme of Rosh Hashanah which is decisively not boring.
הַיּוֹם הֲרַת עוֹלָם
הַיּוֹם יַעֲמִיד בַּמִּשְׁפָּט כָּל יְצוּרֵי עוֹלָמִים
The tribunalization of the world implicit in these words bespeaks an orderliness which we take for granted. Our own conceptions of providence, like private vice=public virtue, draw deeply from the metaphors of justice and divine guidance evidenced in the mythological history of the world alluded to by the paytan.
Finally, the Seder of Rosh Hashanah evening uses the wonderful medium of food to express our hopes in exceedingly simple, evocative terms. We eat a fish and ask to multiply like fish. We eat a beet and ask to “beat” our enemies. Beyond the high literary ambition of some of the liturgy, there is a universe of folk religion drawn from the earth, eating its simple seasonal produce and expressing simple, seasonal ambitions. In most of America you can charge a lot for such evocative flavors.
Sanctified by thousands of years of use, Rosh Hashanah seems to stand us in good stead. Sure, we could tweak the edges and make it contemporary (toro carpaccio for the fish course, choosing certain meaningful tunes and piyyutim and emphasizing those) but the gist of the day is not just hallowed by the Jewish people, it works for the Jewish people.
Enter corporate marketing. Sensing a problem where none exists, Aish gives us a solution which makes us regret not only the few minutes of eye-rape that the video exposes us to, but our very religious affiliations.
Yes, it’s just a viral video. On the other hand, what does its form and content(lessness) say about Judaism in 2011? One thing it reveals is that, for Aish, from the simple apple and honey prayer to the literary acrostics of Kallir, the liturgy has become sterilized to contemporary Jews. Scenes of pathos, hope and joy, Sarah’s hope for a child and Abraham’s long look into Isaac’s eyes—none of this can mean more than breakdancing and autotune. Such latent assumptions constitute a horrifically uncharitable judgment of the Jewish people. Rather than attempting, as Jonathan Sacks has done, to revitalize the poetic language of the liturgy or to tell the universal story of human emotions that’s right in front of us on Rosh Hashanah, Aish chooses again and again to glossify and dancitize as a response to the presumed emotional and intellectual retardation of contemporary Jews.
This is the discourse of a major part of contemporary Orthodoxy. From YU and the Maccabeats to Matisyahu and Chabad (both of whom are much, much less worthy of opprobrium than Aish) we now will be subjected to a flurry of viral videos before every Jewish holiday, not to mention the occasional sexy Shabbos. All of these videos will distill rich traditions and multifaceted philosophical, theological, emotional, and cultural content into decomposing cultural detritus.
As someone with some interest in Jewish orthodoxy, I am disheartened by the turn towards the culture industry and concomitantly, away from great art and culture. My historical sense tells me that we need a nuanced history to explain how we got from the Bildung centric approach of R’ Hirsch to sexy Shabbos. The story of the filtering out of intellectual and artistic ambition from Jewish Orthodoxy and the embrace of pop culture deserves more than a blog post. Instinctually, we could point to the decline of American middlebrow culture, ponderousness of certain intellectual heavy hitters within the community and their utter failure at politics, institutional strictures on outside influences inadvertently filtering only some of those influences, the discourse of management and marketing colonizing the world of religion and a host of other causes as contributing to the cultural disease of which these videos are a symptom.
Whatever the story turns out to be, I am stuck in a cultural constellation which will continually insult any intellectual and aesthetic sense I might have. It will assume I am illiterate, and that I have ADD. Worse yet, it says that the crunch of an apple or the prayer of a housewife can’t evoke any emotional response in me.
I can only offer the advice of Paul Celan, another Jew who did not find Rosh Hashanah to be boring.
deep in the glowing
at torch height,
in the timehole:
hear deep in
with your mouth
-Celan, Die Posaunenstelle