hear deep in with your mouth

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

text-void,

at torch height,

in the timehole:

 

hear deep in

with your mouth

 

-Celan, Die Posaunenstelle

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16 Responses to hear deep in with your mouth

  1. misspeapod says:

    black-and-whitewashing

  2. Pingback: Glossifying and dancitization // Zackary Sholem Berger

  3. “Aish: When you play with fire you get burned!” Maybe this type of viral marketing could be called ‘Fire Branding’ since Aish HaTorah seems to have cornered the market on it. I think someone should fly to Israel and show up at Aish in Jerusalem on Erev Rosh Hashanah inquiring about the breakdancing service that they learned about on YouTube. When they realize what Aish is all about they can sue for false advertising! Great blog post! (someone had to write this)

  4. I’m not sure I see the harm. Aish, Chabad and the like do what none of the rest of us have been able to – reach mass markets with a message. Yes a watered-down, somewhat sterile message – but because of this little video, hundreds of thousands of people have now seen images of Jerusalem – isn’t that worth something?

    • No. It’s seriously not. It’s less than worthless; it’s dangerous. Because if Jerusalem is just a backdrop to breakdancing bochrim, then who really cares? Showing a heritage devoid of meaning harms the heritage. The video will not somehow spark the pintele yid in someone as they see the dancers jump down the Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi staircase. This video will make them roll their eyes and note that the dancing is better in the latest Lada Gaga video.

      • I agree 100% with @AJ_ROLLER.

        The message of the video is “see, all it takes to be a frum Jew is whip out some cool dance moves”. It is both an extreme failure in kiruv, Aish’s sole purpose, and it simultaneously caused major bitul torah (and as the author of this post terms “eye-raped”) for us and the people watching them film this, mere feet away from our holiest site on the planet.

        Aish, if you’re going to make a video entirely devoid of Judaism, please shoot it in Tel Aviv next time.

  5. My first thought after this video was absolute disgust. Thanks for your words, I’ll spread this around. It had to be said, thanks for doing it.

  6. Beth says:

    Frankly, I think this is an overreaction to Aish. We are all Jews and we each need something different as a path to Torah. There are supposed to be hundreds. Maybe Aish didn’t choose the entryway for you. On the other hand, you didn’t choose to translate any of the Hebrew text in your blog or even the transliterated words, so that someone less knowledgeable than you, yet reaching for more, could make sense of your commentary without having to look to other sources. If you don’t like it, don’t watch it. Don’t take it quite so personally either.

    I hear that you’re disappointed in Orthodoxy. So am I, more because most Orthodox communities are not flexible enough for my passionate feminism, egalitarianism, and creativity. So what? There are plenty of communities out there who are flexible enough. I only need to find one. Or maybe I need to find several, each of which brings me some part of what I need from a Jewish community. Maybe that’s the case for you, too.

    Judaism has room for all of us, from the depths to the heights and everything in between. Everyone is on their own path. We need to begin where individuals are and walk with them in the direction of growth, understanding, wisdom, compassion, and deeper learning.

    L’shanah tovah tikateyvu v’techateymu.

  7. Noyekh Miller says:

    Well said. Ironically, with Jewish studies departments everywhere one would expect an expanded Jewish middlebrow culture. The reverse is the case. Where are the Kaplans, Bubers and Heschels?

  8. Rachel Hershberg says:

    You’re definitely right, I mean, it’s not TORAH. Much of Aish’s success lies in their mastery of soundbites and images, which is exactly where most of the world is holding right now. I also have spent a lot of time thinking about how contrary that flash is to traditional Torah learning, which focuses on depth, text, and complication. I don’t like to put down Aish, because they are so successful at drawing Jews to our heritage and feeling good about being Jewish, but I agree with you that it’s a shame if it stops there.
    Rachel Hershberg, Beit Shemesh

  9. Daniel says:

    It sounds like you believe that Orthodox Judaism should only reach out to people through “high level” art and discourse, and that all people could appreciate Judaism at the same intellectual level that you do. It is an admirable wish that people could be reached through this means, but undoubtedly not a realistic one. Certainly not on the internet or youtube, where you will not find very much activity % in the way of high level art or discourse.
    Your cirticism is not dissimilar to those the misnagdim made against those emotional and unintellectual chassidim. Its not that the critique is not unfair as an aspirational matter, but not everyone is coming from the same place.
    But hey, I suggest you go out and try to reach people on the right level. Nothing Aish is doing is stopping you.

  10. tzvee says:

    This video is not meant to replace davening or to reinterpret Rosh Hashanah. It is a method of outreach, as Aish sees it. And this rabbi likes the homage in the video to Rick Ross’ Hustlin. Very nice touch. Are you averse to the pretentiousness of some of the printed piyyut that merely restate the biblical verses without added value? Poetry, who needs it? Why not critique the services that we have? I love this video because it takes a dance approach to energize the holidays. You don’t get it. It seems moreover that you don’t understand religion. And finally you appear to be a boring person.

  11. As the writer of the song parody, I must say that I am proud of the video. Yes – had I produced it I would have inserted scenes of Rosh Hashana to describe my lyrics and depict Rosh Hashana life. But everyone produces stuff differently. If you will recall, the Google Pesach Video which came from Aish was in my humble opinion sheer brilliance. I think this was as well, but in a different vain. The original song video from the group lmfao centers around people inanely dancing. There is very little content there. I find the breakdancing boys and the views of Jerusalem to be breathtaking and inspiring. I had nothing to do with the filming yet I could not stop watching it. I love the creativity of the video shooting and clarity and production of the music. The message of the song to me is “All The World is Passing Through The Light, Let’s Get Written in the Book of Life” Rosh Hashanah is a day or Two day Holiday of Happiness. The video projects happiness. It makes you smile. It does not delve into deep philosophical meanings of Akeidat Yitzchak but instead focuses on the basic premise that we must live life with Joy. Joy is equated by dancing. The content is low level for sure but the energy and the direction makes one feel good. I hear the criticism and I would respond that perhaps this video is not your style but it is for many Jews who are indifferent and apathetic to Judaism and Israel.

    Respectfully, Lenny Solomon – Shlock Rock and Bet Shemesh, Israel.

  12. David says:

    Josh: No comment?! C’mon; aside from the engaging vistas of Yerushalayim, you completely ignored the powerful, content-RICH lyrics written by Lenny Solomon. IMHO they capture the tremendous tension of Rosh Hashana as a joyous holiday on the one hand coupled with the trepidation we all experience as this day is also the onset of the aseret yemei teshuva. These lyrics, albeit, written in rap-form, nonetheless extol the virtues of meaningful prayer; hence, the take home message for the uninitiated listener should not be that Rosh Hashana is limited to a shallow, break-dance fest.

    The lyrics appeared on the site from day one, but it is worth pasting them in this context for you and your readers to judge for themselves before hastily trashing the entire video as lacking serious content:

    Rosh Hashana Rock Anthem is a parody of Party Rock Anthem by LMFAO.

    Song Lyrics:
    Synagogue, Rabbi’s talk, going on for a while, can you check the clock, huh
    Cantor’s opera, lost my spot, do you know the place, choir in the slot
    Wine we drink, with family now, good deeds you do, good for your soul
    Fish head, ram’s horn, shofar blow, give some money, appeal for dough

    Yo, I’m returnin’ to the fold can you explain mo’
    Got this desire to know Torah scroll, say hello
    Our prayers rock, yeah, we’re the Jews and we question
    Got the pride, just cant stop, our lives are changin’
    Rosh Hashanah’s in the house tonight

    All the world is passing through the light
    Let’s all get written in the book of Life
    Shana Tova — It’s High Holiday time

    Taking stock is what we do tonight
    Shana Tova — it’s High Holiday time
    Let’s all get written in the book of Life
    Blow the shofar and — Shuckle!

    Three times a day I’m shucklin’
    shucklin’, shucklin’

    Shofar blast, all across the world we will do this task
    Apples and honey, feelin’ glad — now stop, never get mad

    Fill the Kiddush cup, my friends around
    Books are opened up, the challah’s round
    All our history, we see it now
    Now please hear our plea, we’re prayin’ now

    Stand up, sit down, pass the prayer books around
    Stand up, sit down, pass the prayer books around
    Stand up, sit down, pass the prayer books around
    Pass the prayer books around, pass the prayer books around

    Rosh Hashanah’s in the house tonight
    All the world is passing through the light
    Let’s all get written in the book of Life
    Shana Tova — it’s High Holiday time

    Taking stock is what we do tonight
    Shana Tova — it’s High Holiday time
    Let’s all get written in the book of Life
    Blow the shofar and — Shuckle!

    Everyday I’m shucklin’

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