Springsteen, David Brooks, and Particularism: A Sermon.

Mr. EK wrote this great sermon for this week.  I thought I’d share it; it really resonated with me.  Being the Everyman (or, in our case, the EveryJew) is not really where it’s at.  Embracing the particularism of being a Jew is what ties us to our tradition, and finding our own way within that to Torah, prayer/spirituality, and good works is what keeps our tradition alive and well.

A recent Opinion piece by New York Times columnist, David Brooks, raised my eyebrow. Entitled, “The Power of the Particular”, the author used his observations attending Bruce Springsteen concerts in Europe to lift up an important point about holding close to one’s core orientation and views on life. One particular moment caught Brooks’ attention. Along with 56,000 Spaniards in a jammed football stadium, Brooks stood belting out one of Springsteen’s signature hits, “Born in the USA”. It then occurred to him, and seemed strikingly odd, that tens of thousands of Europeans – many of whom have never been to America – felt a connection to the singer and the uniquely patriotic message about America.

Brooks’ astute analysis uncovered Springsteen’s allure to those removed from the human drama unfolding in an Asbury Park nightclub or the plight of a mill worker in a downtrodden and deindustrialized town. Brooks points to “paracosms”, or landscapes of pictures we paint in our heads when we become engrossed in a book with compelling characters, or listen to a song that drills down to the heart and soul of the human experience. Indeed, one need not have ever lived or even visited Ireland to connect with the bleak but inspiring messages in a song from the Irish band, U2. Moreover, one does not have to have experience fantastical experiences like Harry Potter to identify with life in a British boarding school. We create our own universe of mental landmarks, cognitive perceptions to inform the story – any story – through our own unique lens. As a result, the story becomes localized, and we invest in it – as if it has always been a part of our being.

I would say that the stories in the Torah – a product of a unique time and place in Jewish history – still cling to us in deep and untold ways because of this concept. The Exodus from Egypt – the Jewish master story – is one such example. While we were neither slaves in Egypt, nor were we literally standing at Sinai, this master storyis ours. The passage, iconic in our canon of great Torahexperiences, is packed with emotional weight (the death of a cherished family members along the journey, the long and sometimes unforgiving road to redemption, and the personal frustration of a common hero) – some of the same themes about which Springsteen writes.

And yet – this master story is universal, and as a result something happened on the way to Jewish identity. We declared that our Jewish values (freedom and loving our neighbor) are everyone’s values, and in the process we find ourselves just another people amidst just another tribe. We identify ourselves as first and foremost global citizens. In trying to be everything, we sacrifice the breadth and depth of a faith tradition that is core. Brooks writes:

If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition, if your concerns are expressed through a specific paracosm, you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.

 

I recently shared Brooks’ Op-Ed piece with a friend who has three grown children. After reading the article, she sent it to her children. Here’s what she wrote to them as an introduction:

Many in your generation want to blur, if not erase, boundaries between various groups.  They want to see religion as only causing problems and wars, and advocate a more universal approach.  I am all for working towards interaction and understanding among all peoples.  My point is that maintaining the “particularity” of one’s group allows for a deeper, richer experience of life.  As David Brooks says, new issues can get processed in the language of old traditions.   When you have a particular identity, you know who you are and what you stand for in a way that provides context and grounding.  When you try to be part of everything and everybody, you end up not being, in his words, “distinct and credible.”

 

Indeed. While our values may serve the universal good, these very same values get their power from the particular. The depth of Springsteen’s music is reflected in his ability to tell a story, and as a result we are there with him when he is riding on a motorcycle towards the Promised Land. In the same respect, most Jews barely touch the surface of Judaism for a variety of reasons and motivations. And as a result, our faith becomes a veritable a la carte buffet of ideas and rituals we choose to mold into an independent and sometimes vacuous Judaism. And as a result, Jews believe that eating bagels or being able to say a few Yiddish words is an adequate and passable expression of Judaism. I would say that this is only a beginning.

I am not here to simply assert that Jews should do more mitzvot (that is achingly predictable). Rather, I am here to say that the first step to ensuring Jewish survival is to begin to delve into the meaning of our faith. I have met many (some from our weekly Wednesday morning study group) who confessed that they thought they knew what Judaism was – and after 10 years in class their questions are getting better. I have met many who thought that Hebrew was some ancient language that had no relevancy to their lives today – until they learned how to read it and learned what these words mean! I have met many who thought that Woody Allen movies sufficed as Jewish culture – until they read literature of our sages and the modern poets of a nascent Jewish State. I have met many who believe that Judaism does not lay claim to them – until they received a meal from our Community Kitchen or delivered one themselves.

Here at Fairmount Temple, we are not trying to create a Judaism for everyone; rather, we are looking to bring Jews closer to the core of their faith through the pillars of worship, study, and acts of loving kindness.

Once again, Brooks says it best:

The whole experience makes me want to pull aside politicians and business leaders and maybe everyone else and offer some pious advice: Don’t try to be everyman. Don’t pretend you’re a member of every community you visit. Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition.

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