Early on in Don McLean’s seminal American Pie, he asks someone, possibly a romantic interest, “do you believe in rock ‘n roll? Can music save your mortal soul?” I’m assuming that it’s to a romantic interest, since the next words are “can you teach me how to dance real slow?”
Yet, in the way of lyrical verses, with their ability to convey ideas beyond words, the first two questions have always spoken to me of something deeper than the text would indicate..
These words have always put some kind of imperfect expression to my lifelong experience of the redemptive and transformative power of music.
As a Jewish figure with a public persona, I freely quote the wisdom of Jewish sages. Ancient Jewish aphorisms like “it is not upon us to finish the work, nor are we free to abstain from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:16) and “if I’m not for myself who will be for me, and if I’m only for myself, what am I, and if not now when” (Pirkei Avot 1:14) define both my teaching and the motivations of how I live my life.
As such, you could be justified in assuming that I had spent my formative years in a classical Jewish Academy, or yeshiva.
But you would be wrong. Rather, I learned these things not as the wisdom of the sages Tarfon and Hillel, but as the wisdom of sages named Klepper, Freelander and Friedman, and I learned them not sitting at a table over a book, but in catchy stirring melodies created by those sages and transmitted by incredibly energetic teachers of Torah with guitars that we called song leaders.
In these ways, to paraphrase McLean, music emblazoned these concepts on my very soul, elevating it as we would say in the Jewish tradition, which has some noticeable commonalities with the salvation invoked by McLean from his Christian heritage.
Nor is this idea, I think, restricted to ancient texts in a religious context. Does anyone really doubt the powerful role that ballads like “We Shall Overcome” played in our civil rights movement? Can we really remember the evolution of our society in the mid-20th century without hearing some strain of Bob Dylan singing “The Times They Are a Changin’”? Even in my own childhood, the words of an Israeli folk star telling my fellows and I that we could change the world were as canonical as our most ancient ideas.
If you’ve read this far, you probably wonder where I’m going with this. I was at inclusion event earlier this week, celebrating the second year of the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project at Combined Jewish Philanthropies.
We had moving speeches, and enlightened teaching. We had exciting progress to share, and exciting ideas with which to wrestle.
And yet, I don’t think anyone who was there would deny that the most powerful moments in the evening were the opening and closing music led by my friends Neshama Carlebach and Josh Nelson.
Inspiring speeches got people on their feet the clap, but it was the music that got them up to participate, that took 350 people and made them a part of what we were doing.
The music was beautiful. They are two of the most arresting Jewish musicians of our time, and they carefully picked songs of beauty and power that were nonetheless simple enough that everyone could join in. And yet, the words we sang were not particularly related to the words that we spoke.
The power may have sealed the memory, but it couldn’t reinforce it.
Afterwards, I went over to Neshama and Josh, still wowed by the spirit that they had brought into the room, and lamented that a speaker like me could give 1000 well-crafted speeches and never quite harness the power of music to convey our ideas to people’s very souls.
I look forward to the fact that I think that this conversation may lead to the first powerful Jewish song about inclusion that I know. I can’t wait to see how this new music conveys life-changing wisdom.
But I’m writing this blog, dear reader, to entreat you to take it a step further. Inclusion is a massive and nuanced topic. It can no more be encompassed in one song then could an entire social movement or body of ancient wisdom.
So it can’t be upon them to finish the work.
I don’t have musical talent, but I know many of you do, and in many different styles. My part in this is to share ideas, and I encourage you to look around this blog, or in the video clips at matankoch.com, or at any other inclusion spot that speaks to you, and grab our ideas. Hopefully one will speak to you.
Maybe it’s the idea in the story of Moses that we all have unique talents to do unique good. Maybe it’s one of my ideas, like how incredibly strong our communities become when we include everybody, or the wonderful opportunities that only await us if we’re ready to take advantage of them. Maybe it is a reflection of the idea that each different person reflects the image of God.
Whatever it is, the key to your choice should be that it stirs whatever part of your soul makes your most important music, and that you find a way to convey that message in that music.
I’m gonna keep writing articles and giving speeches, because that’s my part of the uncompleted work. If we really want to save our collective souls, however, I’m asking you to give us the music to do it.
Are you with me?