When it comes to Bruce Springsteen, if I had to categorize my level of fandom, I would call myself “Conservadox,” firmly established on the traditional end of the spectrum. From the outset, let me clarify that I am by no means “frum,” overly zealous in my enthusiasm. Only once in my life have I traveled to another city to see him in concert; there exist lyrics to his music with which I am unfamiliar; I have not pre-ordered his autobiography due out next week; and unlike some people with whom I share this pulpit, I limit myself to one sermon per year making reference to him – today. That said, a picture of him does sit proudly on the wall in my office; E Street Radio is a preset station on my car radio; and I can say with reasonable confidence that my children are well familiar with the most important tracks of his music catalogue.
As I conduct a spiritual inventory of the year gone by, I can share with some pride that on the Bruce front, it was a very good year. Not once, not twice, but three times I saw him in concert. With my wife, with a generous congregant who took me and Cantor Schwartz as a Gala auction item, and finally – and most sweetly – with one of my children. All of the concerts, two at Madison Square Garden and one at Barclays, were part of the River Tour, a concert performed in honor of the thirty-fifth anniversary of the release of Springsteen’s celebrated album The River. The River remains Springsteen’s sole double album – twenty-one songs total – the most famous being “Hungry Heart,” which reached #5 on the billboard pop charts, and my personal favorite, “Sherry Darling.” Perhaps the most interesting thing about the concert, and it is on this point that I want to focus today, is the fact that in every show, Bruce performed the entire album from beginning to end. Yes, every show concluded with a varied set of fan favorites, but the point of the concert, the mission of the show was to showcase this album, pivotal to Bruce’s development as a musician, in the manner in which it was originally conceived, constructed, and composed. Some songs have stood the test of time better than others, but thirty-five years later, they were all played with equal fervor by the E Street Band. There was no cherry picking of songs, no mix-and-matching; there was an intended arc of the album that was followed, and the listener – in my case, three times over – was called on to experience the tales of love, heartache, triumph, and tragedy in precisely the way the band intended them to be experienced some three-and-a-half decades ago.
This morning, as I reflect back on those three concerts, I cannot help but consider how bold Bruce’s decision was to perform in the manner he did and how countercultural these concert experiences were. Because thirty-five years later, our world has moved in an altogether different direction. We don’t listen to entire albums anymore. We are what I will call, for lack of a better phrase, the “Netflix Generation.” We consume our music, our media, our everything in an on-demand manner that prizes personal choice, immediate gratification, and an à la carte lifestyle. When I was a kid, I knew that “Different Strokes” was on NBC at 8:30 pm on Wednesday night, followed by “Facts of Life” at 9:00 pm, and it was a very, very big deal when they were moved to Saturday night. The dissemination of media was routinized and predictable and then canonized in the TV Guide. Today, if you want to watch “Veep,” “House of Cards,” or anything else, you watch it whenever and wherever you want and however fast you want – entire seasons released and “binge watched” in a single sitting. I personally have no idea when the shows I watch are aired – I watch them when I want to. ESPN just announced à la carte bundling, so you can stream and pay for only the games that you want to watch. You can listen to podcasts, including Park Avenue Synagogue’s, any time and any place. The music industry is now a “singles” industry. There is no longer any need to pay for a full album, never mind a double album, and there is certainly no need to listen to that double album in concert from beginning to end. The more I think about the “River Tour,” the more I am struck by the manner in which it ran counter to the dominant impulse of our day.
As at any moment of technological advance, while we can embrace the brave new world in which we live, I also think it is incumbent upon us to pause to reflect on how this new terrain transforms our lives, not simply in how we watch television or listen to music, but in the fundamental assumptions of our existence. Because while we can celebrate an increasingly bespoke access to news, music, and other content, we also know that there is a dark, lurking underbelly. I worry that as we download our books and music online and bear witness to the slow asphyxiation of libraries and bookstores, albums and newspapers, we risk losing what I believe to one of the most important dimensions of the learning experience – what I call the “serendipitous stumble.” Not the book or song you went into the store or library looking for, but the book next to it, or the song after it, or the article beside the one that you were initially interested in reading. An on-demand world makes no allowance for the B-side dimension of life. If not for the Beatles’ “I am The Walrus,” Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” and a million other literal and figurative B-sides, our cultural heritage would be rather impoverished. More often than not, learning and culture and, frankly, life itself are to be had, not by finding what you thought you were looking for, but in flipping over that proverbial vinyl to discover that truth and beauty and love are to be found in unexpected places.
There are, to be sure, many pitfalls in this new world of ours. I worry that our a la carte age has resulted in a narrowcasting or closing of the American mind in that we choose only the channels and websites that echo our views without ever undertaking the burdensome task of engaging with ideas contrary to our own. I worry about parents and children sitting in their own rooms, on their own laptops, or at the same kitchen table plugged into their individualized emails, Youtube channels, or Spotify accounts – what Sherry Turkle calls being “alone together.” I worry about human beings becoming just another form of content as the Tinders of the world allow people to swipe one way or another as if human beings were songs on a playlist.
As a rabbi, my worries, not surprisingly, go to the heart of the very project to which I have committed my life – the project of a creating a dynamic Jewish community. If, as I believe, our faith swims in the stream of the cultural context in which it is found, and if all content, religious life included, is on its way to being “on demand,” then what does that bode for the rhythms of Jewish life and living? Last year, I received a call from a friend who told me that her children’s school vacations fell in such a way that their spring break trip to Italy fell during Pesah. They are caring Jews, they understood the conflict, and so, what did they do? She shared with me with some excitement that they decided to bump up Passover by a week, observe both seders and the dietary restrictions of the holiday in the States and then enjoy their week of Italian pasta having celebrated the holiday a week early. And while shifting Passover from one week to another may seem a bit audacious, just think of how many calls I get weekly from engaged couples and bnei mitzvah families asking if I can just move havdalah, the end of Shabbat, a bit earlier or later, so the simcha can begin or end at this time or the other. I am trying to imagine the pilgrim described in this week’s Torah reading showing up at the Temple with his offering of first fruits not at the specified time but at the time more convenient to his schedule. Judaism is, as Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “a religion of time aimed at the sanctification of time.” I get it; more than you know, I get it. We are thinking through service times, livestreaming our services, putting sermons and the cantors’ music online; we give options of what days kids go to congregational school. More than you know, we are trying to meet you where you are. But also know, that if Judaism and Jewish life is reduced to the same on-demand demands as the rest of our lives, then at a certain point it will stop being Judaism. Our festivals, our observances and our prayers are deeply countercultural. There are time-bound demands of when you do and don’t light candles, say Kiddush, fast, and pray – among hundreds of other Jewish acts. There is an arc, a set album if you will, to every week, to every season, and to every year. It is who we are; these are the ties that bind the Jewish people, the glue of our community in every generation and across the generations.
And here we arrive at the nub of the matter. We are, I believe, deeply mistaken if we celebrate the coming of the Netflix Generation as an unqualified triumph of human freedom. Last week there was a great piece by Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine on our addiction to information, multitasking, and distraction. The dopamine-like need to be connected, check Facebook and return emails. We walk down the streets – and I am as guilty as the next person – phone in hand, dusk to dawn, subjecting ourselves to the gushing flow of information. And so I ask you, in this brave new world of ours, who is the enslaved and who is the liberated? Is it the person who is able to get what they want, how they want, when they want, or is it the person who is able to shut their phone off for twenty-four hours, not return emails after a certain hour, come to shul on a Friday night, enjoy a dinner or a walk or a sunset with a loved one – or alone – without distraction and interruption? As the late philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz explained: “Genuine human freedom is [thus] attained only through the religion of mitzvot” (Contemporary Jewish Thought, ed. Arthur Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, p. 75), meaning – only by sitting together as a family at the Shabbat table with no electronics; only by coming to Shabbat services, to first day and second day Rosh Hashanah, to Sukkot and beyond; only by showing up to Congregational School or an adult learning class – only by demonstrating that you yourself set the priorities of your spiritual existence and that of your children do you announce to the world that you and not anyone else is the master of your fate and captain of your soul.
In just over a week, the Jewish people will gather together to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, our new year. It is a time to press reset, not just on our clocks and calendars but also on the calibration of our souls. Now is the time to ask the painful question of whether we are, in fact, as free as we would claim to be. Is it we who set the tone of our households, the priorities of our day, and the thoughts that occupy our mind? Or have we, unwittingly, awoken to a world where everything can be downloaded except the very freedom of mind and spirit that we purport to seek? Now is the time to step into the rhythms and river of Jewish life, now is the time to choose whether, in the year ahead, we shall be spiritual paupers or aristocrats of the spirit. Now is the time for Jewish time; now is the time to be set free.