It’s a good thing to have a hero. It’s even better if you have two, which I do: Joseph Soloveitchik and Bruce Springsteen.
Think The Rav and The Boss don’t belong together? Well, not only do they, but perhaps especially so for Jews as the Days of Awe draw close, and we yearn for renewal, of body and spirit both.
Granted, the two men—the rabbi and the rocker—hail from about the most disparate backgrounds imaginable. One, the scion of a pre-eminent European rabbinic dynasty, the inheritor of the great Brisk Talmudic intellectual tradition, is more influential than any other rabbi of the modern age. Soloveitchik’s thorough consideration of the best of modern secular learning along with that of Jewish tradition (“Torah uMadah” is the often employed shorthand) has shaped the thinking of hundreds of his students, and the students of his students, for decades now.
The other man, whose father was a sometime New Jersey truck driver, sometime jail guard, who regularly drifted into drink and depression, emerged from a thoroughly inauspicious Jersey Shore background to become the most renowned musical writer and performer of our age. Springsteen’s messages about hope and love and joy—born of his own aches and angst—have resonated across generations, social classes and continents for several decades now. Like Soloveitchik, Springsteen has influenced lives.
Still, what could a rock-and-roll star, one whose most famous line might well be, “I learned more from a three minute song than I ever did in school” (by all accounts, not an exaggeration), possibly have in common with an erudite rabbi, whose intellectual range covers religion and philosophy and beyond?
What could a rock-and-roll star possibly have in common with an erudite rabbi, whose intellectual range covers religion and philosophy and beyond?
But wait, the discrepancies grow.
The name “Soloveitchik” has been nothing less than royalty across the Jewish world for half a dozen generations now. Meanwhile, the name “Springsteen” was hardly known beyond a few blocks in Freehold, New Jersey, until, in the early sixties, this scraggly and rock music-obsessed teenager got his mother to empty her bank account for a $60 guitar, after which everything took off.
These days, even in his early seventies, there just isn’t a bigger name around than Bruce Springsteen. Five years ago his memoir, “Born To Run,” was published in twenty-two languages, and nobody headlines a show like Springsteen. And who else but this soul-stirring guy would theatre impresarios have called upon to reopen COVID-closed Broadway this month?
Need we mention that many more Jews today know one man and his work far better than the other and his?
One more gilding of this lily, by way of a return to the respective fathers: The Rav was taught Jewish tradition—and, therefore, the world—by his father, an illustrious east-European rabbi who further expanded his son’s early horizons by arranging for the young Soloveitchik to learn from the best teachers of the day (while his mother, of equally important dynastic rabbinic lineage, introduced The Rav to the greats of Russian literature).
And, Douglas Springsteen—how did he do in nurturing his son’s talents? Struggling toward stardom in the seventies, The Boss would ruefully observe, “When I was growing up, there were (for my father) two things unpopular in our house: one was me, the other was my guitar.”
Two rather different men, the rabbi and the rocker. And yet.
In fact, Soloveitchik and Springsteen are not so dissimilar, especially in regard to some defining personal characteristics. They’re (permit me to put Rabbi Soloveitchik who died in 1993 in the present) both modest men, largely unadorned and unassuming.
Springsteen famously makes his way around his beloved New Jersey Shore, whether alone or accompanied by his wife and kids, without a retinue in tow. No bodyguards, nobody to make him seem too important to be approached. And while Soloveitchik was reportedly distant and formal, and rarely less than demanding of his students, he, too, did without a retinue. And, though he proudly bore an illustrious name, The Rav also flew weekly between Boston and New York under the name “Joe Solo.” Not to hide, but to save those who’d never be able to pronounce his name the embarrassment.
Each possesses a discipline and restraint in personal habits. True, that would be expected of Soloveitchik who lived modestly, but what’s surprising is Springsteen’s eschewal of the ever-present drug culture from the beginning of his career. He was wise enough to know drugs would knock him off course.
In fact, their obvious differences aside, what the two share—a deep understanding of human yearning and spiritual need—is telling: telling in general, and all the more so in regard to this moment, when the Tishrei moon will soon beckon Jews toward life renewed.
Start with this matter of renewal, which easily gets confused with repetition, when it’s actually the opposite. Our lives often feel repetitive, far from renewed—regularly tamped down by a flattening sameness. Our spirits dull when everything inside us wants to soar—which is why renewal, best framed and driven by a religious sensibility, is so essential to human happiness.
Who does not yearn for that? Both The Rav and The Boss teach about this common yearning, each in their own way.
If you’ve ever been among the happy throngs at a Springsteen concert, for instance, you’ve not forgotten how full your heart was with joy, and the sense that just about anything was within reach. And, if you’ve read—read and reveled in, and read again—Soloveitchik, you’ve experienced your mind soaring and your world expanding.
Both experiences are the very stuff of human renewal; they’re joyous, large and potent. Repetition has its virtues, but surely, these are not among them.
Consider, for instance, how Springsteen describes the essence of his E-Street Band’s concert performances.
“We come out every night to be at our best … when we do, it’s not to repeat the night before, but rather to renew—you and us. It’s not a repetition, it’s a renewal. It’s not one and one making two—it’s making three by creating new memories even if we sing the same songs as the night before…. Rock and roll, Art, Love is where one and one makes three, not two. That’s the magic of what we try and achieve” (2012 Australia ABC News interview).
Renewal, then, is when one and one makes three, not two; when magic, something that jumpstarts the soul, happens. As Springsteen stomps and sings his way across the stage, it reverberates through your body.
L’havdil, we should say about Rav Soloveitchik. He would not have associated himself with three-hour-plus rock ‘n’ roll extravaganzas! Nevertheless, there is a commonality of experience. When you read Soloveitchik, especially about the nature of God’s complex and loved creatures, Adam, Eve and their progeny, The Rav takes you to new insights; your view of the world gets rearranged some, your knowledge of Jewish tradition deepened and your understanding of God and His most complex creature sharpened.
Once you encounter the Rav’s insights about early Genesis and our shared earliest ancestors, you have a chance to change: to renew, not to repeat. Rabbi Soloveitchik teaches that “Natural” human beings—flat, unchanging, unknowing—can grow into “Reflective” personalities: knowing, growing, giving human beings.
Only reflective men and women are capable of renewal. And only then are we who yearn for such spiritual regeneration prepared to meet the Tishrei moment and the soul-stirring days that may follow.
John Moscowitz is rabbi emeritus, Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto, and author of “Evolution of An Unorthodox Rabbi”