Punk’s Not Dead, It’s Jewish: Shavuot 5782

I couldn’t be more excited for the new FX/Hulu miniseries Pistol, which promises to tell the true story of one of my favorite bands, The Sex Pistols. I first discovered The Pistols as a teen, when my natural disposition toward contrarianism evolved into full-blown rebellion. 

Of course, music history buffs and punk aficionados know that The Pistols didn’t invent punk rock; but they did help define its look, sound, and, above all, its attitude. Punk, as epitomized by bands like The Sex Pistols, is about standing at a remove from the dominant culture, interrogating it with an irreverent spirit, a challenging posture, and a critical eye. It’s about questioning the world as it is, being unafraid to poke at and even to smash sacred cows, and refusing to accept the status quo as inevitable. Punk rock is outsider music, the art of those who look at the world as it is and realize something is deeply wrong.

It is no coincidence, then, that I fell in love with punk rock and Judaism around the same time. If you look carefully at our sacred texts, you’ll find that ours is a faith rooted in rebellion. Abraham and Sarah, for example, become the founding parents of our faith only by leaving their homeland, stepping outside and standing apart from the world they knew. The midrashic tradition takes this idea even further, arguing that Abraham boldly interrogated and challenged the beliefs and practices of his parents’ culture, and that God chose him to found our faith precisely because of his iconoclastic and rebellious spirit. Similarly, tradition holds that Moses was called by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt because he was willing to step outside and stand apart from the norms of the only world he knew. One day, Moses witnessed an Egyptian taskmaster beating an enslaved Israelite. Given his privileged background, Moses could have easily seen that act as unremarkable, business as usual in Pharaoh’s Egypt. But somehow Moses, despite having been raised as a consummate insider, came to possess the sensitivity of an outsider. He refused to accept the taskmaster’s oppressive deed as normal, and the rest is history. 

Maybe it’s because our people have always been a small minority, struggling to maintain our uniqueness when it is tempting to just be like everyone else; but for whatever reason, our tradition has long taught us to stand out; to be outsiders, looking with a critical eye at things as they are in order to pursue things as they ought to be. Time and again, the Torah issues commands like, “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you…” We are called to reject what is popular in order to do what is right. The great modern sage Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, argued that the essence of Jewish faith is “the sense of not being at home in the universe,” feeling spiritually vagrant in a world filled with “so much suffering and evil” (“You Stand,” in Man’s Quest for God, 61-62). 

This ethos is central to the story we commemorate on this Shavuot holiday. God introduces the theophany at Sinai by saying, “You shall be unto me a nation of priests and a holy people.” What are priests if not a group of people who live as outsiders, distinct from the dominant culture? Traditional commentators underscore this point by emphasizing that separateness is precisely the meaning of the word “holy.” To be a holy people is to be a people apart, unique and distinct from all others; to be “גּ֥וֹי אֶחָ֖ד בָּאָ֑רֶץ, a singular people in the world” (II Samuel 7:23).

According to tradition, this message is embedded in the very setting of the story or matan Torah. Why, ask the rabbis of the midrash, was the Torah given at Sinai – at an unremarkable mountain, and not at a more celebrated site? Indeed, they wonder, why was the Torah given in the remote wilderness and not in the Promised Land? The answer? “כל מי שאינו עושה עצמו כמדבר הפקר, אינו יכול לקנות את החכמה והתורה, Anyone who does not make themselves ownerless like the wilderness cannot acquire wisdom and Torah” (Numbers Rabbah 1:7). According to the 19th century Belarusian commentator Rabbi Zev Wolf Einhorn, also known by the acronym Maharzu, the term the midrash uses, “ownerless,” implies total independence, “shelo l’hakpid al shum davar m’divrei olam,” a person who doesn’t rely on any single thing in the world.” 

In other words, the precondition to accepting the Torah is independence – of mind and soul. The midrash doesn’t say only an ownerless person may receive Torah; it says only an ownerless person can receive Torah. Because the purpose of Torah is about transforming the world as it is into the world as it ought to be, it can only be fully appreciated and embraced by those who are able to look at their world with the critical posture of an outsider – those who think for themselves, those who resist unquestioned acquiescence to external authority, those who reject unexamined conformity to others’ norms and values. 

Perhaps this is also why rabbinic tradition associates the story of Ruth the Moabite with matan Torah. Ruth is the paradigmatic outsider. Not only is she not an Israelite, she comes from a nation that was historically regarded as one of Israel’s most relentless enemies. Our ancient ancestors so detested their Moabite neighbors that the book of Deuteronomy famously says, “No Moabite shall be admitted into the Lord’s congregation; nor shall their descendants, even in the tenth generation, ever be admitted into the Lord’s congregation” (23:4). And as if this were not enough, Ruth’s marginalization is exacerbated by her status as a propertyless widow and immigrant.

But it is precisely her marginalization that enables her to see the redemptive promise of Torah. Her willingness to leave everything she once knew and embrace the possibility of an unseen future is rooted in her independence of mind and spirit. And, perhaps even more importantly, Ruth’s independent spirit is also what propels her to hold those around her accountable for fulfilling the Torah’s vision of a compassionate and just society. Tradition therefore holds Ruth up as a model for matan Torah, past, present, and future, as though to say that only those of us willing to become outsiders like Ruth can truly receive Torah. And, of course, Ruth is regarded as the ancestor of King David, whose dynasty is associated with the advent of the messianic era, as though to say that only those who are prepared to see the world through Ruth’s eyes, as outsiders, can help bring about the world’s ultimate redemption.

What would it mean for us to look at our world today as outsiders? 

It would mean, for starters, refusing to become desensitized to violence and cruelty like we are witnessing in Ukraine, or to the fact that mass shooting events – such as the one that occurred the other week at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, claiming the lives of nineteen children and two teachers – uniquely happen in our country with alarming frequency and horrifying severity. To look on these horrors as outsiders would mean never allowing evils like these to become normal. 

To look at our world as outsiders would mean refusing to accept widespread sickness and death that is largely avoidable through vaccines and other public health strategies as a price worth paying to return to pre-pandemic normalcy; resisting the urge to pretend that the pandemic is over for the sake of our own convenience and comfort. It would mean refusing to accept 1,000,000 American COVID deaths, many of them preventable, as in any way normal; to resist becoming in any way callous to suffering or cavalier about our own or others’ wellbeing, especially the vulnerable.

To look at our world as outsiders would mean refusing to look away or simply move on in the face of obvious and egregious systemic racial injustice, as we have done in the two years since we all saw George Floyd suffocate to death under the knee of a police officer. It would mean recognizing that racial injustice persists, often with deadly results, as was evidenced just the other week in Buffalo. It would mean recognizing the mounting backlash to racial justice efforts, truthfully reckoning with the uncomfortable parts of American history, acknowledging clear evidence of widespread inequities, even against the use of the term “racism,” as a cynical ploy to perpetuate inequality. It would mean keeping our eyes wide open and refuse to look away or allow ourselves to become numb to the pervasive reality of racial injustice in America; to refuse to accept as normal that many of our cities are just as segregated as they ever were; to refuse to accept a status quo where your zip code determines your life expectancy and the color of your skin your prospects for escaping poverty. 

To look at our world as outsiders would mean acknowledging how close we are to losing democracy. It would mean recognizing the widespread efforts happening right now at every level to identify and exploit the weak points in our electoral system; rejecting leaders who embrace, or even abide, conspiracy theories, political violence, and autocracy; refusing to empower those who tolerate authoritarianism and excuse those who are bent on subverting democracy. It would mean resisting the bad-faith calls for civility that require us to look the other way, turn the page, or try to move on. 

True, every once in a while an event like the recent mass shootings in Buffalo and Ugalve, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, or the January 6th insurrection shakes us out of our complacency and forces us out of our comfort zone, something that enables us to see that what we usually experience as normal is in fact profoundly wrong, and that what we know to be wrong is shamefully normal. But we human beings are nothing if not adaptable. We are great at adjusting to a new normal and moving on, even if that new normal was once horrifying. Over time, often with shocking speed, we allow ourselves to settle comfortably back inside a broken system, going back to sleep in a burning house.

But this day, Shavuot, invites us to resist our natural human tendency to accept things as they are and instead to strive to be like Sinai and emulate Ruth – to perpetually regard ourselves as spiritually homeless in our world, looking at our reality from the vantage point of outsiders. Because only as outsiders can we clearly and honestly see what is wrong with what is normal. And we cannot fix what we cannot face. As Jews, our core purpose is to fix what is broken, to repair the world. Therefore, to embrace our calling as Jews, we must become outsiders.

And as long as there are Jews who embrace this calling, Punk’s not dead.

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