“The Power of the Particular”: David Brooks, Bruce Springsteen . . . and Torah?

A recent Opinion piece by New York Times columnist, David Brooks, caught my attention. 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 history.  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 had never been to America, felt a connection to the singer-songwriter and his uniquely patriotic message about America.

Brooks’ astute analysis uncovered Springsteen’s allure to these fans who had never frequented an Asbury Park nightclub or met a mill worker in a downtrodden and deindustrialized town. How could a European, seemingly disconnected from Springsteen’s intimate stories, connect to his music? Brooks suggests that the answer can be found within “paracosms” – cognitive worlds we create in our heads, like when we become engrossed in a book with compelling characters and landscapes, or listen to a song that drills down to the heart and soul of the human experience.

For example, one need not have ever lived in or even visited Ireland to identify with the bleak yet inspiring messages revealed in a song from the Irish band, U2. One need not be a wizard to identify with life in a British boarding school like the one profiled in the Harry Potter series. Indeed, we create our own universe of mental landmarks and 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 rooted in our innermost being.

I believe that the stories in the Torah – products of a unique time and place in Jewish history – still cling to us in deep and untold ways because of this very same 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 story is personally compelling. The narrative, iconic in the canon of great Torah experiences, is packed with emotional weight (the death of a cherished family member along the journey, the long and sometimes unforgiving road to redemption, and the very human frustrations of a common hero).  In some ways, the story defines Jewish peoplehood.

And yet – the story of the Exodus from Egypt is also universal. Many of our Jewish values (like freedom and caring for the needy) have become common values that we share with the broader community. In their efforts to be part of the larger society, and without the rampant anti-Semitism that used to set us apart, many Jews now identify first and foremost as global citizens. For some, our particular rituals and traditions have become a thing of the past, yielding to the attractive notion of a wider embrace of the world. Brooks takes up this theme, underscoring the benefits of maintaining one’s core set of beliefs rather than trying to be everything to everyone:

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 kids. Here’s what she wrote to them as an introduction:

Many in your generation want to blur, if not erase, boundaries between various groups of people.  They see religion only as causing problems and wars, so they 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 [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, grounding, and meaning.  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 specific story, and as a result we are there with him when he is riding on a motorcycle towards the Promised Land.

Unfortunately, many view cultural expressions of Judaism as a sufficient substitute for living a substantial Jewish life. They regard eating bagels or being able to say a few Yiddish words or dancing the hora—all expressions of Judaism that fit easily and comfortably into the larger society—as adequate to make them “feel” Jewish. While these folkways are certainly identifiable as Jew-ish acts, make no mistake – they do not scratch the surface of our faith tradition.

Please understand, I am not simply asserting that Jews should do more mitzvoth (that would be painfully predictable). Rather, I am saying that the first step to ensuring Jewish survival is to begin to delve into the deeper 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 until they began to study. After 10 years in class, their study has led to a more advanced level of Jewish thinking. I have met many who thought that Hebrew was some ancient language that had no relevance to their lives today – until they learned to read and understand it. I have met many who thought that Woody Allen movies sufficed as Jewish culture – until they read the literature of our sages and the modern poets of a nascent Jewish State.

Here at Fairmount Temple, we certainly strive to live our values in a way that makes us a part of and contributes to the larger society.  But we also care very deeply about bringing Jews closer to the “particularity” of the core of our 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.

Amen to that.