Popular Culture and Judaism #1 -updated

At this point, the communications about the passing of the CEO of Rolex has simmered down and I can get back to our regularly scheduled material. If you have any further comments on my four blog posts on Judaism and Yoga, then let me know before I speak on the topic this week. I am not ready for Hanukkah in a few hours. In the meantime, I was asked to speak on Orthodoxy and Culture, so I will have a series of posts on the topic,moving from the general to specific posts on Certau and Bourdieu.

Here is an announcement for conference. It says “Pop culture functions today as a key location for the shared exploration of what it means to be truly human.” How does that play itself out in Orthodoxy? What happens to the Talmud which is neither pop-culture or defining human in these terms? What happens to Jewish thought, Maimonides, Maharal, or Rav Soloveitchik if humanity is defined through pop-culture? And what happens to the halakhah as shaping and modeling human experience? How does the language of pop culture become part of Orthodoxy? Or how is Orthodoxy embedded in “Hollywood, Billboard Hot 100, professional sports, New York Times bestsellers”? And how does pop-culture break down the divide between sacred and profane, Torah and the world? How does the internet define our humanity and our Judaism? (I welcome interesting links on the topic with an explanation by the one posting, but assume I have already seen much of the obvious. )

Religion in Popular Culture
We live today in a world in which popular culture—Hollywood, Billboard Hot 100, professional sports, New York Times bestsellers, etc.—constitutes our lingua franca, our society’s “common language.” Pop culture functions today as a key location for the shared exploration of what it means to be truly human. For this reason, it is appropriate that Christians attentively engage pop culture in a scholarly fashion. Doing so not only helps to bridge the divide between the academy and the wider society, but it also disrupts the temptation toward religious insularity and creatively expands the horizons of Christian self-reflection. For these and other reasons, the thoughtful analysis of religion in popular culture is an important task today.

What does it mean when a shul offers for Hanukah, “The Hebrew Hammer Movie Showing, Movie, Popcorn and Beer” Help save Chanukkah from Santa Clause’s Evil Son- Join us for the Hebrew Hammer, beer and popcorn followed by a discussion about what is truly hip about Chanukah.

What does it mean when an Orthodox synagogue is having a Rock N’ Roll Shabbaton -with the Lead singer of the The Who. Roger Daltrey? After the wow, the jokes, and humming a few bars of Baba o’Reily – what does it mean for orthodoxy, if anything?

What does it mean when the major form of Chanukah Torah today is youtube videos that are in hip-hop, boy-band, or glee style? Religiosity is identified and situated with the watching of the videos. And the videos are filled with Jews dancing with non-Jews of all races and ethnicities? They portray a broad world.

As noted in Rabbi Buchwald teshuvah video- how does the universalism relate to their provincial lives? What do people get from watching the video? We are as cool as TV? Chanukah is fun, therefore mizvot are fun and we create fun videos. Why do I get a feeling that the sense of finding God as described in the hanukah passages of Sefat Emet or Shem MiShmuel are more cited among Neo-Hasidm, Habakuk, and Jewish renewal, and the Hanukah Torah of Centrist Orthodoxy is the message of the videos. What is that message of the videos and what function does it play? Have meaning given way to a moral order of fun?

With apologies to Lila Abu-Lughod, The Interpretation of Culture(s) After Television (1997) it seems the Centrist world is reading themselves into the world of TV and its values. The non-Jews and universal values in the videos seem to be a self-perceptions as secular Americans. They are not using TV to formulate difference from Holllwood and the secular world around them, rather they are using it to show their vision of themselves. How does this universal vision relate to the Hanukah Torah from Yeshiva and shul? Are successful shuls and rabbis now preaching the same pop-culture universalism? [Let me know which hanukah sermons and shiurim go viral and are actually popular this year. I have already received some which are DOA.]

Some of these issues I had already started to discuss in my post on Christian Rock and Kiruv, but I got no comments. You can comment now on the relationship of rock and kiruv.

12 responses to “Popular Culture and Judaism #1 -updated

  1. What is important about pop culture is not its content per se but that it is consumed. It is disseminated primarily as a consumer product that perversely is often viewed by its consumers as important statements of identity and affiliation while driving them to homogeneity.

    You similarly see patterns of consumption used in defining subdenominational lines. It’s not what you believe, it’s which books you buy, whose shiurim are on your ipod, does you 5 year old watch Torah Tots and uncle Mosihy or Dora and Yo Gabba Gabba?

    But you said you will be getting to Bourdieu later…

    Here’s a question for you: there was a cute piece in the New Yorker a few weeks ago using Distinction to explain why no one thinks of themselves as hipsters. Is there a label in Orthodoxy that similarly is commonly thrown around but no one would self apply?

  2. Which shul is having Roger Daltrey?

  3. I don’t think we should be bothered by the integration of pop culture into religious setting any more than we should be bothered by pop culture in the first place.

    The term “popular culture” originated recently, but the concept of highbrow v. lowbrow culture has existed for a long time. When a scop recited Beowulf in the mead hall, that was pop culture (you could even argue that the stand-up philosopher, to use Brooks’ term, represented pop culture).

    If a synagogue is using pop culture to reach its congregants, it only risks turning off those who prefer highbrow.

  4. I would be more curious about how all of the above texts, movements and sages to what is NOT lhvdl pop culture (let alone “high culture”) – because it is very much like pop culture to see itself as “what everyone’s doing” or measuring themselves by even in ‘dissent’; Counterculture, dropout cultures, various subcultures, the Indie Jewish scenes, the DIY take on it all.
    Of course the past 20 years has seen much indie/DIY/counterculture becoming thoroughly undermined and repackaged as “over-the-Counterculture” – I think of the Hot Topic franchise, the Internet in many positive ways (and negative ways accounted in Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget”), distributing the means of production and networking, of media in music, text, art, etc.

  5. I do not accept the basic premise that “Pop culture functions today as a key location for the shared exploration of what it means to be truly human.” If I miss out on “Hollywood, Billboard Hot 100, professional sports, New York Times bestsellers” am I half human, human but not TRULY human? What does ‘truly human’ add to human? The second part of your post is one I can understand. You say and I accept that there are Jews who use videos and pop culture to show their vision of themselves. If these people are grownups they are not anyone I would care to know…adult Valley girls, people who talk mostly about sports or show no discrimination in music or movies. Maybe there are such types, but WADR as they say here on the internet, they are idiots. There comes a point in every adult life when the teenage pop culture becomes unimportant. Can you imagine a 60 year old addicted to TMZ or Perez Hilton to the exclusion of the concerns that arise naturally over a life cycle? It can’t possibly be that understanding such people are a necessary condition for a truly human life, whatever that expression might mean.

    One more point….I am very uncomfortable with the use of ‘pop culture’ to cover everything from the latest variation on punk to Dora the Explorer. Some of what is being done isn’t highbrow, but nevertheless of interest, especially when it expands the language of the genre. Some pop culture is hopeless, and can’t be salvaged even with a triple dose of irony. We know from a generation of highbrow movie criticism from Stanley Cavell to the feminist drashas on objectification of women, that even popular movies with the right perspective yield new insights and enjoyments. The video from the kiruv people that you posted a few months ago was just terrible, an insult really to pop culture. You seem to be talking of the worst of the worst, and then the problem isn’t that its pop but that it is embarrassing.

  6. adult Valley girls, people who talk mostly about sports or show no discrimination in music or movies. Maybe there are such types, but WADR as they say here on the internet, they are idiots.

    They are out there and make up more of the community than you seem comfortable with.
    .
    Can you imagine a 60 year old addicted to TMZ or Perez Hilton to the exclusion of the concerns that arise naturally over a life cycle?

    The AARP is the biggest rock concert producer in the country. The rock era is a major source of values, entertainment, and leisure activity for those who are currently retired in their 60’s. The best place to buy authentic 60’s clothes is in retirement villages in Florida. The stuff is shipped down there from the rest of the country because the retired shop for their youth in vintage clothing stores.

    One more point….I am very uncomfortable with the use of ‘pop culture’ to cover everything from the latest variation on punk to Dora the Explorer. Some of what is being done isn’t highbrow, but nevertheless of interest, especially when it expands the language of the genre.

    What criteria would you use? Do people use you criteria? There are good films but most people especially those in the Centrist community watch action trash. Are you excluding the best from pop-culture or are you saying that only the best is pop-culture and the rest is just dreck?

    The video from the kiruv people that you posted a few months ago was just terrible, an insult really to pop culture. You seem to be talking of the worst of the worst, and then the problem isn’t that its pop but that it is embarrassing.
    I don’t know about you but I got 4 or 5 hanukkah videos this morning. And I know many members of the community for whom the watching and production of those videos is their Chanukah Torah. And I don’t know why you thought the outreach video was terrible- it was quite cute and professionally done. It was as professional as Glee.

    Without your highbrow moralizing, people are on this level. How does it change their relgion?

  7. Sorry;
    I would be more curious about how all of the above texts, movements and sages measure up to what is NOT lhvdl pop culture (let alone “high culture”) – because it is very much like pop culture to see itself as “what everyone’s doing” or measuring themselves by, even in ‘dissent’ (something else entirely going on a few “blocks” over that’s not on the radio as it’s not marketable); counterculture, dropout cultures, various subcultures, the Indie Jewish scenes, the DIY take on it all.
    Of course the past 20 years has seen much indie/DIY/counterculture becoming thoroughly undermined and repackaged as “over-the-Counterculture” Consumer Culture – I think of the Hot Topic franchise, the Internet in many positive ways (and negative ways accounted in Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget”), distributing the means of production and networking, of media in music, text, art, etc.

  8. pierre,
    I am not sure what you are looking for. Each of those thinkers is institutional elite, and hierarchical. None of them would be countercultural, populous, anarchist, or beat. Kabbalah and Hasidut has served as the alter-ego for the counter-culture for the last few decades. There have been attempts at Mitnaged, maimonidean, or Maharal counter-cultures but they dont take off.
    Are you looking to create a counter-cultural Rambam?
    Or are you looking for a traditional theology of the internet that creates a Judaism without the intense hierarchy?
    I used to have a commenter for a few months Kevin Hayyim Rothman who wanted a conterculture frumkeit.
    Do you want to clarify more?

  9. I am indeed elitist. Who knew such an attitude was out of place on this blog? I did moralize, but would not have posted such judgments had I known I was saying anything particularly controversial.

    Having reread your post and response a third time, I realized I have no idea what Glee is; I thought maybe a marching band. After goggling I learnt it’s a TV show. I don’t watch television. So I’ll take what you said to heart . I now realize I am out of touch.

    • My mixing of what was then called called high and low goes back to the influence of Susan Sontag on everyone writing in newspapers and magazines.
      Certaeu considers the very term high culture a means of power over the masses. Now, the question is why do Centrists who may have not read a serious work since HS, majored in something business oriented and only know important books in a very mid-brow way call themselves, and even insist, they are high brow? Conversely, what do I gain by resiting the categories?
      When I see the Centrist community, some of them think they should affirm high culture but then use a variety of what Certaeu calls poaching, tricking, strolling, shopping, and desiring in order to evade the high culture.

  10. Is it perhaps then an elitist mistake to assume that religion is in important ways an autonomous area of human endeavor such that asking about the significance of “Judaism and popular culture” already presupposes that these two cultural activities are so different? (obviously a Marxist historian wouldn’t.) And from a functional perspective, once popular religion stops being about death and mortal danger and becomes fixated on self-fulfillment, the formation of an affiliational identity, and rituals that construct a mythology of the self and not the cosmos, then has it not been subsumed into popular culture in such a way that the question posed is moot?

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