Jul 8, 2009

The Death of a Complicated Musician

The Death of a Complicated Musician
Rabbi Menachem Creditor

A complicated person just died, compelling the attention of the world's media and millions of fans.  Michael Jackson was both a profound musician and a conflicted person.  How should Judaism guide us in response to his death?  Does his music and its potential for good in the world lose its value in the face of his troubled life? 

Rabbi Yochanan taught in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai:

'[King] David abode in his mother's womb and broke into song, as it says, 'Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all my innards bless God's Holy Name. (Ps. 103:1)'  David emerged into the open air and looked upon the stars and constellations and broke into song, as it says, 'Bless the Lord, ye angels of God, you mighty in strength who fulfill God's Word...Bless the Lord, all you of God's Host... (Ps. 103:20,21)'  David, while nursing, looked at his mother's breasts and broke into song, as it says, 'Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all God's nurturing. (Ps. 103:2)' (TB Berachot 10a)" 

Rabbi Yochanan suggests here that King David is literally bursting with song in response to beauty in this world.  We know that this was not the only moment where David's visions of beauty led to moments of bursting.  There are moments of healthy and unhealthy exuberance, moments of broken-down boundaries where they should have remained intact.

King David led a remarkable life of holiness and might and music, a life complicated by adultery and abuse of power.  I feel the urgency of these questions thinking of the life of Ray Charles, a gifted musician who struggles with drugs and sexual boundaries and fails and falters, all while transforming a religious medium (and the musical world) with his virtuosity.  The film pulls no punches – his affairs and life of addiction play prominent roles in the storyline.  I think also of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the early Chabad emissary who rebelled, brewed together his own musical genius and the counter-cultural movement of the 60's and, while living a life of struggle and failing and faltering, changed Judaism forever.  Carlebach's overwhelming presence and personal weaknesses led to inappropriate, and sometimes unwelcome, intimacy with women, even in the midst of his incredible healing activism and spirit. 

The biblical text doesn't hide King David's faults. They are exposed to the air and the reader.  These narratives, coupled with the talmudic response of Rabbi Yochanan, provide possible responses to the question of finding redemption depite the shady sources of sublime music.  We can (and should) struggle to uncover all the good we can within a troubled life story, finding that "scintilla of good" as Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav wrote, for when we pursue that good we provide channels of healing for that person, and for the world.

Perhaps the very power of music is that it carries with it frailty and imperfection. Even as it rises to the heavens, even as it transforms the world it carries a palpable inadequacy.  Perhaps the imperfect lives of faulted spiritual virtuosos can comfort us in our most human moments, telling us that the struggle is part of the mystery of the creative process. 

Inspired music can remind us that when our raw "innards" experience human or cosmic beauty and explode with complicated and all-too-human responses, we are still called to be part of an ongoing journey to heal the world.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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