This post was also featured on the Union for Reform Judaism's Ten Minutes of Torah blog.
“There is a time for tearing down and a time for building up.” Ecclesiastes 3:4
When I was 20, a friend of mine (later my wife) dragged me to a club in Hollywood to go dancing. To say I was reluctant would be an understatement, but she just kept repeating, “It’s all ‘80s music, you’ll love it. You love ‘80s music.” I can lay claim to a sense of rhythm, but dancing ability might be overselling it. Between my skepticism and self-consciousness, I was certain I wouldn’t have fun.
You know where this is going: on the dance floor, as long as there was ‘80s music pumping, I was deliriously happy. I lost myself in the blend of beat and nostalgia, the familiar strains of Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Depeche Mode that I’d only ever heard coming out of my stereo or my computer, suddenly cranked up to 100 decibels. The sheer weight and volume of the music filled up the room and all of the space between the dancers, wrapping each of us in a big warm blanket of sound and sweat. I lost myself in the music and found instead a tiny slice of divine joy -- and if it was even the tiniest fraction of what King David felt when he “danced with joy,” it was a heartfelt prayer.
The Chassidic movement in Judaism talks a lot about the idea of losing oneself in prayer. According to the Chassidim, the ideal state of mind for prayer is a loss of self amidst great joy and ecstasy. One rabbi famously taught that even being able to think while praying was too much self-awareness. They call that kind of ecstatic prayerfulness hitlahavut and hitpaalut: a fiery passion in your soul and a sense of joy as gateways to the Divine.
A year ago, I started writing music with this goal in mind -- that it is possible to take any venue, any space, any group of people, and bring them to an emotional place of joy and community. I knew that rock music could achieve that goal; I experienced it at a Green Day concert years ago. The result was In Pursuit, an album of Jewish hard rock. Unlike the Green Day concert, the music is explicitly Jewish, although it was never intended for use on the bima.
Looking back on that night in Hollywood, what amazes me is how little was truly required for that prayerful experience all those years ago: songs in my musical “language,” the company of a good friend, and the fragile bond of a community of strangers. There was none of the accoutrements that I associate with prayer today: no siddur (prayer book), no cantor or rabbi, no sanctuary, no bima. The music opened a doorway to prayer and I walked through.