Wednesday, August 31, 2011

music, drugs and spirituality

As so often is the case, this article was insprired by an animated dialogue that I had with a dear fellow who I've known for many years, and who, when he one day, internalizes the message of this article, will reap the tremendous harvest that Ha-Shem has planted for him. I must also warn you that you might find some of what you are about to read to be offensive and definitely not politically correct, so I apologize in advance with all sincerity. Our conversation started off by my friend expressing how inspiring he found Neil Young's music, and how his song "Huricane" was so apropos based upon events back East. I mentioned a recollection of Neil Young from the Farm Aid benefit back in 1985: While getting ready to perform, I saw the camera focused on him, and noticed that he literally looked like death warmed over: his facial expression pasty and expressionless, like a Parkinson's patient, certainly looking much older than his 40 or years. It seemed obvious that like many other Rock and Rollers, such as Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones, and the late George Harrison of the Beatles, drugs had played havoc on his nervous system, draining him and causing him to prematurely age. (It is interesting to note, by the way, that miraculously, when the music started playing it was as if he woke up and regained his old youth. This same phenomenon is described in Norman Cousin's wonderful book, "Anatomy of an Illness.") My friend pointed out, though, that I should not have jumped to conclusions, for in reality, Neil Young has suffered from epilepsy since childhood, and must have been taking anti-convulsive medication.

As a Chasid, one must always consider information on many different levels. Though, indeed, one should never prejudge a situation with a narrow and jaundiced outlook, still two thought should be reflected upon: First, ALL music evokes passion, and second that all medicines generate side effects. Back in 1970, Rav Noach Weinberg, A"H came to Los Angeles and spoke about this. He pointed out that all art forms, but especially music, powerfully act upon us by stimulating adrenaline, exhausting and draining our bodies, and desensitizing our souls by (often) artificially causing us to connect with the message given forth by the music, which more often than not is inconsistent with the service of Ha-Shem. This is especially prevalent with rock and rollers. I believe that it is no coincidence that there is so much drug usage (and of course abuse) with them--for the passion generated by music,(especially so with performers) is enormously stimulating. All stimulants are exhausting. And once one tastes the exquisite nectar, one wants to stay high. What better vehicle to keep one high and happy than drugs. And I include in this not just illegal drugs but also caffeine and nicotine as well. Chinese medicine recognizes well that any stimulation such as this, will deplete one's Yin, or material being, and Jing or marrow and genetic essence. Once depleted, they are very hard to regenerate. Along with this physical exhaustion, Rav Noach, A"H pointed out, that these passions are generally used for unG-dly purposes, and this affects another change within us, deceiving us into thinking that we are more spiritual, when, like Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, we are offering "a strange fire that was not commanded by Ha-Shem."

Concerning the second point, I am reminded of the quote by pharmaceutical manufacturer, Eli Lilly, who was famous for saying, there is no drug that does not induce side effects. This is the unfortunate consequence of all chemical drugs including anti-convulsants such as tegretol, dilantin and phenobarbitol, that Neil Young may have been taking. Very much like the Faustian bargain, once one has started taking a drug, they may never be able to stop. The relief that one may temporarily get can often engender an acceleration of the illness or a greater need for the drug, requiring a higher and higher dose, and the resulting poisoning of the whole body. This is the look that I saw on Neil Young's face back in '85. Is there an alternative? Yes, but sometimes when one has taken a drug or cocktail of drugs for too long, whether pharmaceutical or illicit, the damage may already have been done, and can't be reversed. As I think many of you know, my precious wife of 32 years also suffers from epileptic seizures, (the result of Western medical malpractice, I may add!). But using small divided doses of a mild anti-convulsant (levetiracetam), along with Chinese medicine to ameliorate side effects, and accompanying symptoms, the seizures are occurring less and less frequently and hopefully will soon stop completely!

But returning to my original point, it is a serious mistake to confuse music as actual spiritual inspiration, with music accompanying the seminal events in our lives, as a soundtrack. Everyone associates events, movements and lovers with certain songs that were sung or played on the radio during a particularly moving and powerful time in one's life. But let's be honest, it is nothing short of disingenuous to contend that music written by junkies, atheists, hedonists, narcissists, anarchists or idol worshipers will spiritually inspire us to connect to Ha-Shem. To get excited? absolutely! to get turned on? You bet! But turn-ons coming from a place of tuma are not what spirituality is. The root of the word spirit is ruach, and we learn from braishis what spirituality is when the verse tells us that "Ha-Shem breathed into Adam's nostrils the spirit of life and he became a living being." That which comes from Ha-Shem, is therefore, by definition spiritual, as well as that which derives its nourishment from the same spiritual root. Whereas, that which derives its nourishment from impurity, will ultimately taint, no matter how sanitized it is or how good it feels. That's why terms such as "kosher Yoga" or "kosher reiki" are oxymorons, as each come from deep rooted avoda zara(idol worship).

Now I should point out that as is well known, particularly in the chassidic tradition, certain high righteous souls called tzadikim have the ability to "redeem" certain melodies and folk songs. But this is completely different than suggesting that one can be spiritually uplifted by popular songs one hears on the radio. For whereas the tzadikim affect the music and change it spiritually by releasing the sparks of holiness contained within, having perceived the need to free them, popular music, which more likely than not, does not come from a place of purity or holiness, certainly affects us! This should be qualified, though, for though music is in and of itself, very pure and very high, (and as our sages teach us, the gate of melody is right next to the gate of repentance, in heaven.) it falls within the extremely vulnerable category of klipas noga. And when "other" forces act upon it, whether they be the composer, the artist or some other strong perverse influence, it becomes tainted. It is for the very reason that singing prayers and hymns such as Lecho Dodi or Adon Olam to folk melodies or rock songs, stirs up (at least subconsciously) memories associated with the given given melody and artist.

Let's take this one step further: it's not enough to simply be aware of this subtle danger in order to avoid being affected and seduced by it. The truth is, there is no way that one is not going to be affected by passionate visual, olfactory, gustatory, tactile or auditory stimuli, for they definitely leave an imprint. This is not something that I made up, but rather our sages from all streams validate this. Even in current times, one can look in the writings of the Biala Rebbe, the Lahavas Dovid, ZT"L as well as Rov Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, ZT"L among others who each speak about this. I am reminded of the story told of the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Eliyahu Lopian, who was approached by a talmid of his, asking for permission to attend a wedding, in which there would not be a mechitza or partition. The young man qualified to the Rosh Yeshiva that he had worked upon himself and Baruch Ha-Shem, had reached a level where immodest dress no longer affected him. Rav Lopian gave him permission to attend the wedding, but only on the condition that he contact a certain person whose phone number the Rosh Yeshiva would give to him. He took the phone number and returned a few hours later to tell Rav Lopian that he must have taken a wrong number, because the number was a doctor's office. "No," said the Rosh Yeshiva "there was no mistake. I am a man in my late 80's, blind in one eye, and these things still affect me. But if they don't affect you, a young man in your early 20s, then I fear something is physically wrong with you and I would like you to go see a doctor!"

The issue that I speak of is an Aish Zara, a blazing fire that is burning up the souls of too many of us. As with the Chanuka story, we need a special spark, a pure untouched flask, to inspire us and wake us up to the Hellenistic culture which so many have fallen prey to. So many in the modern Orthodox movement look for "heterim" or loopholes, to mix these two cultures. But as history constantly teaches us, they don't mix. My friend brought an example of "kol isha," the prohibition of listening to a woman sing. This, prohibition, he pointed out, does not apply to recorded music but rather only to seductively songs sung live. "And even a microphone," he pointed out, "could be considered a mitigating factor permitting this.

Yet, though, according to the letter of the law, he might have been correct, should one place himself in a compromising position, looking for loopholes? Does it please Ha-Shem if one derives pleasure or enjoyment from hearing a woman sing? Could any blessing possibly result from such stimulation, no matter how subtle? The Ramban teaches us that the mitzva for a Jew to specifically "be holy," means that one should act in a manner which is not gluttonous, gross or obscene even though it is permitted according to the "letter of the law."

So why do our sages teach us in the Gemara, that the "power of the lenient is greater?" Doesn't that seem to imply that deriving ways to permit something demonstrates a greater mastery of the law? I would contend that this is a distortion of the Gemara's intent. To illustrate what our sages really had in mind with a statement like this, I want to share with you the story of a rebbe that I had when I was in Yeshiva. This rebbe was a great scholar, but he had a problem: His beloved wife loved to sing zemiros at the Shabbos table, so whenever she did, he would join in and sing with her, relying on the loophole that "trei kolei lo mishtaei" (two voices sung together are not considered as distinguishable and are therefore not technically Kol Isha). What his actions demonstrated were that the Torah's ways are ways of pleasantness, and rather than stifle his wife's need to express herself, or even worse, to embarrass her, in that case, it was appropriate to rely on this loophole. And that's just the point: heterim or loopholes, should only be used to effectuate Kiddush Ha-Shem. Our actions can never be seen as neutral or insignificant. Whatever we do either sanctifies or desecrates, and really matters. The term for desecration in Hebrew is Chilul Ha-Shem. Literally this means creating a void, a place where we choose our our ego gratification to replace the A-lmighty.

But you know what the biggest proof and the biggest validation of making the right decision is? What happens next. Daily I ask myself how I've done, what I can do to better connect to Him. I know that everything I do falls into either Kiddush or Chilul Ha-Shem. When I get it right, I see incredible blessings, and right away too--and in all areas of my life: my livelihood, my health, my success in learning, and my domestic tranquility among others. But when I don't, I ALWAYS receive a correction, which I gratefully accept and adjust to. The Torah says, "bechol derachecha de'eyhu, v'hu yeyasher orchosecha" If we involve Him in everything we do, he will make our lives easier. So what does one gain by listening to what one shouldn't? the same as one gains by smoking a cigarette, eating a donut, looking at a pretty girl, getting stoned or even drinking a cup of coffee. One anesthetizes oneself. One gives himself a boost to numb himself. And this certainly is not spirituality.

No comments:

Post a Comment