Darshening Bono

Yesterday, the revamped Talmud Blog had a post about an Israeli scholar who "darshens" Israeli rock. While indeed an exciting development, it is hardly revolutionary. This is what rabbis do for a living - darshen popular culture, be it music, movies, TV, sports, literature, etc., to pull out some message that correlates with some classical text. This may be a chiddush for academics, but it's par for the course for rabbis.
Of course, some rabbis are better at it than others, and some popular cultural artifacts are easier to enlist for this purpose than others. When Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's Iron Man record, there was not a rabbi in Baltimore who didn't turn it into a mussar schmuess about the value of consistency and dedication, a la Ben Pazi in the famous midrash that appears in the introduction to Ein Ya'akov (about the most important verse in the Torah).
Similarly, when looking for rock groups to "darshen", few are as fertile as U2. And with the band's harmonic drones and searing falsettos still ringing in my ears after last night's concert in Philadelphia, I will take the opportunity to hold forth a bit on some of their more suggestive lyrics.
In a post from the first year of this blog, I wrote about the following passage in Pesachim 88a, which relates how each of our Patriarchs related to God’s Place:
Said Rabbi Elazar: What does Isaiah mean when he says, "And many peoples will go and say, 'Come let us go up to the Mountain of G-d to the house of the G-d of Jacob!'" ? Why the G-d of Jacob and not the G-d of Abraham and Isaac? The answer is: Not like Abraham, who saw it as a Mountain ("as it is said this day, On the Mountain HaVaYaH is seen" -- Genesis 22:14). And not like Isaac, for whom it was a Field ("And Isaac went out to meditate in the Field" -- Genesis 24:63). But like Jacob, who called it a House: "And he called the name of that place Beth El, the House of G-d" (Genesis 28:19).
I related this passage to the opening verses of "Still Haven't Found what I'm Looking For," in which Bono sings of his having climbed mountains, run through fields, and scaled city walls in his quest. I wondered - and still wonder - if there's something universal about these elements in man's search.
I would go further in suggesting that this particular song expresses something profoundly optimistic - Jewishly optimistic, I might add - in its intimations that human beings are on an unending search for something more. Even in Kingdom Come, and even despite our true belief, we will continue to "run", to seek what we're looking for. Indeed, "the righteous have no rest, not in this world nor in the next world [Kingdom Come]" (Berakhot 64a). The lyricist, presumably unfamiliar with the talmudic passage, certainly seems to have drawn on the same prooftext of Isaiah 40:31.
Interestingly, Bono said something last night while addressing the crowd that probably went over the head of most of the crowd. He mentioned that people were attending the concert from as far away as Israel (my wife and I were attending the concert from Israel, but he wasn't referring to us, I presume). A second later, he stopped and seemed to respond to something that someone said to him, probably a manager communicating through an earphone. Bono abruptly stopped talking about Israel, and then apologized for his "colorblindness". I believe that the following happened: a manager type told him not to mention Israel, certainly not in a positive light. Bono stopped but registered his disagreement by "apologizing" for his "color-blindness." While Bono is indeed color blind, he also sings, in that same song (which was the very next song at last night's concert), that "I believe in the Kingdom Come, when all the colors will bleed into one." Colorblind, indeed. And who else speaks of "blindness" as a metaphoric virtue? Once again, Isaiah. This time it's 42:19.
I have also (subtly) darshened the political message of "Where the Streets have no Name." The context was an article about the process by which streets and other landmarks are named in Israel (and presumably elsewhere, like Ireland). An implicit message of the song is that there's something pure and clean about places where the streets have no name; one can take shelter from the poison rain there.
U2's "In God's Country" has a line about "crooked crosses" in its refrain. He's talking about Ireland, and I can only presume that the "crooked crosses" signify a corrupt religious establishment. I am often reminded of that song when reading and blogging about the tensions between religion and state in Israel.
This next example is from my friend Yehudah, who by his own report, had a religious experience at the U2 concert at MSG during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva of 5748, when Bono was famously joined by the New Voices of Freedom gospel choir for "Still Haven't Found..." (goosebumps). Yehudah used a line from "Walk On" - You're packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been // A place that has to be believed to be seen - to frame a class on the Binding of Isaac, and the role of "seeing" in the episode, and how it is conditioned by belief.
Ultimately, though, is this real? Can one actually mine spirituality from pop culture? Well, as U2 sings in "Mysterious Ways" (and here I'm definitely taking it out of context): If you wanna kiss the sky, you better learn how to kneel."
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