It was fifty years ago today….
Yes, today is the yovel, the jubilee, of the release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by the Beatles.
Whether or not it was the greatest album ever released (as Rolling Stone believes – with Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys in second place), there is no question: “Sgt. Pepper” remains an iconic musical statement – a mélange of musical styles, electronic techniques, lyrical complexity, and production genius that heralded the 1967 Summer of Love.
And yet, initially, not everyone loved “Sgt. Pepper” – most famously, the great rock critic (actually, the original rock critic) Richard Goldstein. When “Sgt. Pepper” first came out, Goldstein panned it.
“Busy, hip and cluttered,” he called the record in a review that ran in the New York Times on June 18, 1967.
He blasted the Beatles for “a surprising shoddiness in composition” and declared the album, ultimately, “fraudulent.”
But, now it turns out that there was a reason why Goldstein didn’t like “Sgt. Pepper.”
It turns out that the stereo Goldstein used for his review was broken. It had a malfunctioning speaker.
So, what would have been the result?
As Giles Martin, the son of the late Beatles producer, George Martin, said: “‘Lovely Rita’ has bass and vocals on one side, all the band’s on the left-hand speaker. On ‘A Little Help From My Friends,” you’d have no bass. And I think Ringo’s in the center but the band’s on one side, the backing vocals.”
If you listen to “When I’m Sixty-Four,” with one speaker out, you completely lose McCartney’s lead vocal, and the song becomes an instrumental.
As the veteran rock critic, Robert Christgau, said: “You don’t review a record on a stereo that isn’t working, certainly not a record of that consequence.”
It is, of course, merely a coincidence that the fiftieth anniversary of the release of “Sgt. Pepper” coincides with Shavuot, which celebrates the revelation on Mount Sinai – the birth of Judaism itself.
But, I have been thinking about this whole notion of what it means to hear – either a piece of music, or a religious tradition.
Because Judaism is a profoundly aural tradition.
Jews hear – as in “Hear, O Israel.” Our mystics hear things; by contrast, Christian mystics tend to see things, i.e., apparitions of the Virgin Mary.
In fact, Judaism is a stereo tradition.
We have a twin set of speakers:
Aggadah (Jewish lore) halacha (Jewish law)
Kavannah (spontaneity) keva (the fixed way of doing things)
Universalism (caring for all people) particularism (caring for the Jews)
mitzvot relating to God mitzvot relating to people
this world the world to come
As Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “As in a magnet, the ends of which have opposite magnetic qualities, these terms are opposite to one another and exemplify a polarity which lies at the heart of Judaism.”
If you are hearing out of only one speaker, you will have a truncated, distorted version of Judaism.
It is never either/or; it is always both/and.
One last thing about “Sgt. Pepper.”
In celebration of its fiftieth anniversary, the album was re-released – in a radically re-mixed format.
I have listened to the new version, and the old version, switching back and forth between them, and I can hear the difference.
Sometimes, the differences are subtle.
But at other times, you can hear things in the music that you had not heard before, but which were there all along.
That is the way it is with Torah.
The “music” is all there. It is part of the original “recording” (or: revelation; or, unfolding tradition).
But, what we hear, at any given time, is the result of: whether our “speakers” are working correctly.
Or: who is doing the “re-mixing” of the music?
And so, yes: Judaism has contained all of the elements that I have listed above.
Which element gets heard depends on time, place, and circumstance.
Think of it this way: the settings on your Iphone music.
Go into the settings for music, and find the EQ – the equalizer.
You can set it to “flat,” which means that you will hear the music exactly as it was recorded.
Or, you can go for jazz, hip hop, classical – and different musical elements, bass and treble, get moved either up or down.
That’s Judaism: a constant fiddling with the EQ on the “original settings.”
Reform Judaism pulled the prophets and universalism out front.
Hasidism hears the mystical tradition most clearly.
Social justice Jews hear the mitzvot having to do with people more loudly than they hear the mitzvot having to do with God.
Some people just don’t like what they hear at all. The disparaging stuff about women and LGBTs: we would rather just pull that track out altogether and leave it on the studio floor.
Is there a “pristine” “Sgt. Pepper?”
Perhaps. Whatever that means.
Is there a pristine Judaism?
But, as the song says: Judaism is “getting better all the time.”
Happy fiftieth, Sgt. Pepper!