A Jew at the Rave?

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It’s a dark and stormy night. I get out of a car somewhere off a highway exit at the mouth of a national park. I’m accompanied by a man that would be considered, by most perfectly normal accounts, quite unusual. He is shrouded all in colored robes and wears an ornamented top hat that puts the Mad Hatter’s to shame. We get out and proceed to wander around the exit for five, ten, fifteen minutes, searching for something that the cars shooting past us probably wouldn’t ever imagine. We’re looking for the entrance to a cave, where we will follow the sounds of music to a full electronic music show nestled within an oasis of trees. In other words, we’re here for the renegade.
Although this definition is certainly an oversimplification, a rave is a party that celebrates mindful partying as a sort of alternative spirituality, a space where the boundaries placed by society dissolve to some degree and people can relate to each other with a fresh form of intimacy based on the rave culture’s motto of PLUR – peace, love, unity and respect. These events usually take place at venues or warehouses decked out in full color in accordance with the theme of the event, which can range from Cyberpunk to TV cartoon culture. A renegade, also known as a nature party, is a rave that takes place in – you guessed it – nature. And a festival is essentially a renegade that lasts for a few days, with way more people and in a much larger space.
I’ve been going to raves, renegades and festivals since I could first start passing as old enough to be there - somewhere between eighteen and nineteen years old. Well, more like since I could first start doing things without my parents’ permission, because I knew exactly what they would think about such events. As Modern Orthodox homemakers my parents were shocked and dismayed to find that I had procured an Eminem CD at age fifteen and was listening to rap. You can imagine what it was like when they found out I had been smoking pot, going to parties, etc. And the raves, well - to them, and to many perfectly normal individuals, such events are inextricably intertwined with “bad.” Bad on a whole different level than the Saturday night Melave Malka kickback at the Jewish day school class clown’s house.
Luckily for me, my idea of “bad” doesn’t have to match up with such people’s idea of “bad.” If it did, I wouldn’t have had many of the life experiences that have made me feel truly alive, for better or for worse. I wouldn’t have ever fallen and learned how to pick myself up stronger. I wouldn’t have most of the amazing friends I have today – in fact, had I listened to the advice of many perfectly normal people, I probably wouldn’t have any friends outside of a very narrow fraction of the Jewish community. Most of those perfectly normal people - they might see me wearing my colorful clothes and carrying my *interesting* demeanor and say I’m “bad” too, and their perception of me might not even change when I pull out a prayer book and start rhythmically swaying with my eyes alternating between “closed” and “staring into space.”
Truth is, I’m not particularly concerned with the opinion of perfectly normal people, because (no offense) I’m not a part of their target demographic. I ate from the tree, and I now know good and bad, and anyone trying to distinguish them for me who hasn’t had a hearty bite from that same tree is quite out of their element, and should most likely stop peeping into my garden lest they get an allergy attack.
But don’t be fooled by the sleekness of my hindsight - this was not an easy lesson to internalize. It took years of struggling with what I perceived as conflicting identities - the “bad” Schwartz that wants to dance and party and be the star of the show, and the “good” Schwartz that wants to pray and learn and lead others down a path of righteousness. As long as I lived according to this binary fallacy, of choosing my “Yetzer Tov” over my “Yetzer Hara,” I too fell into the trap of judging myself and others. I couldn’t come to terms with either Schwartz and so, I wandered through life with only fleeting fragments of purpose as my guide. This is Egypt - the narrow place, the place of constriction. The tightness in my chest that I feel when I force my soul to align itself with any other person’s subjective conception of right and wrong. I thank God every day for delivering me from Egypt - they can say what they want, but I’ll still be out there dancing.
So yes - as part of the myriad ways in which I engage with my higher self, I party. I go out and dance at that rave and you’ll just have to take my word for it that I do it with my Kippah on, Tzitzit slipping further out of my belt line with every rhythmic motion, because for me it’s a religious observance – taking care of my body, releasing my animal energy in the least harmful way possible. And since most of you dear readers aren’t going to split the Uber to the next nature party with me, you’ll have to trust that the Jewish guy at the rave is absolutely the life of the party. And I am proud to be there - because I truly believe that I am doing God’s work. I believe that even this, this seemingly paradoxical celebration of physicality and alternative spirituality - can be elevated, utilized in the service of God. In fact, I truly believe it’s been elevated from the beginning. I never fail to find someone at the party who’s genuinely interested in what a Jew is doing at a rave – fellow Jews and non-Jews alike - and I never fail to give them an answer that widens their perspective on what spirituality and religion really mean.
My job as a Jew is not to avoid the things that people say are “bad” - my job is to find the good within them, and expand it. And when I go and dance at a wilderness party, I dance for Hashem and I dance to connect all the dancers’ dances to Hashem. If I were to do it without that intention - that would be for me, even by my malleable standards, “bad.” But since I set my intention and don’t veer from it left or right - I get exactly what I need out of the music, dancing, energy and people. And I make sure its used for a holy purpose.
I’m not saying its possible for everyone to do this, to turn darkness into light. Or rather – to see through the darkness and see the light that was always there. It takes a great level of believing in your ability to do it, in order to do it. And unfortunately – not everyone is always capable of such basic faith. However, I truly believe that by following the path of the Torah and Mitzvot, this level of faith can be instilled in the hearts of even those who doubt with the greatest ardor. The mountains and valleys melt before the call of the Lord – how much more so the heart of man and his feeble, biased conceptions of morality.
I’m also not saying that it’s perfect for everybody’s spiritual path to stomp around in the wilderness to awesome electronic beats. Just like it wasn’t perfect for everybody’s spiritual path to stomp around the wilderness to Grateful Dead music in the last generation, but it sure worked for a lot of people. Just like it wasn’t perfect for Michal’s spiritual path when King David danced his heart out in pursuit of his own. Some people really do belong in synagogue all day, really do believe that the way they do things is the “normal” way, and really are confined to a life of being shocked at the latest “scandal” they observe in the life of someone more empowered to challenge internal and societal boundaries than they might be.
But for every one person like that there are ten others who will only feel their spirit selves activated through the proper combination of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual stimulation – a combination which no longer appears to be served by most traditional religious practice at this juncture of history. So if you’re already drawn to this side of modern spiritual life – if the festivals, crystals and meditation circles have been calling to you – let me tell you, my Jewish friend, you are not alone. And I’ll tell you – you love it so much because you see the holiness in it. And together, we’ll ensure it all gets back to God.
.   Jacob Schwartz regularly writes blog postings for Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
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