A few months ago as we drove to an appointment, one of my daughters and I bonded around the British rock band, Led Zeppelin's 1971 classic, "Stairway To Heaven." With some uninterrupted time and the windows rolled up tightly in the car, we let loose. Every word, melody change, and voice inflection of lead singer Robert Plant's that we could remember, we imitated. We even tried to imitate those famous instrumentals that build the song up in a crescendo from a quiet renaissance style recorder solo to a battle of angsting, angry guitars and screaming lyrics. Finally, we put our voices together to echo Plant's heartrending acapella solo: "And she's buying a stairway...to heaven."
That day, I earned major parent points from my pop culture savvy child for knowing every word of "Stairway To Heaven." For a middle aged father who by a teen's definition is from outer space, little compares with being able to decipher those garbled "outer space" rock lyrics for her such as, "If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now// It's just a Spring clean for the May Queen."
Because this newest generation of rock fans has adopted it as its own, "Stairway To Heaven" still lends itself to all types of interpretations of its questionable poetry. I recognized my young audience's car captivity and her being briefly impressed with my knowledge of these lyrics. That is when I seized the moment and engaged her in a game we have played since she was little, by suggesting all of the so-called "spiritual" references - Jewish or otherwise - in the song. My daughter was sufficiently receptive to this game, as well as able and willing to comment on my ideas, at least for the duration of the car ride. Several weeks later, as she prepared to leave for her beloved Jewish summer camp, she started singing "Stairway To Heaven" again. When I asked her to sing something in Hebrew, without missing a beat, she belted out a camp favorite which is part of the traditional Jewish nighttime prayer:
In the name of the Lord, God of Israel:
On my right, the angel, Michael.
And on my left, the angel, Gabriel.
And before me, the angel, Uriel.
And behind me, the angel, Raphael.
And above my head, God's loving presence.
Heaven's metaphors reside in these two songs from two radically different parts of human experience. Both types of experience reside in my daughter's soul: in her consciousness of herself and society, in her speech and music, in her developing capacity to live with integrity in her religious and secular worlds, in her ability to read and critique general culture through religious eyes, and maybe even to better understand her religious tradition using the culture's ideas and images.
My daughter is lucky, for our family raised her and her siblings to value the religious and secular approaches to life and to try, where possible, to synthesize the best of what each has to offer us. This allows religion to open up and breathe, while also taming the more excessive, individualistic aspects of secularism. The rejection of religion out of ignorance and the rejection of secularism out of intolerance threaten this synthesis. Our challenge as a society is to help our children to climb both stairways to heaven, the religious and the secular. By climbing both, perhaps they will discover a way to build heaven on earth.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY.
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