Like millions of others, I was shocked and devastated to hear of David Bowie’s tragic and untimely death on Monday. But as is so frequently the case, we only reflect on what someone meant to us, on what they taught and will continue to teach us, after they cross over. So, as I absorbed the news, I spent some time processing what this unique and precious life, what this singular talent, meant and means to me.
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I discovered and fell in love with Bowie as a teenager, at precisely the same time I discovered and fell in love with Judaism, and for complementary reasons. As I entered high school, I switched from a small Jewish day school to a larger Christian prep school. In that new environment, I felt really lonely. I wasn’t athletic enough for the jocks, creative enough for the artists, or smart enough for the honors’ students.
I found the belonging I sought with a small group of punks and goths at my school. This new circle of friends didn’t always bring out the best in my character or encourage the best choices, but they at least (thankfully) influenced my musical tastes, which to that point, like so many tweens, were comprised primarily of whatever happened to be playing at the time on the Top 40 radio stations. I raged along to the anger and cynicism of punk rock, but as I went down the rabbit hole of that genre, I found myself increasingly gravitating to darker forms of expression, like Goth and industrial, and in particular bands like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson.
It was through those bands that I discovered David Bowie. I learned that Bowie had toured with NIN, one of the world’s biggest bands at the time, an expression of reverence for one of their biggest musical and spiritual influences. I learned, too, that in so many ways, Marilyn Manson deliberately sought to emulate Bowie’s propensity to shock, provoke, and reinvent himself.
Falling in love with Bowie changed me. Punk, Goth and industrial music advocated a form of rebellion that ironically reinforced the very sense of alienation against which they were rebelling. Its message: society rejects you, so you should reject society. Bowie, on the other hand, taught that uniqueness can be less about battling against others and more about loving and embracing who you are, about channeling your individuality into something constructive, beautiful, and meaningful. Being different from society’s definition of “normal” doesn’t have to be an expression of the middle finger; it can be an expression of the heart.
For all their celebration of nonconformity, punk, Goth and industrial culture actually promoted a lot of conformity: you couldn’t really be a self-respecting punk, for example, unless you wore plaid pants and combat boots and listened to certain bands. Bowie, however, refused to let himself be defined by one thing, recognizing that uniqueness requires dynamism.
It was around the same time I discovered, through involvement in a Jewish youth group that continues to embody the best of our values, United Synagogue Youth, that the Jewish tradition championed similar sentiments. Most people assume organized religion promotes conformity and stasis, but, in so many ways, Judaism actually advocates insurrection and perpetual self-transformation.
For example, Noah was saved from the flood because he resisted his culture’s profound social pressure and lived a righteous life in a time of lawlessness. The rabbinic tradition holds that God selected Abraham as the first Jew because he was the only person who was skeptical of the idolatry popular in his time, the only person who was willing to defy convention and worship one God. Jacob is lauded because he dwelled in the house of the wicked Laban and still lived a godly life. Our Israelite ancestors are the heroes of a story in which they are an “abomination” to the dominant culture because of their social, ethnic, and religious differences, and are led to freedom by the only Egyptian noble willing to intervene when injustice is perpetrated.
Moments of conformity in the Bible are usually associated with sin, as with the Golden Calf and the Spies, whereas moments of nonconformity are exalted, as with the zealot Pinhas. From the Patriarchs to the Israelites, from Elijah to Ezekiel, from the Maccabees to the rabbis, our tradition celebrates the stories of people who were unapologetic about who they were, defied society’s pressure about who they were supposed to be and, through embracing their own uniqueness, changed the very world into which they previously didn’t fit. These are not stories of the destructive rebellion of the alienated, but rather of the constructive revolution of the unique. David Bowie taught me that it was okay to be strange. Simultaneously, Judaism taught me that being different was sacred.
Similarly, Judaism recognizes that to be true to its own countercultural impulse, it must encourage self-criticism, dissent, and debate, a recognition that, just because something had always been understood or done a certain way, does not necessarily mean it’s right, or right for now, or right for everyone, and that a tradition without the capacity for change risks becoming a fossil, or an idol, or both. David Bowie taught me that staying strange takes constant work. Judaism taught me that the work of staying strange is a mitzvah.
Thank you, David Bowie, for being so gloriously weird, for teaching me the true power of being strange, and for enabling me to rediscover through my religion the holiness of the abnormal and the sanctity of transformation. May your memory always remain a source of blessing.
Rabbi Michael Knopf is rabbi of Temple Beth-el in Richmond, Virginia, and a Rabbis Without Borders fellow. Named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis" by The Jewish Daily Forward, he enjoys movies, traveling, and pizza. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiKnopf.