The Jewish Stairway to Heaven

One of the most powerful memories of my teenage years was the response of my contemporaries to the rock music of the time. Perhaps no song captured the young folk in the early 70’s like Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”.  Its cryptic lyrics (“There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold and she’s buying a stairway to heaven…”) have long been the subject of analysis of music buffs the world over.  No question that the music was powerful, but there are those who maintain that the song has tremendous symbolic meaning as well.

Cecil Adams, author of an eclectic blog, is not one of those people, though. Adams presents three possible approaches to the lyrics of “Stairway to Heaven”:

(1) It doesn’t mean anything. The song was written in 1971, which culturally was pretty much still the ’60s, and you know what that means. According to band lore, Robert Plant composed most of the lyrics in a single day during sessions at Headley Grange, a former poorhouse in Hampshire, England, then being used by rock groups as a rehearsal space and studio...In sum, we’ve got the well-known psychosociochemical influences of the era, we’ve got an extremely compressed compositional time frame, and we’ve got a poetical sensibility that, to be objective about it….probably rates between 2 and 3 millishakespeares. So I think it’s safe to say that what we’re hearing aren’t so much lyrics as the unmediated pulsations of the reptile brain.

(2) It means something really deep. Browsing on the web, I find the following commentary, allegedly extracted from a 1991 Esquire article and attributed to Robert Walser, professor of musicology at UCLA :….. ‘We find a set of concepts (that pretty much sum up the central concerns of all philosophy): signs, words, meanings, thoughts, feelings, spirit, reason, wonder, soul, the idea that ‘all are one and one is all.’ We find a set of vaguely but powerfully evocative symbols: gold, the West, the tune, white light, shadows, paths, a road, and the stairway to heaven itself. At the very end, we find some paradoxical self-referentiality: ‘To be a rock and not to roll.’ The words . . . are resonant, requiring no rigorous study in order to become meaningful….”

You get the idea!


(3) It means whatever you want it to mean.… 

  • The lyrics recall the bumbling efforts of one Erma Rees-Gwynn, a divorcee and aspiring contractor, to build a three-story deck–with a stairway leading up from the garden–at the rear of a castle that guitarist Jimmy Page owned in Wales. Presumably meant satirically, but one never knows….
  • It’s about drugs. Just like every other rock song.
  • Plant had this bimbo girlfriend, see, and she took his Visa card and went to the mall, and got the idea of buying the escalators.

The 60’s and 70’s was indeed time of spiritual soul-searching.  People were striving to connect to something beyond themselves, but unfortunately did not always take a healthy or productive path in pursuing that spiritual goal.

Three aspects of the atmosphere of that era stand out:

1) People often made radical life changes within a short period of time: Many were drawn into the powerful drug culture; others joined cults.  Still others – communes, where the value of personal property was shunned.  Radical lifestyle changes as they leaped towards destiny!

2) It was a time marked by drug overdoses and suicides of rock musicians and Hollywood celebrities.  Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin – and in the early 1980’s – the great John Belushi….The rush towards stardom, the climb upwards — often led to a very hard fall.

3) It was a time when the young generation sought to disconnect from the past: old ways were outdated, antiquated.  This of course had a profound impact on who the youngsters sought as role models.

In this past week’s Torah portion, we find our own Jewish version of “Stairway to Heaven”.  Only it’s a “Ladder to Heaven” – Jacob’s Ladder.

The Torah is not a mere historical document, as you know – it gives us ethical guidance.  A “mussar” approach to the text by Rabbi Avraham Zalmans – cited on (which I will be quoting here) – offers an interpretation of Jacob’s Ladder that exemplifies the Jewish approach to spirituality:

  • First of all, just as a ladder has many rungs which a person must use to support himself, a person attempting to improve his or her character cannot simply leap blindly. Everything comes in steps, in stages.  In other words, radical life changes are to be discouraged and gradual pursuit of even lofty “spiritual” goals is to be encouraged.  Even when it comes to avoid forbidden gossip, the Chafetz Chaim organization has emphasized the importance of starting with one hour a day of gossip-free talk!  This approach stands in sharp contrast to the overnight changes that characterized the 60’s and 70’s
  • If a person encounters difficulties, if he or she slips back or falls past a broken rung — all is not lost. One must catch hold of the next rung, and start moving again. This is normal. It is even the path of those who are like Angels of G-d — truly righteous people. They are not perfect, standing at the top of the ladder. Rather, they go upwards, and then they even go down a bit… and then they resume.  A foil to the “great falls” that many of the “Me generation” experienced!
  •  A ladder cannot stand unless it is leaning against a high place. A person needs models, paragons of ethical conduct, and preferably people up at the next stage of the ladder who are able to guide one upwards.  Jewish history is replete with Torah scholars and great Tzaddikim, both men and women, standing at the top of “Jacob’s Ladder” who we can look to as personal role models.  Far from the “disconnect with the past” approach outlined above.

If we follow the clear path of Jacob’s Ladder….and veer away from Led Zeppelin’s obscure and treacherous Stairway to Heaven, we have a better chance of climbing our way towards authentic Jewish spirituality.

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