Steely Dan and Rosh Hashanah

Steely Dan and Rosh Hashanah

Print Friendly and PDF

Ari Lamm

Walter Becker died over the weekend.[1] As one half of the band Steely Dan, Becker was not exactly a household name in my own Jewish community. It’s not that Modern Orthodox Jews don’t like rock musicthey most certainly doit’s just that there’s a more or less defined canon of artists around which most of this fandom revolves, including the Beatles (and the other British invasion bands), Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Neil Young, and Simon and Garfunkel.[2] If Leonard Cohen counts as part of this genre, I’d stick him in there as well. I doubt, however, that Becker’s death will inspire the same sort of religious introspection as did Cohen’s last December.

And that’s a shame because I love Steely Dan.

I don’t just love Steely Dan as a diversion. I love Steely Dan because their music is wonderful, thoughtful and haunting, and I think it’s good for my neshamah.[3] Their music is especially meaningful to me at this time of year, as our thoughts naturally turn to the opening chapters of 1 Samuel. That, of course, is a sentence in need of some unpacking if ever there was one, and so I’ll begin with a bit of background.

Steely Dan’s two core members, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, are two of the most maniacal perfectionists in the recent history of music. Their songs sparkle with a slick, cerebral exactness. Over time, they came to rely more and more on session-musicians. In fact, for a while, in the mid-to-late seventies, they retired from touring altogether to become a studio-only band. Every note had to be perfect, to the point where, reportedly, they would ask musicians to record up to forty takes of each track. In fact, most people who dislike Steely Dan cite this proclivity for perfection as their reason. Trying to enjoy a Steely Dan song, I’ve been told, is like admiring a calculator for adding together two large numbers. It’s not that the summing is unimpressive, it’s just that it’s not art.

Now, to be honest, I’ve always admired their sonic exactitude for its own sake. But there is so much more to Steely Dan than just that. Artistically the meticulous presentation is only surface deep. It covers up a world that is gritty and grimy, populated by severely unreliable narrators, and desperate, often miserable, sometimes sleazy characters. A Steely Dan song’s immaculate exterior more often than not masks something either sinister, depressing, or both.

Take “Peg,” for example, off of 1977’s multi-platinum Aja. “Peg” is one of the most successful singles Steely Dan ever released. It opens with a warm progression of jazz chords, before settling into an upbeat refrain accompanied by a cheerful horn lick.[4] The first time I heard the song I was in high school, and it sounded to me like a chipper song about a loving relationship between the narrator and the titular Peg. In any case, the iconic chorus and gripping guitar solo[5] were so good that I didn’t give it too much thought.[6]

Further listening, however, was repaid in full. Lyrically, the song is a conversation between the narrator and a woman, Peg. The narrator encourages Peg to get excited for her debut in the entertainment industry, her name lighting up a grand marquee. “So won’t you smile for the camera / I know they’re gonna love it.” You could listen to the song a hundred times and mistake Peg for a young, up-and-coming Hollywood actress. But coded warnings to the contrary lie scattered across the song. Peg’s audition photo is “done up in blueprint blue,” and the narrator tells the listener in a winking aside that the film is “your favorite foreign movie.” As law professor Scott Beattie reminds us in his recent book, “blue film” and “French film” were once both popular euphemisms for pornography. All of a sudden, the cajoling tone throughout the song takes on a more malevolent, coercive cast. In fact, if you listen very closely near the end of the song as the chorus rings out a third time, you’ll hear a background audio recording of a voice protesting “I don’t want to do this.” In the end, “Peg” is a delightful, shiny, perfectly played song that cheerfully conceals a terrible act of exploitation in plain sight.

Every year before Rosh Hashanah I find myself returning to the first several chapters of 1 Samuel. The entire Rosh Hashanah liturgy is extremely fertile ground for close study, but I’ve always been especially taken with the haftarah for the first day, taken from 1 Samuel’s first two chapters. This haftarah recounts Hannah’s prayer for a child, her confrontation with the High Priest Eli, the birth of Samuel, Hannah’s surrendering Samuel to service in the Tabernacle at Shiloh, and Hannah’s song of praise to God. It’s an incredibly powerful, emotionally jarring chapter and a half.

This year I read through it with “Peg” in the background.

Here’s the first thing that occurred to me: I’ve always read the beginning of 1 Samuelalways heard it discussedas if it were the introduction to Samuel’s life story. It is, to an extent. But read through that lens, it’s easy to miss some of the counter-messages in those chapters. That is, if 1 Samuel 1-2 (and 3-4 for that matter) narrates a heroic beginning, the whole world in which that beginning unfolds seems lighter, and pregnant with potential. It’s a world in which the priests of Israel played the ritual roles they were meant to play (1.1); in which all of Israel gathered together at the Temple during festivals (1.1, 21); in which the highest religious official in the land, Eli himself, waited around to interact personally with pilgrims to the Temple (1.9); in which the people of Israel merited a prophet in their midst (3.19); in which the Ark of the Covenant still resided with people of the covenant (4.5). Of course things weren’t perfect, but readers[7] often treat the imperfections as so much brush that merely needed to be burnt away so that Samuel could rise like a phoenix from the ashes.

But remember “Peg.” Here too the bright, shiny exterior conceals a rotting core. The society of the early chapters in 1 Samuel was fundamentally sick. The priests of Israel were utterly corrupt (2.12); whenever the Israelites would gather at the Temple, they would be shaken down (2.16). Indeed, consider in this light Eli’s encounter with Hannah.

12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” 15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” 17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him” (1.12-17).

I’ve always read Eli’s mistake in line with Rashi’s commentary (to 2.13), namely, that it was a chance misunderstanding. After all, most petitioners prayed out loud, while Hannah prayed in silence. Eli mistook her heartfelt intent for intemperance. Indeed, Abarbanel (in his comment on 2.12) suggested that Eli, in fact, recognized Hannah from previous pilgrimages and was concerned for her wellbeing.

But even with Rashi and Abarbanel in hand, before “Peg” I had never paused to contemplate how strange this story remained. That is, even assuming Hannah’s behavior was out of the ordinary, why on earth would Eli assume the cause was inebriation? Of all the places to find drunkenness, wouldn’t the last place in the world be in the Temple?

But that’s precisely the point. Israelite society at the time was “Peg.” It was rotting on the inside. At a time when even the priests were thugs, it was only a matter of course for Eli to assume that he might find a drunk in the middle of the Temple.

Indeed, read this way 1 Samuel 1-4 picks up right where the narrative of Judges ended. Judges (chapters 17-21) concludes with an account of the idolatry perpetrated by the tribe of Dan, and the harrowing story of the concubine of Gibeah, and the resulting Israelite civil war. In line with the rabbinic principle (e.g. Sifre Bamidbar 64) that readers should not presume Biblical narrative to proceed in chronological sequence, the legendary twentieth century Biblical scholar Shemaryahu Talmon[8] demonstrated conclusively that as a matter of chronology, these stories actually belong at the beginning of Judges. Why, then, were they designated as the work’s coda? It appears to me that the reason is to close the book by emphasizing the degradation of Israelite society. The reader who turns immediately to 1 Samuel should thus notice that nothing has changed since the end of Judges.

Moreover, the narrative in 1 Samuel takes pains to emphasize how oblivious the Israelites were to their spiritual condition. Here, too, Steely Dan is important.

After an extended hiatus, Fagen and Becker would reunite for the album Two Against Nature (2000). That album includes one of my favorite Steely Dan songs, “Cousin Dupree.” Set to a sneering guitar riff, a hyperactive beat, and Donald Fagen’s trademark whine, “Cousin Dupree” recounts the travails of a typically Steely Dan-esque character: Dupree, a lecherous creep constantly ogling his cousin. Eventually Dupree makes a pass at her, and she rebuffs him in the strongest possible terms, citing “the skeevy look in your eyes” and “the dreary architecture of your soul.” Dupree’s response? “But what is it exactly turns you off?”

That line floors me every time I listen to the song. The towering obliviousness! The obnoxious self-absorption! She brutally lets him have it, but he simply refuses to acknowledge that anything is wrong.

Think now about the end of 1 Samuel 4. While Samuel was coming into his own as a prophet, his people were in the midst of an extended war with the Philistines. In the wake of an unexpected defeat at the battle of Ebenezer, the Israelites arm themselves with the Ark of the Covenant, expecting God’s presence to overwhelm their enemies. The result, of course, is that the Philistines rout the Israelites and capture the Ark, in the process killing Eli’s two corrupt sons, Hophni and Phinehas. The latter’s wife hears the news of her husband’s death just before going into labor:

19 Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, about to give birth. When she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth; for her labor pains overwhelmed her. 20 As she was about to die, the women attending her said to her, “Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer or give heed. 21 She named the child Ichabod, meaning, “The glory has departed from Israel,” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. 22 She said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”

This is a tragic story, full of pain and pathos. In an emotional sense it’s impossible to push past the fact that it’s a tale about a freshly widowed bride who dies in childbirth. But literarily I can’t help but hear “Cousin Dupree” whining in the back of my head. Consider the narrative circumstances. The reader has just been battered with tales of corruption and bullying; with a High Priest whose default assumption about a (non-standard, to be sure) petitioner in God’s Tabernacle is that she’s a drunk. And amid all this social decay, it took a large-scale military defeat to compel the recognition that “the glory has departed from Israel” (4.21)?[9] This beggars the mind! Israelite society was rotting from the inside; the capture of the Ark was a symptom of the problem, not the cause. And yet there seems to be no acknowledgement whatsoever of the larger structural problems with Israelite society. No wonder that in just a few short chapters (1 Samuel 8), the people would ask for a king “like all the other nations” (8.5). After all, for many it must have seemed that there was little that was morally distinctive about Israelite society. So why not just be done with it and have a king like everyone else? Once again, the Israelites exhibit no willingness to do the difficult work of understanding the systemic problems plaguing their community.

“But what is it exactly turns you off” indeed.

Now here we are, on the cusp of Rosh Hashanah, about to read some of these stories afresh. As Tanakh’s eternal values echo down through the generations, it is imperative that we constantly re-apply ourselves to the task of extracting meaning from its sacred words. This year, in the wake of Walter Becker’s passing, it seems to me an opportune time to consider the gloomy reading of the chapters comprising, and surrounding the haftarah for the first day. The story of these chapters, on this reading, is of a nation of Israel that failed to grapple with its structural moral and spiritual challenges. We too, of course, live in an era in which the fissures cracking the surface of contemporary society appear to be systemic. Whether the culprit be racism, anti-Semitism, ignorance of an opioid crisis, all of the above, or something else entirely, it is our responsibility to consider deeply the root causes of our divisions. Indeed, rather than lamenting the consequences of this or that proxy issue for our problems, let us take the opportunity during this new year to examine the problems themselves. In what ways have we fundamentally failed? Have we created a “Peg”-like society? Have we donned the oblivious mantle of Dupree? How might we do better?

Fortunately, when the Jewish peoplewhen am yisraelare living up to the Torah’s Godly ideals, we are enormously capable of serving as a powerful force for good in our world. May the coming year therefore be one of frank honesty, and moral majesty.


[1] I’d phrase that less laconically, but it would feel like an inauthentic tribute to his oeuvre.

[2] I’m not exactly sure why this is the canon, but it is. If you’re interested in writing about this, it just so happens that I know people at Lehrhaus.

[3] I obviously can’t make any promises on that last score. But note that I am trying to impose a humra here. If you think listening to musicor partaking of other forms of amusementis just a diversion then it is almost certainly true that you should be imbibing a lot less of it than you currently are. Incidentally, I wholeheartedly concur with the following sentiment from Rabbi Shalom Carmy, offered in the context of sports: “Whatever the positive goals to which involvement in sports culture can be applied—physical, social, or recreational, it is hard to make the argument that the sports culture ought to be an important part of our education and an essential leisure activity. It seems clear that investing huge quantities of time and attention to following sports, purchasing expensive paraphernalia and articles of clothing and footwear because they are marketed using the name and image of a famed and charismatic athlete, agonizing over the fortunes of favorite teams and players as if these were earthshaking events in our own lives, is foolish and invites satire.”

Two points: 1) This quote is from an average Rabbi Carmy article, which is to say that the article is extraordinarily insightful. Do read the whole thing. 2) I realize that my argument here is not the same as Rabbi Carmy’s in that article.

[4] I want to say the horn used is a lyricon, but that’s mostly through process of elimination based on the song’s Wikipedia page.

[5] By the way, for a great window into the otherworldly nuttiness of working with Steely Dan, read this account of what it took to record that guitar solo.

[6] In my defense, De La Soul’s sampling of this song on the sweet, breezy track “Eye Know”set against a sample from Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) A Dock of the Bay” no less(!)has probably similarly misled many a hip hop enthusiast.

[7] … at least this reader.

[8] Talmon, who passed away just recently in 2010, was a fascinating figure. He was detained for three months in Buchenwald before escaping to Palestine. He would go on to win the Israel prize for his work on Tanakh.

[9] Although it doesn’t necessarily impact my broader point, I should note that Shawn Zelig Aster has highlighted the fact that glory (kavod) in this sense is a technical term.

“Looking for a Havvayah”  A Genealogy of “Experience” on the High Holy Days

“Looking for a Havvayah” A Genealogy of “Experience” on the High Holy Days

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein on What Makes America Great

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein on What Makes America Great