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Heavy Metal and Renewal: Rosh Hashanah in the end times

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Cover of Jamie Saft's Black Shabbis

This is a slightly edited version of an article first published in the Limmud publication Renewal , reproduced here with thanks.

Aesthetically, I never feel less Jewish than at Rosh Hashanah and the high holidays.

Don’t get me wrong, the festival season is an essential part of my year and I’d be at a loss to know what to do without it. The process that begins at the start of Elul and culminates at Neilah on Yom Kippur is always renewing for me, even though I may grumble about some of the upheaval it creates in my schedule.

Yet what I’ve never managed to do is to integrate this cycle of renewal into my aesthetic life. The art that calls to me – the art I listen to, read and watch – is not art that seems to integrate well with the enduring revolutions of the Jewish calendar. Indeed, at a broader level, even though I love the liturgy of the festivals, I respond to them differently to the art I love outside of shul and I have no desire to integrate the two. 

It’s not that the aesthetics that I am attracted to exist in a steady, unchanging state. In fact, much of the art that I love – music in particular – invokes a construction of time that seems more Christian than Jewish. And that’s true most of all with metal, the music that speaks to me most insistently; a genre that is rooted in Christianity so deeply that it remains so even when it sees itself as anti-Christian.

It’s not that Jewish metal doesn’t exist. Indeed, one of my favourite Israeli metal bands, Orphaned Land, go so far as to set piyyutim to music. But Jewish metal is but a drop in the metallic ocean. And this ocean drains towards a Christianised apocalypse. 

Jews, of course, have our own end times, and Jews are even part of the Christian end times. Yet the Christian apocalypse grounds a fundamentally different attitude to time than in Judaism. As we Jews await moshiach (or, for progressive Jews like me, an ill-defined messianic age), we remain locked into an annual cycle of redemption and renewal. The Christian calendar, while it sometimes nods towards this cycle (in Lent/Easter in particular), works somewhat differently and, pre-second coming, the process of repentance and renewal is much more personal, standing within yet also outside the festive cycle. After all, with Christ having appeared once, Christians are engaged in a kind of breath-holding, a time that exists to be transcended on his return.

But while I cannot relate spiritually to Christian time, I can relate aesthetically to it. So much of metal concerns damnation, the wretchedness of humanity and the apocalyptic conflagration that will consume us all. That’s as true of metal Satanists who exult in humanity’s fallenness as it is the more usual atheistic tendency in metal, who are so imbued with the history of Christianised art that they rarely know how much they owe to it. 
I thrill to the power of this semi-coherent apocalypticism. It packs a visceral punch topped off with an almost camp sensibility.

Take Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’, in which the masters of war face their final judgement:

Day of judgement, God is calling    

On their knees the war pigs crawling    

Begging mercy for their sins    

Satan, laughing spreads his wings

Or the darkly over-the-top doggerel/poetry of Cradle of Filth’s ‘From the Cradle to Enslave’:

This is the end of everything you have ever known    

Buried like vanquished reason    

Death in season    

Driven like the drifting snow

This metallic attraction to the end times also manifests itself in metal lyrics about environmental destruction or about nuclear war, such as Metallica’s ‘Blackened’:

Fire    

Is the outcome of hypocrisy    

Darkest potency    

In the exit of humanity    

Colour our world blackened

This ‘end of the world music’ offers none of the comforts of Jewish messianism, let alone the annual promise of entrance into the gates of repentance. So why is it that I can be so attracted to art whose cultural and theological underpinnings are so different to my own?

Part of the answer is that it’s difficult to choose the aesthetics that we respond to. The heart wants what it wants. Love is a desire that is never fully under our control. We can be theologically Jewish and aesthetically something else. 

Yet at the same time, hidden amidst the distorted power chords of metal, lies a form of renewal that is complementary to that offered by the Jewish calendar. 

Anyone who takes Elul/Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur seriously knows that renewal is an arduous process. It doesn’t come easy. It requires a shock to the system, embodied most powerfully in the call of the shofar blast. We do not enter the gates of repentance on Neilah simply through following formulaic rituals, but by allowing ourselves to be carried along by them. Renewal involves surrendering, to a degree at least, to a force that is bigger than ourselves, to be carried along with it. We pray collectively for a reason: in Judaism it is the collective that both inspires and ‘holds’ the individual Jew in the journey towards renewal. 

In loving metal, I open myself up to shock, to being carried along on a wave of intimidating sounds. I am part of a collective, of metal scene members all over the world, that creates a culture bigger than any one of us. I do not and cannot own metal – none of us can. Metal replays the end of the world again and again. It pushes me off a cliff into nothingness, yet still I always survive. I am reborn as the song ends, as the noise abates, as the act finishes. I am renewed.

I am not arguing that metal is fundamentally Jewish. I am not making a facile argument that metal is midrash. What I am saying is that this form of apocalyptic art allows me to build up the muscles needed for the far more arduous journey that I embark on every year at Rosh Hashanah. The irony that this art form is imbued with a Christian sensibility does not negate its spiritual usefulness – to this Jew at least. 

So maybe it doesn’t matter that the art I love does not speak directly of my specifically Jewish journey towards renewal. Art does not have to speak directly of Judaism to be part of a Jewish life. We will not find the new beginnings we seek every year – and particularly this year – purely in the shul or the machzor. We can find them anywhere, should we choose to do so, even in the darkest and most Jewishly ‘alien’ forms of culture that humanity affords.

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Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a senior lecturer at Leo Baeck College, runs the European Jewish Research Archive at the IJPR and is an Honorary Fellow of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck College. His most recent book is Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity (Repeater 2019).
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