Defiance and Awe

David Draiman, the lead singer of the metal band Disturbed--yes, they did that Grammy-nominated cover of “Sounds of Silence”--had once planned to be a cantor or even a rabbi. But he was also rebellious, kicked out of three Chicago yeshivas, and, as a teenager, blew up a rabbi’s van. I’ve been thinking about him a lot during these “Days of Awe.” I imagine that the yeshivas that didn’t kick him out (and maybe those that did) now proudly claim him as their own.

Draiman reminds me of a short story I read in my “rebellious” teenage years. Before I was headed off to college, I was moody, and loved to read books about courageous rebellion. Sure, there was “Catcher in the Rye” and “On the Road,” but there was also “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and “My Name is Asher Lev.” But “Asher Lev” was about a Chasidic Jew, and therefore was really foreign to me. The book that opened my eyes to American Jewish rebellion was Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus,” which contained the powerful short story “The Conversion of the Jews.”

Philip Roth has been the literary version of Draiman since long before Draiman was born. This story was an auspicious start. The protagonist, a 12 year old boy named Ozzie Freedman (subtle) faces off against the small-minded Rabbi Binder (oh so subtle). Ozzie wants to know about sexual intercourse and about Christianity. He wants to know why God couldn’t have brought a divine virgin birth upon Mary and why Binder is so quick to dismiss the possibility of Jesus Christ as a deity. **SPOILER ALERT** Stop reading if you don’t want to know what happens next. Because it’s a doozy. Rabbi Binder slaps Ozzie across the face. And Ozzie runs to the roof, and makes his whole class and the humiliated rabbi kneel and admit they believe in the divinity of Jesus. Pretty heretical stuff.

There is a psychiatric/behavioral disorder called Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). Even though nobody knows exactly what causes it, it has been listed in the DSM manual for Mental Health since 1980, and it is defined as "a pattern of angry/irritable mood, argumentative/defiant behavior, or vindictiveness lasting at least six months." ODD can often dissipate by adolescence, but if it doesn’t, it can develop into the more serious “Conduct Disorder,” which correlates with criminality. Many clinical psychologists don’t even like to give a diagnosis of ODD out of concern for labeling a child. In fact, I would bet that if Draiman or the fictional Ozzie (or maybe Philip Roth himself) acted out this way today, they could very well be diagnosed with ODD. Back then, a kid like that was just labeled a “troublemaker” or “bad seed,” and were often just dismissed as hopeless. The idea that their rebelliousness and the questioning of authority could presage not destruction but enormous creativity and even enlightenment was probably too impossible to imagine.

I was not this type of child. I could be a whiner, sure, but not one to rock the boat. I have a copy of my third grade class photo from 1982, and there is a sign next to the board that lists the following necessary traits in the classroom: “Quiet, Courtesy, Respect, Cooperation, Attention, Obedience.” When I think of obedience now, I think of dogs. But I was an obedient little boy. I can’t imagine “Obedience” as a positive trait on a classroom sign these days. And yet, story after story report that today’s teenagers are not independent, are not rebellious. They don’t drink, they don’t smoke, they don’t have sex, they don’t drive.

I didn’t get rebellious until I was well into high school, and even then, I didn’t do much to rebel. Still, when my parents dropped me off at college, and my mom cried, my sister Kim said to my mom, “Why are you crying? He’s made us all crazy the past few years!”

At our congregation on Rosh HaShanah, the rabbi gave a sermon about the great Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whose thoughts were considered heretical to his 17th century community. He was excommunicated. But, the rabbi pointed out, he demonstrated how a Jewish life and Jewish thought can co-exist with scientific inquiry. Spinoza, who, by all accounts, led an exemplary life, was branded a “troublemaker” simply for questioning.

But that was hundreds of years ago. Surely, in this day and age, genius can only percolate if we forgive some oppositional, defiant, disobedient behavior, no?