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A Jewish perspective on the Beatles

[Editor’s note: Feb. 9 marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance before a national U.S. audience when they made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.]

Just as Judaism is an ethical and spiritual lighthouse, so were the Beatles.

The Beatles had a powerful appeal to a generation in calling forth a spiritual bonding. They sought out wonder, meaning, and innocence in their lives and music. Similar to Judaism, the religious allure of the Beatles was a vital factor in allowing the group to endure in our consciousness, even after they broke up.

They were spiritual apostles that evangelized a kind of gospel that resonated with millions of people across a broad spectrum. Their personal search for spirituality was a major part of their attraction.

Joining “the Beatles religion” was nothing more than a matter of belonging to the community of people like you, who enjoyed their music and agreed with the idea, tone, focus, and message. The Fab Four preached a fantastic gospel through music, not lectures or shiurim. Just as many secular Jews benefit from belonging to the Jewish community but may not attend services regularly or keep kosher, a large number of us became part of the Beatles community by listening to their songs and loving what they stood for. They inspired us and left us in awe.

With no formal rituals, the gospel according to the Beatles is a story of spiritual and personal exploration. The central concern of their simple message was their unfolding philosophy, which pivoted on freedom of one type or another, be it political or spiritual. To them, the problem for humanity was one of limitations; we can’t reach our full potential if we are inhibited.

Similarly, Judaism suggests we need to free ourselves from the limitations and entrapment of our physical world at least once a week — Shabbat — to free our soul and our bodies from the trappings of the physical world. This practice allows us to embark on a more spiritual path — exactly what the Beatles projected to the world.

Theological parallels

The Beatles as we have become familiar with them existed from August 1962 (when Ringo joined the group) until August 1969 — seven years.

Seven is a key number in Judaism. God created the world in seven days. It also represents spiritual perfection and fullness or completion. The “Sabbath” meant one day in seven would be reserved for spiritual matters, devoted exclusively to the soul. The Sabbath year — sabbatical or shevi’it — is the last of the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated by the Torah.

The Beatles recorded 12 studio albums. Twelve is also a significant number. There are 12 tribes of Israel and 12 divisions of heaven called the Mazalot, which God uses for signs and seasons.

Another way the Beatles and the Jews are linked: On June 1, 1967, they released their watershed album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Four days later, the Six-Day War broke out. Just as Sgt. Pepper changed music and popular culture, so, too, did the Six-Day War change Israel and Diaspora Jewry, as well as much of global economic and geopolitical affairs.

Tikun olam

The Beatles personified the Hegelian idea that the whole is worth more than the separate parts and that society should become closer together. With Jews, a similar type of unity is expressed as individuals become “unified” and a “perfect whole” when they join the Jewish community in events or spirit. Where would Jewish civilization be without the concept of community?

That is exactly what was at the core of the Beatles’ message. They were a “unified community” of four. They were also the major focus/component of the community of Beatles’ fans/lovers who came together to celebrate their music and message. With the Beatles, all you have to do is listen to one of their songs and acknowledge their message and you are a member of their community.

All that a Jew has to do to “belong” to the community is to sing along in synagogue or break bread with other Jews. The various Jewish customs and liturgy provide the exact same function that songs do for members of the Beatles community: to unify the community. Although the function of community in the world of the Beatles may be more superficial and less demanding than a Jew’s responsibility toward the community, the concept is the same.

Tikun olam means that as a person shares a partnership with God, he or she is instructed to take the steps toward improving the state of the world and helping others, which simultaneously brings more honor to God’s sovereignty.

There is no doubt the Beatles reached the masses with a message of love, peace, personal fulfillment, and happiness. They were taking the first step in implementing tikun olam.

The Beatles’ historical legacy certainly provided the backdrop for a spiritual renewal in the last third of the 20th century. Were they given seven years to help us to spiritually free ourselves?

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