Phish as Talmud

Phish as Talmud
By Saul Korin

I’ve been thinking about the band Phish. I quoted a Phish song in the MJCC’s fundraising appeal around Hanukkah, and attended two concerts in Eugene back in October. Many questions have been asked about why Phish is so popular with Jews of all ages, and what Phish means to those of us for whom their music and Judaism is important. The tribal aspect of following the band, and wandering the country, was discussed at an academic conference at Oregon State University hosted by the Philosophy School of Phish @phishedu in 2019. I think Phish and the tribal experience taps into our ancient wanderings and communing and that is one piece of the puzzle. But I think the creation of community is part of it too.

To frame this conversation, I am going to use one set of lyrics that are in two songs Phish plays. 

In 1998, Phish released their Story of the Ghost Album, which included the song Shafty. The song can be heard here. The lyrics are pretty dark and honest, and the song is quite dark.  

“The terrible thing about hell
Is that when you're there you can't even tell
As you move through this life you love so
You could be there and not even know
But you say so what I'm doing just fine
The irony is that it's all in your mind
And that's why hell is so vicious and cruel
But you'll just go on an oblivious fool”

Other than the fact that Portland’s local Phish cover band is called Shafty (named after the song), I didn’t think much about the song until Phish played an August show in 2019 in Wisconsin with a song on the setlist called Olivia’s Pool. Turns out Olivia’s Pool has the same lyrics as Shafty, but has a rocking fun melody and a pun in the song’s title…  2.2 | 1997.11.17 - Olivia's Pool. This was in the midst of a set that included Phish’s version of Aveenu Malkenu.

So, same lyrics, two different songs. Two very different interpretations. And this reminds me of the concept of Pardes.

“Pardes" refers to (types of) approaches to biblical exegesis (Exegesis is a critical explanation or interpretation of a text. Traditionally, the term was used primarily for work with religious texts, especially the Bible…) in rabbinic Judaism or to interpretation of text in Torah study. The term, sometimes also rendered PaRDeS, is an acronym formed from the initials of the following four approaches:

Peshat (פְּשָׁט‎) – "surface" ("straight") or the literal (direct) meaning.

Remez (רֶמֶז‎) – "hints" or the deep (allegoric: hidden or symbolic) meaning beyond just the literal sense.

Derash (דְּרַשׁ‎) – from Hebrew darash: "inquire" ("seek") – the comparative (midrashic) meaning, as given through similar occurrences.

Sod (סוֹד‎) (pronounced with a long O as in 'lore') – "secret" ("mystery") or the esoteric/mystical meaning, as given through inspiration or revelation.”From Wikipedia...

Now, I am sure that some would say discussing the band Phish in terms of biblical exegesis is blasphemy. Others would probably say maybe use a different source than Wikipedia for definitions of biblical exegesis. But in some ways, a band like Phish (or the Stones, or Bob Dylan, or the Beatles, or the Grateful Dead) in the modern age is studied at similar levels of intensity (again, blasphemy not intended).  

Here are the levels of connection in terms of Phish…

Peshat - (surface) Studio releases. The records, cds and live official releases. 

Remez - (hints) - Phish Concerts, and in the COVID-19 era, couch tour, and interpretations and statistics and the setlists of individual shows.  

Derash - (seek) - Phish in community, with others in person or online. Shoutout to wook+, #secretjunta, and so many others on the internets. The mythology, the commentary (both positive and negative), the statistics and the history. The jokes, the live gags, New Year’s and Halloween show. Deeper dives into the community and meaning of Phish.

Sod (secret) - so what is the “secret” of Phish?

Why did I and many others cry when, after 13 straight shows at Madison Square Garden, a banner was raised to the rafters to honor the achievement (I attended the last three)? Why did Phish cry while singing “On The Road Again” immediately following? Why did they play New Year’s Eve in 2021 online and free after postponing their concert due to COVID-19 concerns? Why, at the beginning of COVID-19, did they start weekly webcasts supporting nonprofits they support?

Because Phish is more than the band. It is the community that has formed around the band. Since the beginning of the pandemic the Phish community has raised nearly $1 million dollars for nonprofits during the webcasts. Lead singer Trey Anastasio, who had a well publicized DUI arrest, has raised and donated to create a rehab facility in Northern New York and Vermont.

It is the people that make a Phish show an experience different from any other. And that is true about Judaism, as well. The more you engage, the more you connect, the more you study the texts and community, the more you will get out of it.