From Ronald Reagan to Chris Christie, conservatives have consistently misunderstood Bruce Springsteen.
In 1984, Reagan played "Born in the USA" at campaign rallies and famously declared that "America's future rests in the message of hope in the songs of New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen." But that song, which Reagan wrongly interpreted as a fist-pumping, nativist anthem is, in fact, a harsh critique of Reaganite America - and the Boss demanded that the campaign stop using abusing it.
Springsteen's newest record is "High Hopes." As with "Born in the USA," a misguided, un-ironic reading of the title might suggest a sort of simplistic, pie-in-the-sky faith. But Springsteen's vision is much more nuanced than this. If his worldview is, ultimately, optimistic and inspiring, it is because his high hopes are seriously tested and hard-earned. Springsteen's patriotic faith is richer because it is critical and does not ignore hardship. He vividly depicts the struggle to make it through the day in tough times. Or, as he told Terry Gross in 2005, you don't get to enjoy the spiritual uplift of his songs' typical buoyant choruses until after you have first born witness to the gritty challenges depicted in the verses.
So, too, with the complex vision of faith espoused by the Torah. The power of the Hebrew Bible's ultimate optimism lies in its full embrace of reality, with all of its shortcomings, rather than fantasy. Its God refuses to give up on humankind despite our near-constant failings.
Most of the Torah is set, fittingly, in the spiritual badlands. The Israelites spend 40 years pushing through that wilderness, wandering and often woebegone, beset by obstacles. Eventually we make it through but Torah ends with the death of Moses before we cross the Jordan into Canaan. Like Springsteen, Torah believes in the Promised Land more as a goal, just beyond the horizon, than as a place where we can rest on our laurels.
If we are wise, we should be wary of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace," which is the equivalent of rushing to the catchy chorus without first listening to the harder truths contained in the verses. As Talmud teaches, in faith as in all things, according to the labor, so is the reward. And our labor which is both deeply sacred and desperately urgent is to strive, always, for greater justice in the world and more integrity within ourselves.
Dan Fink is the rabbi for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation.
The Idaho Statesman's weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.