September 23, 2019

In poetry, not prose

The Torah concludes in poetry, not prose. 

The last section of the Torah to be read aloud on Shabbat (the final two chapters of the Torah are only read during Simchat Torah) is Ha’azinu, a poetic retelling of the history of the Israelite nation, which Moses recites just before his death. With its stirring nature imagery and savage martial allusions, the poem paints a vivid picture of God’s complex relationship with the People of Israel in all its myriad dimensions. 

Ha’azinu is introduced in one of the final lines of the preceding parsha, which reads: “Write for yourselves this poem and teach it to the Children of Israel, in order that this poem might be my witness among them” (Deuteronomy 31:19). While in its original context this verse clearly refers to the epic recitation that it introduces, the Sages of the Talmud understand the words “write for yourselves this poem” to refer to the entire Torah, and even use it as the basis for the commandment that all Jews should, at some point in their lives, participate in writing their own Torah scroll (Sanhedrin 21b, Nedarim 38a). 

In their understanding, the entire Torah — from the opening lyric narrative of Creation, with its seven-fold refrain “And God saw it was good. And there was evening, and there was dawning, a new day…,” to its concluding couplets of Ha’azinu — forms one extended poem. As the great Lithuanian scholar known as the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzi Yehuda Berlin, 1816-1893) wrote in his monumental “Haemek Davar”: “All of Torah is a song.”

This is a striking and unusual way to talk about our scriptures. If we are generally of a religious mindset, we tend to think of the Torah as a book of law, a guide for how we are to live our lives in a way that pleases God. If we study Torah from an academic point of view, we might use it as an ancient primary source, to try to learn the history of our earliest ancestors. Yet, this unique interpretation invites us to step outside the confines of either law or history and to consider what it means to see the Torah as something written in poetry, not prose.

If Torah is, in fact, a book of poetry rather than prose, then the tired arguments between science and religion melt away. 

Perhaps the Torah no more seeks to make factual claims about the geological origins of the earth or the biological evolution of species than Carl Sandburg sought to provide an accurate meteorological pronouncement when he wrote that “fog arrives on little cat feet.” Perhaps the historical veracity of the Exodus is of no more importance in undergirding its condemnation of tyranny than is the question of whether ill-fated lovers ever really stood in the gardens of Verona to our understanding of love. 

Most prose is judged on its capacity to inform with objective facts, while poetry’s value comes in its ability to inspire with subjective experiences. As, without a doubt, the text that has inspired more people, for more time, than any other piece of writing, the Torah is certainly among the strongest poetry ever composed.

Some will certainly feel more comfortable seeing the Torah as prose — treating it as poetry, they might worry, diminishes the authority of the sacred text. Yet, in my work as a teacher of newcomers of all backgrounds to Judaism, we always begin our Introduction to Judaism classes with a discussion of Torah. I tell my students to consider the words of the Netziv, to see Torah as a song to be interpreted, rather than a book of facts to be affirmed or denied. 

In those moments, l watch as texts that were previously dismissed out of hand as old tales come to life again, as new eyes approach ancient words and find permission to wrestle fresh insights from them, as one must do with a great work of art. I have seen students begin to weep when offered the go-ahead to put aside the literalism of their childhood and to embrace the poetry of scripture as an act of devotion, rather than defiance.

Great poems are fountains of meaning and inspiration that never run dry. Our Torah is one of those living fountains. Fittingly, we read just that in the opening words of Ha’azinu: “Let my teachings drip like rain, let my words flow like the dew; like droplets on new shoots, like showers that make the grass grow” (Deuteronomy 32:2).


Rabbi Adam Greenwald is director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (intro.aju.edu) and a lecturer at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.