By Rabbi Josh Weinberg January 29, 2021 – ט”ז בשבט תשפ”א
Last Wednesday (January 20th) we witnessed the power of poetry. When the young and vibrant Amanda Gorman took center stage as part of the ritual of inaugurating a new president, she became the latest link in the chain of those practicing one of the oldest art forms. Blending stirring words with eloquent oratory, Gorman reminded us that we do not need the flash and flicker of TikTok, nor the appeal of animation, nor the production of Pixar to rouse our spirits and seize our hearts. Poetic words tell stories that inspire the imagination, evoke emotion, and penetrate beyond the intellect stirring of the soul, leaving their imprint on generations to come.
Not only was her poem remarkable (click here for a translation of Gorman’s poem into poetic Hebrew by Dr. Rachel Korazim), but with its delivery, she joined the ranks of women poets going all the way back to the prophetess Devorah – the only female judge, and also the only judge to be called a prophet, (10th Century BCE) – whose song is one of the oldest known poems in the biblical canon.
This week we read two of the oldest extended poems in the Hebrew Bible, the Song of the Sea, in the book of Exodus, and The Song of Devorah, in the book of Judges (as this week’s Haftarah).
Dr. Michelle Knight notes, “Poetic language, such as the Song of Deborah in the book of Judges, is foundational to Hebrew expression just as it was to the ancient Near East more broadly.”
The Song of Devorah is the earliest form of powerful feminist poetry. It is stirring, evocative, and rhetorically forceful. It is also evaluative, theologically robust, historical, and persuasive. Her poem begins with the hearkening verse:
שִׁמְעוּ מְלָכִים הַאֲזִינוּ רֹזְנִים אָנֹכִי לַיהוָה אָנֹכִי אָשִׁירָה אֲזַמֵּר לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Hear, O kings!
Give ear, O princes!
I will sing, will sing to Adonai,
Will hymn to Adonai, the God of Israel.
Song of Deborah, late 15th c., MS 15283, ff. 198v-199r. British Library
The Song/Poem tellsus that the God of Israel could overcome the mightiest of foes with the weakest of instruments. The song highlights the idea that the wars of this period served as tests of the people’s faithfulness and exclusive devotion to God (3:4).
The Hebrew Bible contains only two narrative battle poems, both of which we read this week: The Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) and the Song of Devorah (Judges 5). Other poems celebrate military victories (e.g. 2 Samuel 22). These two songs, however, differ in a fundamental way: The Song of the Sea focuses on God alone, the Song of Devorah focuses on human events, as what some call a documentary poem.
Sadly, many of the features of Biblical poetry are lost in translation. But every Sefer Torah maintains the unusual layout of the Song of the Sea in Exodus – a graphic signal that the event evoked is unique and spectacular.
These two poems were foundational to the formation of the Israelite/Jewish people. The written word is the backbone of our identity development as a nation, and our poetry provides the essential building blocks on which our Jewish/Zionist national ethos was born.
Modern Hebrew poetry represents a culmination of the development of the richness of Jewish culture. It resonates by virtue of its being written in Hebrew whether by design or not, all the stages in the development of Hebrew literature from the biblical period to the present. In addition, it reflects Zionist developments from the 1880s including reactions to pogroms in Russia, settlement in Palestine, the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel, and the attendant issues in Israeli life. Poetry has always been a central element of Jewish expression, from the “documentary poem” of Devorah to liturgical poems (piyyutim).
While poetry itself was nothing new, our Zionist forebears employed it to frame our national ethos, drawing upon traditional modes of culture to invent the collective narrative and mythology. Thus, with poetry, they created the ethos of a reinvented nation. While Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (known as the “Father” of modern Hebrew) was breaking in a new daily lexicon, others like Chaim Nachman Bialik, Rachel, Lea Goldberg, Natan Alterman, and Uri Tzvi Greenberg, were canonizing the spirit of Jewish national revival in poetic verse.
Tracy K. Smith, an American poet laureate expressed the power of poetry beautifully:
“Poetry is not the language we live in. It’s not the language of our day-to-day errand-running and obligation-fulfilling, not the language with which we are asked to justify ourselves to the outside world. It certainly isn’t the language to which commercial value has been assigned. But poetry — which awakens our senses, frees us from the tyranny of literal meaning and assures us of the credible reality of emotional truth — puts us in touch with something bigger than language, something I believe each of us was perhaps fluent in before the moment when language became our chief vehicle for meaning.”
The modern State of Israel was born with poetry. Poetry is the language that forms the celebratory and institutionalized form of a recreated nation and its daily culture. Many of Israel’s poet laureates, who wrote ideological and mythological poems, also wrote children’s literature and poetry.
Israel’s national poetry was not always reflective of society as a whole. Most of the famous poets were white, Ashkenazi, and male – which is why it is all the more important to encourage poets from marginalized communities and segments of society.
From Devorah the prophet to the contemporary poet Adi Keissar, the achievements of women’s writing in Hebrew rank among the unquestionable triumphs of Israeli feminism. Sad to relate, during the two thousand years of the Exile of the Jewish people, the Hebrew language became the exclusive province of men. That is not to say that there weren’t major struggles. According to Lily Rattok, “The patriarchal circle of literary critics initially accepted women’s writing, on condition that it not openly challenge the conventional wisdom in two major spheres: Zionist ideology and the definition of womanhood.”
This week we heard the poetic voice of Amanda Gorman and this Shabbat we read the poetry of Devorah. These voices highlight the importance of poetry and the broad inclusion of many voices. We can take solace that there is a lot we can do to make change, and that the pen is not only mightier, but can outlast the sword.