Torah as Song

“Now therefore write down for yourselves this song [shirah], and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be my witness … for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed”  Deutoronomy 31:19-21

“Sing every day, sing every day,” – Rabbi Akiva quoted in Sanhedrin (99a)

 

When great poems get canonized in anthologies for college courses, they usually come thick with stuff that is supposed to help the student: short introductions, footnotes, annotations, guides, accent marks. They disambiguate inscrutable lines, point out cross-references and themes within the poem, and note the allusions to other texts and events that make the poem otherwise impenetrable. But the very density of these aids may have the opposite effect on the poor student. It also says, There’s even more of this out there. You gotta be a pro to get it. Maybe that’s why most people can go very merrily through their whole lives without reading another poem after graduation.

The Torah is also like this. The newbie coming on the scene of the Jewish interpretive tradition stares down 73 volumes of the Schottenstein Talmud and millions of pages of other commentaries. Where do you begin? How can any human scale the mountain of interpretation?

But what if we approach the Torah, that densest of texts, like music? What if we treat it not first and foremost as a history of the birth of a nation or as a collection of dos and don’ts, or not even an elaborate assemblage of narratives, myths, and laws in prose, but rather as one very long song? And what if it even tells us so itself, I’m a song. Write me down and sing me through all your generations? Our assignment, to achieve enlightenment, becomes easier, less discouraging, and even joyful.

Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 5.25.13 PMTorah sings its own birth

The Torah is the first and greatest document written in the new technology of the phonetic alphabet. It is only natural that a new disruptive communications tech, exulting in its new-found powers of expression, would narrate its own birth story (“Mr. Watson. Come here. I want to see you”), show off what it can do, and surround its revolution with transcendent awe.

So one of the recurring themes of the Torah is the power and centrality of writing in the birth story of the Jews. God writes the first tablets that Moses brings down from Mount Sinai with His Own finger. Moses writes the second version, taking dictation from God. Every king is commanded to write two Torah scrolls, one for himself and one for his people. We each have to write the words and keep them as frontlets between our eyes and next to our hearts, and write them on the doorposts of our homes, perhaps imitating the first act of literacy by a general population, the smear of a secret sign in blood on the doors of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt so the Angel of Death would read it and pass over.

And finally all Jews are commanded to “write down for yourselves this song [shirah] and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be my witness” (Deut 31:19-21). This commandment comes as part of Moses’ farewell address and might be taken to refer to the Moses’ final song of victory and admonition he will soon sing. But it seems more likely, and becomes so much more powerful, if the Torah is here referring to itself as a whole. This is, after all, the very last of the Torah’s commandments. Doesn’t it make sense that the Torah’s author is ensuring that His words “shall not be forgotten”? Wouldn’t the Torah want itself to stay an eternal best seller and remain always number one on the hit parade by commanding everyone to write it themselves and then commit it to memory by singing it?

If we take this “song” to refer to the Torah itself, it is also encapsulates the entire monumental revolution that the Torah has staged: an illiterate, oral culture of Hebrew slaves becomes a nation forged by writing almost overnight, and that act of writing is the transcription of a song.

Exodus tells us God’s original pronouncement is one long utterance from atop the mountain, like one long shofar blast. But it’s too mind-boggling to be comprehended by the newly-liberated slaves, so they beg Moses to write it down for them.

A scholarly approach to the Torah’s media revolution

As I have noted elsewhere, even from a scholarly perspective, it is not farfetched at all that the Torah is the story of the moment the Children of Israel convert from an oral to literate culture and marks the birth of its own means of transmission, the first alphabet. Exodus is now a story we can relate to today in the age of Facebook and Twitter. Moses is staging a media revolution! He brings a new, disruptive tech, the phonetic alphabet, that is so powerfully new that it seems divinely inspired.  He then he delivers it exclusively to a huge population of slaves. The alphabet is so simple to learn, needing only 22 signs to master, that a newly literate population is armed with a new power almost overnight. It poses a viral, plaguey, counter-cultural threat to Pharaoh’s hegemony which is founded on a hierarchical, hieroglyphic-based communications, one that has become ossified and enslaved to an obsolete, 1000-symbol writing system controlled by a narrow class of scribe-priests.

Moses stages a war of writing apps in Pharaoh’s court, a demo of the alphabet’s superiority, besting the hieroglyphic scribes, who throw up their hands to declare, “This must be the Finger of [a superior kind of] God!” He then leverages the threat of this dynamic weapon, this new communications technology, to liberate the slaves.  Pharaoh realizes, against his own will, that he cannot resist this upwelling tide, and for the first and just about the only time in history, an absolute ruler lets a huge slave population go, even at the risk of imperiling his empire. Imagine putting the iPhone in the hands of every slave in the Old South, but denying it to their masters. America might have been spared the Civil War.

The phonetic alphabet, like a smart phone, also grants to the Hebrews new powers of imagination and communication. They conjure a new kind of abstract God, completely the opposite of the many, image-dependent, literal idols of the cumbersome, pictographic Egyptian culture. It gives the Hebrews access to feel as if they can read the will of that God directly, as He expressed it Himself in the Torah, in their native tongue, written in the new medium.

That archeologists trace the most likely birth of the alphabet to slave scrawls in the South Sinai (at Serabit el-Khadem) during the 14th century BCE, about the same time of Moses in the Hebrew chronology of the world (1312 BCE) makes this story compelling and vital.

It is also not farfetched to think that the Torah was one long song of 23,000 verses that was meant to be committed to memory. One of the great breakthroughs in understanding Homer’s epic poetry is that it also marked the moment the Greeks became literate in the 8th century BCE. Harvard professor Milman Parry studied the balladeers of the illiterate cultures of Serbo-Croatia of the 1930s. Able to recite thousands of lines from memory, these singers told epic tales of heroes and wars. They mixed the distant past with current memory and family genealogies like those in the Torah. They reciting the shared cultural histories of the tribes and towns they entertained and connected it to their audience personally.

Parry showed that the structure of these epic songs – their repetition of musical themes, melodies, consistent line lengths and accented syllables, rhyming patterns, stock phrases, and larger thematic patterns — all worked together as mnemonics, enabling the stupendous feats of memory by these illiterate troubadours. His student, Albert Lord, then elaborated Parry’s insight in a 1960 book, The Singer of Tales, showing that the structure of Homer’s epics The Iliad and The Odyssey, more than 15,600 and 12,000 lines long respectively, deployed the same interwoven devices of song. The conclusion was clear: the singer of the ancient Greek epics was oral and probably illiterate, and the epics were transcribed by someone in the newly-literate Hellenic tribes.

No wonder the last commandment of the Torah is that every Jew should recapitulate this awesome moment for themselves by writing a personal copy of the song, and then “put [it] in their mouths…for it shall not be forgotten.” Write the song down, then perform its music. In some ways, this is as fundamental to being a Jew as the acknowledgement that God is One and re-enacting the Passover story.

Torah as Art

Reading the Torah as a song also transforms our interpretive approach to it. We know from the beginning that the multiple interpretations of the text aren’t competing for which is truest, but that many or all can be true at once and supplement or complement or even gainsay and negate each other. Like a great poem in the college anthology, that only enhances the awe we have of it. The fruit multiplies and the tree is stronger for it. This isn’t just a manual, or code of laws, or history, or a cryptogram. It’s art.

This explains why the Oral tradition, which gives authority to our millenia-long rabbinic and interpretive traditions, is as important as the written Torah. Reading the Torah as a song embraces our millions of words of scribbled commentaries and much else that liberates us. Scholars read the text and parse every jot and word to discover its original singular intended meaning, playing a millennia-long game of telepathy with its Author. They are trying to read God’s mind. A noble endeavor that keeps Jewish law and tradition alive and ever-growing.

But now we are freed to also embrace a much more accessible and personal job description: the Torah, like a great poem, was also an aboriginal musical performance that we all should try to resurrect and perform.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes many of these points in The Torah as God’s Song,[1] building on Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin’s[2] insight into the Torah as poetic:

Descriptive prose carries its meaning on the surface. The Torah, like poetry, does not. … The whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal . . . remains mysterious and ‘fraught with background.[3]

Rabbi Sack also quotes R. Yechiel Michal Epstein (1829-1908) from his Arukh ha-Shulchan.[1]

The rabbinic literature is full of arguments, about which the sages said: “These and those are the words of the living God.” This is one of the reasons the Torah is called “a song” – because a song becomes more beautiful when scored for many voices interwoven in complex harmonies.

There is room now for the instruction manual version of the Torah, the Shulchan Aruch[4] and its description of how to follow the 613 mitzvot. There is also room for all the many volumes of the Talmud and all its commentaries and footnotes, not to mention the thousands of books, essays, blogs, sermons written since. There is room for this and also that, for Talmudic legislation and its stories – are they mere illustrative anecdotes? Parables? Metaphors? Flights of fancy? Casual comments and throwaway lines? All of the above?

And there is plenty of room – in fact there is a demand for – elucidations of hidden, syncretic, hieratic knowledge like Kabbalah.

Finally, the difference between the performance of a song and its written score is the latter’s silence. This gap opens a vast space not only for all interpretation but for silence, for biting our tongues and for lifting our fingers from the keyboard to withhold saying what we think lurks in the text. There is room for the silence of humility or discretion or doubt. There is room for the silence that comes from the inability to say anything at all in the face of this infinite task.

The Lost Music

Moses was the only human who could hear God’s first original awesome utterance of the Torah and still have the wit to retain and transcribe it. All the other Israelites, assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai, quaked with fear and begged Moses to transform God’s voice into the new medium, like vinyl to MP3, or illuminated codex to printed book. Today, so much of this song has been lost before we even begin to approach the text: the original cadence, rhyme, melody, voice, sound of the original singing. Even if the Torah trope (melody) and the vocalizations given us by the Masoretes are aboriginal from Sinai, we missed that long blast from high.

None of us can be Moses. We are all sentenced to yearn for, but never attain, perfect comprehension. That we can only capture snatches of the original tune demands respect for silence, even as we noisily and merrily try to recreate that sound from Sinai by singing the Torah (trope) and wordless Chassidic melodies (niggunim).

Judaism is a religion of words, and yet whenever the language of Judaism aspires to the spiritual it breaks into song, as if the words themselves sought escape from the gravitational pull of finite meanings. … Words are the language of the mind. Music is the language of the soul.[5]

Yet if we do treat the Torah as a song or poem, we can’t perform the original with fidelity. Sadly, musical notation wasn’t included in the revelation on Sinai along with the alphabet, and we weren’t there to hear it. In its stead, though, comes a pleasure of the text, as French critic Roland Barthes[6] phrased it, if we approach the Torah with our ear tuned to its music and poetry.

This pleasure transcends the many joys of scholarship: it opens something prayerful in the primitive Hebrew of the Scriptures that we lose when we erect rational understanding – clarity – as the goal of all interpretation. If the Torah is the Supreme Poem or Song, every syllable has a secret melody.

 

David Porush, San Mateo

Erev Yom Kippur 5779

[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “The Torah as G-d’s Song,” https://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/2308716/jewish/The-Torah-as-G-ds-Song.htm

[2] The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin), Preface to Ha’emek Davar, Parag 3

[3] Rabbi Sacks, op. cit.

[4] The Set Table. Codification of the laws of the Torah – halacha – written by Joseph Caro in 1563

[5] Rabbi Sacks, op. cit.

[6] Roland Barthes, Le Plaisir du texte (Editions du Seuil, 1973.

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