Welcome to Speaking Torah. I’m your host Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, Director of the Innovation Lab at Hebrew College. In this podcast, leaders from Jewish communities around the country read essays by Hebrew College rabbis and leaders. These essays tackle the pressing issues of our world, in need to healing and hope, with Hebrew College’s signature compassion, creativity, and relevancy.
This week, Rabbi Mónica Gomery reflects on Moses’ poem Ha’azinu. In her essay she looks at the truth and the falseness of poetry and how our identities and experiences aren’t fixed, and how that opens our sense of what’s possible.
Rabbi Mónica Gomery was ordained by the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2017 and serves as one of the Rabbis at Kol Tzedek Synagogue in West Philadelphia where she’s the music director and prayer leader of the community.
Mónica is passionate about supporting people who have been denied access to, disconnected from, and marginalized by ancient and ancestorial spiritual traditions and helps them gain access to these traditions as a resource for empowerment and transformation in their lives so that they can become vessels for healing and for justice in the world.
In addition to her work at Kol Tzedek, she teaches liberatory text as a faculty member of SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva and is a member of the founding leadership team of Let My People Sing.
Mónica has serves as a prison chaplain, a geriatric chaplain, an educator and prayer leader, and she’s a published poet.
We asked Anne Germanacos to read Mónica’s essay. Anna is a writer, activist, and educator living in San Francisco. She contributes time and other resources to a wide variety of individuals and organizations through the Germanacos Foundation and Firehouse Fund, cultivating sparks.
Mónica wrote this d’var in 2019. Here’s Anne reading Mónica’s author’s note and her d’var, entitled Stop Making Sense.
Anne Germanacos: This piece was originally written in 2019 during the Trump administration and is intended to speak to the realities of that moment. We share it again here, as its lessons and questions are still timely and applicable.
We had a land and a book. Our land is in the book.
He said: You will lose your hands.
I said: What use are my hands now?
He said: You will lose your lips.
I said: What use are my lips now?
He said: Your eyes will be dry lakes.
I said: I know the book by heart.
These words are written by Egyptian Jewish poet Edmond Jabés. Involuntarily relocated to France in 1956, after the Suez crisis between Israel and Egypt, Jabés knew firsthand what the book of Devarim seeks to establish – that a book can become a site of exile, longing, and identity. That poetry offers pathways into our humanity, and that the written word can be a place of home.
“The best thing about poetry is its falseness,” wrote Biblicist Adele Berlin, paraphrasing Aristotle, Arabic philosophers, and medieval Jewish scholars. Across centuries and geographies, scholars agree; poets lie. Poets take us to the edge of truth, the shores of metaphor. Poets are not primarily interested in accuracy or journalistic integrity, instead exploring what happens beneath the surface of an experience, the coupling of the known and the unknown.
George Oppen, a 20th century American poet, wrote that poetry “Is an instance of being in the world… at the limits of judgment… the limits of reason.” In one of my first poetry courses as an undergraduate student, my teacher told us “Your poems don’t have to be true. They have to lead us to the truth of a feeling.”
In this week’s parsha, Moshe’s book-length speech switches genres – from prose oration to a shira, an epic poem – and Moshe takes up the project of poetic un-truth. In the first verse, he begins to twist our sense of what is real, proclaiming, “Listen, heavens, and I will speak. And let the earth hear the words of my mouth.”
Even if we could say that the heavens contain the ears of God, Moshe here describes the land and soil itself as bearing witness by listening; consciously, actively. Newly a poet, and one verse in, Moshe teaches us, the Israelites gathered before him, to listen for something other than logic, to stop making sense.
God is a rock, Moshe tells us, God is a warrior. My words are dew, my words are rain. You are a blemish, you are God’s child. God is an eagle; God is a mother. God wounds, God heals. God’s wrath is fire, arrows, pestilence. God fed you honey from stone. God fed you the cream of a cow. The litany goes on.
Parshat Ha’azinu is thickly loaded with figurative language, to a dizzying effect. Just as one image is introduced, a new image is elaborated upon. Metaphors swirl together, as though Moshe refuses to commit to a motif. If any of my regular editors took their red pens to this poem, they would insist that the author simplify. Is Moshe an excited amateur poet, too eager to hold back all of his fresh ideas? Or does he intend something by overloading us with images?
Sallie McFague, a Christian feminist theologian, writes about metaphor as a necessary yet fictional approach to theology. McFague teaches that we construct the worlds that we inhabit through our choices of imagery and analogy. Though the words we choose to describe the divine reflect our lived and embodied experiences of the Holy One, they are limited by the bounds of language and impacted by the structures of society. Our words for God are not God, they are an attempt at articulating God, and they are never complete.
McFague writes, “Metaphorical statements always contain the whisper, ‘it is and it is not.’” When Moshe tells us in his poem that God is an eagle, we know that something about God is like this powerful bird, and also that God is not an eagle, not only an eagle, and not limited to an eagle. Perhaps this is why Moshe brings so many conflicting images of God into close proximity; to remind us that while God can be any of these things, God is also none of these things exclusively.
The use of metaphor here is not limited to God, as Moshe applies the same literary mechanism to the Israelites and even to himself. Nothing is only as it seems, Parshat Ha’azinu claims. Our identities and experiences are not fixed, and thus our sense of what is possible can be unlocked and broadened.
Moshe’s poem marks an enormous transition. Ha’azinu is the penultimate conclusion to the work of Moshe’s life, his culminating address. He is about to die, and by doing so, allow a new Judaism to be born. Our founding prophet and leader is saying goodbye. Upon his exit, the people will be led no longer by a central authority figure. Rather, they will pore over the Torah, assigning their own interpreters and legislators, cracking the code for themselves.
It is striking for Moshe to switch genres at the end of the Torah, and to exit the stage with lyricism. The legalistic text has been given, and now Moshe unleashes the mystery of verse. We are meant to be interpreters of law, yes, but also readers of poetry.
The Netziv writes in Ha’amek Davar: “It is obvious that one who is aware of the figurative expressions of poetry can better appreciate its character than the one who only has a literal meaning of the words, which may lead him to misunderstand the poet’s intention. Such is the nature of Torah. Its story is not elaborated on and plainly explained, it requires additional explanation in order to appreciate it allusions.” For the Netziv, the poetry of Ha’azinu might teach us to be better interpreters in general; interpreters of law and story, of Torah as a whole. Poetry can train our minds to read past what is obvious or simple.
The Sefat Emet breaks up Ha’azinu’s first verse, explaining that it refers to the Ten Commandments, Torah she’bichtav, while it refers to the ten utterances of Creation, representing Torah she’be’al’peh. Ha’azinu is a bridge between written and oral Torah, between sky and earth, at the passageway into the land, at the border of Moshe’s life, between the known and the unknown. What do we do when we find ourselves in a fissure between realities, at a juncture in a changing world?
For this, we have the un-truth of poetry. Let’s not get stuck in what we think we know. “The earth turns in a mirror” writes Edmond Jabés, sitting in Paris, remembering Cairo. “Time is silent at the edge of time,” he goes on, “The bundle of the wandering Jew contains the earth and more than one star. My brothers turned to me and said, you are not Jewish, you do not pray. I turned to my brothers and answered, Prayer is my backbone and my blood.”
Edmond Jabés is not telling us simple truth. He is telling us something we need to unlearn and re-learn about how to be in the world.
There are risks, of course, to the ways in which poetry calls us to hold, at once, what is true, what is untrue, and what is beyond truth. We are living in a time of threatened truth, an era in which holding those with power accountable to a baseline of honesty is beyond the scope of what we can expect. This is not new – after all, our country was built on “alternative facts” and “fake news,” enabling colonization, genocide, and slavery.
And yet, it seems undeniably clear at this point that for our national leaders there are very few consequences to denying public opinion, scientific evidence, and constitutional authority, and that the fabric of truth is corroding at a terrifying pace.
If poetry is built on un-truth, is it yet another vehicle for the deception and confusion that our current administration wishes upon the American people as a cover for its actions? Don’t we need transparency right now, to call things exactly what they are, and see them with as much clarity as possible?
We do need the boldest and clearest of truth-tellers, whistle-blowers, bearers of witness. And we also need as expansive and imaginative a way of seeing as possible another kind of truth. One of my favorite books, written by scholar Robin DG Kelley, is about the role poets have played in social movements for human freedom. Kelley writes:
“When movements have been unable to clear the clouds, it has been the poets – no matter the medium – who have succeeded in imagining the color of the sky, in rendering the kinds of dreams and futures social movements are capable of producing. Knowing the color of the sky is far more important than counting clouds. Or to put it another way, the most radical art is not protest art but works that take us to another place, envision a different way of seeing, perhaps a different way of feeling.”
The journey through the un-truth of poetry can take us to the truth of it all, to the bright face of the shamayim that Moshe calls upon in the opening verse of Ha’azinu, to the color of the sky. As we stand, or perhaps scramble and tremble, as we march, as we build resilient communities, as we live into this foreboding new reality, let’s remember to take along with us the illogical, the emotional, the intuitive and figurative, the truth that lives beyond truth, the poetry of our tradition and the poetry of our lives. Just as the Israelites stood hearing Moshe’s final poem, shimmering with possibility, and transformation, becoming something new.
Jeffrey Summit: We asked Anne what she thought of Mónica’s essay.
Anne Germanacos: I’d love to just comment on what it is to read someone else’s words in this way. It’s just remarkable taking them on myself and taking them into my body and breathing them out is, I guess, that’s why actors are actors. Because they get to take on beautiful words written by someone else and embody them. And I just felt something of that. And part of it was also that I believe so much in what she’s written.
She wrote before the pandemic, which is very interesting to think about. At the same time, I feel that I could have read these words and felt them at any moment in the last several decades of my own life. I believe so strongly in what she says about the need to, as she says in the title, stop making sense and that need to break up logic, to undermine it. And of course, then we’re also talking about truth, and we’ve been living through a period where truth has been overturned, upended in an unpoetic way.
I think there’s a poetic way of taking truth apart so that a deeper truth comes through and then there’s something that we’ve been living through, which has nothing to do with the way poetry urges toward a deeper sense of reality.
The more we can move toward this poetic sense of reality, breaking up received notions about the world, I think that’s going to release the potential of our humanity across the board, whether we’re talking about young children in education and rabbis and whoever else. I think it’s that ability to break up received notions, to explode them, that allows the kind of truly creative energy to come into being.
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit: Do you think it’s possible to read Torah as a poet?
Anne Germanacos: I totally do. At my Synagogue in San Francisco, which is The Kitchen, once a month, we have a particular morning shabbat wherein I cull lines from the week’s Parshat, just individual lines, and slip between them lines from contemporary writers. And pass this out to the congregants who are there, now by Zoom. And they have half an hour to go through, in a sort of meditative way, responding to these lines.
And at some point in the service, a little later on, I read each line as a prompt. And whoever has written something reads their line aloud. And we create sort of call and response communal prayer together. So, I really, really believe that it’s not just possible, but it’s necessary for some of us to write our way into Torah.
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit: We asked Mónica how she came up with the idea for this piece.
Rabbi Mónica Gomery: The first thing I thought of is a quote from Jewish Feminist poet Muriel Rukeyser, whose work I really love. And she writes, “If there were no poetry on any day in the world, poetry would be invented that day for there would be an intolerable hunger.” And this feels so true to me.
My system craves language that is complex, enigmatic, and unexpected. And I often go to Torah for that hunger. That’s one of the reasons I love studying Torah.
I think Torah is human language attempting to approximate something infinite and inexpressible. It’s our ancestors trying to do their best to make sense of God and the world. And this happens so frequently through metaphor and rupture, fragment through contradictions and tensions.
For me, the poetry of Torah is very loud and very magnetic and I think it can transform us if we let it in. So, you can imagine my delight that we get a whole Parshat in verse, from Moshe Rabbenu, the poet. What an awesome role model. Parshat Ha’azinu is an invitation to lean into the way that language can be strange and surprising.
When I wrote this d’var Torah, I was learning so much from Black and Indigenous activists who were resisting the construction of pipelines on native lands, police violence in Black communities and family separation at the border. And one of their core messages was that under these conditions, business as usual simply could not continue.
So, this piece for me is about how poetry can help disrupt business as usual, how it jolts our minds and hearts out of submission out of settling for the world as it is. And I think as Jews, we inherit this idea from our textual tradition.
The rabbis were committed to expanding the interpretive possibility of Torah. They loved working with language in creative ways and the whole corpus of Midrash is a reflection is a reflection of this love of language and their willingness to play with it, to disrupt it, and to make it something new.
I think making language anew is part of a transformative and revolutionary practice. That’s what I really wanted to think about when I wrote this piece, and Torah is a place I go to remember and explore.
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit: We also asked Mónica how she feels about this essay and its relevance today.
Rabbi Mónica Gomery: I’m thinking about how we are living through the global crisis of this pandemic and now we have been for many months. And for me, writing and reading poetry has been a place of refuge throughout this time and, of course, spiritual practice to get me through.
So, reading this piece now, it reinforces for me that poetry is an enduring spiritual practice which anchors me and enables me to weather the turbulent parts of life. And I think, when I wrote this piece, I wanted to lift up that poetry. And reading Torah as poets is at the heart of our tradition, though it’s not always what we think of when we consider the practices of Judaism; Judaism’s spiritual technologies.
Today, it’s even clearer to me why that continues to feel important and I’m excited for it to be a resource and a source of strength for others during a really challenging time.
I actually writ ethe first draft of this piece during the first few months of the Trump administration and I returned to it to revise it and complete it in 2019 as the administration raged on. And the question of language was so urgent in that time, how language can be manipulated and whether or not we could hold leaders accountable to honest and truthful language.
And reading the piece now, I see how in some ways we’re standing in a very different moment politically and nationally, thank God. Though in many ways, we’re not.
I thought about how environmental activists refer to this period we’re living through as the great turning, the awakening of human consciousness to a higher level and the societal turn from an era of violence against people and nature, to an era of justice and restoration.
Parshat Ha’azinu also takes place in a moment of great turning. Moses says goodbye to the Isrealites. Their leadership structure is about to change. The land on which they dwell and they way they live is about to change. And so, accordingly, the way Moses communicates with them in this transitional moment is different.
We have so much to learn from the poetry of Parshat Ha’azinu as a model for standing on the edge. And I hope that we can be brave and inventive with our language and with our actions through this period of transformation. I think our survival depends on it and the survival of our tradition depended on it.
Torah doesn’t have to be continuous and linear. It doesn’t have to make sense in a narrative way which we so often want it to. And actually, our whole interpretive tradition is built around the fact that it doesn’t, that there are cracks and seams and fissures in the text and that opens up new possibilities and new realities that are formed in every generation.
And I think also, as I wrote this piece, what I meant by that was that we have so much wisdom to kind of restore within ourselves, from accessing the non-rational, from exploring the somatic and what we feel and living into metaphor. And that sometimes, when we go under our rational minds, we gain access to greater truths and that poetry is one of multiple modalities that gets us there, just like song gets us there and prayer gets us there and dance gets us there.
So, I think reading Torah as poets involves opening ourselves up to really feeling welcome in the places where the text doesn’t make sense, where it’s intriguing and disruptive and surprising, as we would read a contemporary piece of poetry and really let ourselves be taken on a journey towards something expansive and new.
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit: How do you feel about Anne reading your essay?
Rabbi Mónica Gomery: I’m excited for another artist to read this piece and I’m excited to find out what she sees in it, what she discovers and how the invitation of the piece lands. I have no doubt that she’ll reflect on pieces of it in ways I haven’t even thought of.
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit: Thank you for joining us for this episode of Speaking Torah. We want to thank Emily Hoadley for our logo, and Hebrew College Rabbinical student and composer Jackson Mercer for our theme music Esa Einai. To learn more about Hebrew College, please visit hebrewcollege.edu/podcast. And remember to subscribe, like, and rate Speaking Torah on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
We’ll leave you this week with Joyful, composed and performed by Hebrew College graduate Rabbi Matt Ponak, from his album Bridges of Song. I’m your host Rabbi Jeff Summit. See you next time on Speaking Torah.