The Poetry of Torah

By Donna Jacobs Sife

Some schools for whom I tell stories, make it clear from the start that fairytales are out. They are not true, and that would be misleading the children. They can be frightening and we don’t want nightmares, do we. And most of all, fairytales are so unbearably, unapologetically sexist.

The great mistake that underlies this resistance to fairytales is that they are being read literally. Truth is not neccessarily something that can or did happen. Stories contain Truth, as opposed to being true. As far as being frightening is concerned, there are many studies - Bruno Bettleheim’s, contemporary of Jung, in particular, which suggest that fairytales and other stories allow a child to work through the fears that he or she carry within their psyche. If the fear finds some resolve within the story, the child can be deeply strengthened. Similarly, the fact that the princess is always beautiful and lives happily ever after with her prince does not imply that this is what all little girls must strive to do. Stories dwell in the world of archetype. We all contain within us the prince and the princess. On a True level, the stories speak of integration of self and Self, of the internal process that hopefully occurs within us all. How are the chidlren to know this is what the story means? They know. We all know. We have been listening to stories since the world began. Political correctness is but a blimp in the evolution of consciousness, and is largely responsible for the destruction of our relationship with Story.

The same is true of Torah. If our reading of the stories in the Bible is only literal, then it is quite possible that we will be offended or alienated by some of what we read. Take for example the story of the binding of Isaac. Here is a man, Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, who takes his son, his only son, the one he loves on to a mountain and willingly prepares to kill him for God. If we take the story literally, it is possible that we will decide that we do not want such a father. How would you feel if your father tied you to an alter, piled with wood to be lit beneath you, and prepared to put a knife into your heart? And yet, seen metaporically, the story holds endless possiblities.

I have non-Jewish friend who recently had a coming of age ceremony for his son. As they walked together, climbing the mountain upon which his male friends were waiting to greet them, he told his son the story of Abraham and Isaac. For him, for that occassion, the story spoke of the time a father must offer his son up for sacrifice, so that he can be returned, transformed, resurrected as a man. "Where is the lamb?" Isaac asked. And a ram, not a lamb was provided. A man, not a boy.

The story could be that of entering a new stage of our own lives, or our willingness to sacrifice a part of ourselves for God, or keeping alive the innocent and pure within us.... on and on. The Torah is a living Torah. It requires our active participation, our constant reflection, and our eternal struggle to come to a place of understanding and resonance, again and again. Taken only literally, we rob the Torah of life. In the words of Rabbi Kook - "The Torah and all its commandments......form a great and mighty Divine poem...." The language is that of poetry, not journalism.

This may all seem rather obvious but it strikes me as fundamental. If we wish to be a Living People, if we desire continuity - then the Book from which we draw our inspiration and our form must reflect that. Many people I meet resist the idea of organised religion in general, or Judaism in particular, because they see it as sexist or outdated, as irrelevent or not ecologically sound. They are confusing Rabbinic commentary - which is inevitably male, conceived in a different time, with its own history and perspective and consciousness - with Torah, which lives not in the world of duality, of male and female, right and wrong, them and us. Torah is our essence, it is timeless, it is all things to all people. I do not advocate the rejection of Rabbinic interpretion. We stand on the shoulders of those scholars who have come before us like a great sacred totem. I am suggesting that we all feel free, perhaps even compelled, to add to it.

Often the adolescents I teach will protest about something we are studying from the Torah. "This is just ridiculous" they have been known to say; kids today can be disarmingly irreverant. In response I will say to them. "Lets say, that just for the moment, in this room, you believe that the Torah is perfect. Lets try, instead of just rejecting what it seems to say, find a way together of reading it so that it makes perfect sense, and is teaching us something." And so, if I am lucky, they will engage in the process of poetry. Reading the Torah, not literally, but as analogy, as metaphor. The characters are all parts of ourselves, or the Jewish people, or the human race. And if we take the time, we will probably find a commentary somewhere that supports our new perspectives. All is new, and nothing is also. We need story. And the question we need to ask when hearing a story is not "is it true?" but rather "what is it saying?". "Turn it, turn it," says the Talmud, "for all is contained within."