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There are seventy faces to Torah: Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. (Bamidbar Rabah)

I don’t know this for certain, but I suspect that more art has been made in response to the so-called Old Testament than any other single source. It is a mesmerizing point from which to push off as a poet/writer (painter, dancer), what with all the violence, promises, bad behavior, tragedy – both random and planned -and schlepping around after ultimate truth.

Turn and turn the Torah — for everything is to be found there. Veer this way and that, circle and spiral, advance and double back. Think you get the text? Hah! What about from this angle? There’s a maddening, disorienting, obvious paradox at every turn.

In short: I get the obsession with the 5 Books, how the quirky stories and imperfect characters can lodge themselves in one’s brain & art.

Just this week, a new addition has been made to the poetic-midrashic canon:  70 Faces by Rachel Barenblat. Also known as the Velveteen Rabbi, Rachel saw the publication of her book PLUS received ordination as a Jewish Renewal rabbi this past Sunday (and for the record, yes, I’m a bit envious on both counts).

It’s a fine book. Persons more illustrious than myself (poet Alicia Ostriker & Rabbi Shefa Gold, to name 2) have called Rachel’s poetry truthful, gentle, inviting, passionate, playful, and radical. Good adjectives. Here are a few more: compassionate, melodic, filled with humility, and very deep with just the right amount of the quotidian (one example: shopping at Home Depot for Tabernacle building materials).

Consider this excerpt from the poem Downside in which she muses on the slight problem inherent in a)being the chosen people; and b) being the chosen people chosen to take over someone else’s land:

Here’s the part
God apparently didn’t say
at least not aloud
where anyone could hear:
dispossessing anyone
not as easy as it sounds
and tends to have
side effects
feelings of guilt
among the tender-hearted
and a certain hardening
of those who do battle

See what I mean? Reb Rachel engages head-on with a question that nags — what is the downside to this whole taking over Canaan business? There is nothing heavy-handed or polemical here. She could be talking about the ancient Israelites, the modern Israelites, or any of us caught in the situation of getting the better of someone else. In my humble, really good poetry tackles big questions in such a way as to leave the reader with more questions, shaking our collective heads heads in wonder. The good stuff – and here I’m quoting another poem from the book – builds a structure to house what you long for.

Earlier this week, poet Elizabeth Andrews (you may remember her from President Obama’s inauguration) was interviewed on the radio podcast On Being. She said 2 things that apply here:

1)Asking questions is a spiritual practice; and

2) poems provide a brick-sized chunk of contemplative silence with which to simply listen and take stock.

There are questions everywhere in this book, often disguised as statements. And the poems are compact (not dense), providing the reader with just the right amount of narrative to keep us on track and just the right amount of unanswerables to allow us to take stock. There is no hitting us over the head, cleverness, or weird line spacing to distract (if you read lots of poetry, you’ll know what I mean). Reb Rachel is having a conversation with reality and inviting us to observe – then sit somewhere and pick up where she left off.

Consider these opening words from a poem addressing Abraham’s exodus from his ancestral home:  It’s not going to be easy. /All of your roadmaps are wrong. Or these words addressed to Moses, looking out over the land he would never set foot in: If you could live to see what’s coming/ it would break your heart.

So simple, really, and so right on. The words could be written about each one of us. Buy the book. Tell your friends.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 01/13/2011 10:30 am

    Oh, Sue, thank you so much for this close and generous reading of my poems — I appreciate the review and the kind words so much! From one Torah poet to another, thank you, from the bottom of my heart!

    • sue swartz permalink*
      01/13/2011 1:19 pm

      You’re welcome, RABBI!

  2. 01/13/2011 10:47 am

    What a thoughtful review of a wonderful book! It’s been a great pleasure working with Rachel on this project, and, as a Christian with grave misgivings about many interpretations of these scriptures, I’ve appreciated so much her willingness to wrestle with the texts as a thinking, feeling, contemporary woman, never shying away from the most problematic passages but reacting not in anger but with gentle questioning and wisdom. Thanks for talking about that here.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      01/13/2011 1:18 pm

      Just for the record — I’m a Jew with grave misgivings about many interpretations of the text, and with the text itself. That’s why poetry is such a perfect avenue for exploration. Rachel does it with grace, I agree.

  3. 01/13/2011 1:19 pm

    I’ve followed her blog for quite a while, long before I had my own. I’m also envious of her book and her recent ordination. I look forward to getting and reading the book.

  4. Sarah permalink
    01/13/2011 3:15 pm

    Wow! Now I’m even more glad I already ordered the book, and can’t wait for tomorrow’s delivery and some good Shabbos grappling! Thanks Sue – and thanks to Rachel also, whom I don’t know, but whose blog I have occasionally encountered and quoted from.

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