The Torah’s Song

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Elana Stein Hain

Review of Geula Twersky, Torah Song: The Theological Role of Torah Poetry (Kodesh Press, 2022).

This review is dedicated to my first cousin Shira Shaindel Rodman (née Brilliant) z”l, whose whole being was animated by the Torah’s song. She was taken too soon. יהי זכרה ברוך.

Torah Song seeks to understand the role played by poetic sections of the Humash. For Morah Geula Twersky, the poetic sections of the Torah are characterized not only by unique form but also by  religiously central content. She offers a combination of deep Jewish literacy and the lens of an artist, characterizing biblical poetry as the impressionism of biblical literature, contrasted with the realism of biblical prose. Having looked up to Twersky since my youth, it was a particular joy to read and review this thoughtful, comprehensive, and religiously inspiring book.

After surveying how traditional and academic scholars have identified biblical poetry – via linguistic parallelism, meter, rhythm, allusion, and other such literary devices – Torah Song argues that the true hallmark of biblical poetry is its theological contribution. Torah poetry intervenes in the prose to deliver the central messages of divine sovereignty and God’s covenant with the Jewish people.

To illustrate this thesis, the first half of the book examines three sections expressly labeled shirah (song) in the Torah: Az Yashir (Ex. 15), the Song of the Well (Num. 21:17-20), and Parashat Ha’azinu (Deut. 32). The second half analyzes three sections of blessings in the Torah: those of Jacob (Gen. 49), Bilam (Num. 23-24), and Moshe (Deut. 33). I will outline my observations about each half of the book separately.

The Three Poems
Twersky has much material to work with in Az Yashir and Ha’azinu, and she does so deftly. Her analysis of Az Yashir focuses on the unity of the poem manifest in its chiastic, thematic, and literary structure. And her analysis of Ha’azinu suggests various literary allusions to other Torah passages which deal with the cycle of sin and punishment. Twersky’s attention to the fine points of language reveals allusions that might escape even the most seasoned student of the Bible. But the most impressive feat of the first half of the book is her treatment of the Song of the Well – because it is a mere four verses! Undaunted, Twersky employs an intertextual lens, relating the Song of the Well to two other songs in Sefer Bamidbar.

Methodologically, Twersky’s analysis of biblical poetry is both thematically and linguistically intertextual, drawing on writings from throughout the Bible to understand both denotation and connotation. This adds new layers of meaning that would not have been obvious to the reader of these three songs. For example, she argues that the terminology ga’oh ga’ah in the Song of the Sea indicates divine enthronement, akin to its usage in Tehillim 93 and elsewhere. Twersky’s reading techniques deepen the reader’s understanding of the philosophical messaging both latent and explicit within the poems.

Twersky’s overall message lies in the centrality of theological content within each poem and the relationship among the three poems. All three, she argues, advance the theme of God as sovereign and Israel’s acceptance of such: Az Yashir “celebrates the defeat of Pharaoh and the establishment of the earthly manifestation of God’s realm; the Song of the Well…focuses the lens on Israel’s role as the object of God’s compassion and munificence… The Song of Moshe is an amalgam of both core ideas. It reflects upon God’s sovereignty as it meditates upon Israel’s irrevocable bond with God throughout history (103).” Moreover, each poem invokes the active engagement of its audience: “Then Moses and the Israelites sang (Ex. 15:1)”…  “And Miriam chanted for them: ‘Sing out to God’ (Ex. 15:21),” “Then Israel sang this song: ‘Spring up, O well – sing to it’ (Num. 21:17),” and “Write down this poem, and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths (Deut. 31.19).” For Twersky, Israelite assent to the covenantal content of the poems is critical.

The Three Blessings
The latter half of Torah Song examines three passages of extended blessings in the Torah, and this is where the author’s creativity shines uniquely. On the one hand, Twersky’s approach to these blessings matches her approach to the songs described in the first half of the book: she attempts to portray each blessing as a cohesive and well-structured literary whole, and looks for thematic relationships between the three blessings’ texts.

Yet, her understanding of the blessings struck me as refreshingly innovative. Twersky argues that Jacob’s blessings comprise a unified whole, positing two pillars of Israelite leadership, represented by Judah and Joseph, and supported and protected by the other tribes. Her ability to read these atomized blessings as a whole lends a bigger picture to the pericope. And, most surprisingly, she suggests that while Judah’s leadership is monarchic, Joseph represents priestly leadership. She finds allusions to priestly leadership in the term nazir (v. 26),[1] by understanding giv’ot olam (v. 26) as “the mountains of God” rather than the more common “age-old hills.”[2] in the aspects of Joseph’s general narrative that allude to priesthood – e.g., his kutonet (tunic), dream interpretation (considered a priestly role in ancient Egypt), and more. Joseph represents the vision for the priesthood prior to the sin of the golden calf, namely that it belongs to the bekhor (firstborn).

Twersky’s treatment of Bilam’s blessings likewise struck me as quite original. She suggests a thematic stacking, as it were, among his first three blessings:

  • Blessing one (Num. 23:7-10) describes the dwellings and the fecundity of the Israelites.
  • Blessing two (Num. 23:18-24) describes how God as divine monarch rests among the Israelites.
  • Blessing three (Num. 24:3-9) combines the themes of blessings one and two by discussing the dwellings and fecundity from blessing one and the divine monarchy from blessing two.

Moreover, she suggests that his fourth blessing (Num. 24:15-19) – which focuses on Israelite monarchy (rather than divine monarchy) – hearkens back to Jacob’s blessing of Judah in Bereishit 49. This is exemplified by their shared imagery of the lion (Num. 24:9; Gen. 49:9) and the scepter (Num. 24: 17; Gen. 49:10), as well as other commonalities.

Twersky likewise seeks a unified picture in Moses’ tribal blessings. She finds them in the imagery scattered through the blessings that indicates parts of the human body as well as priestly and Temple features. For human features, she identifies hands (Yehuda, Levi), legs (Asher), head (Joseph), and shoulders (Benjamin). For priesthood or Temple, she locates the priestly breastplate (Levi), the priestly tzitz, or diadem (Joseph, Naphtali), the offer of sacrifices (Zevulun, Yissachar), and the cherubic animals of an ox (Joseph) and two lions (Gad, Dan).[3] In sum, she sees these blessings as an affirmation of the Israelites as a mamlekhet kohanim, a kingdom of priests. The final step in this analysis is to build a unified structure among all three blessing pericopes in the Torah: Jacob offers the dual pillars of monarchy and priesthood, Bilam ratifies the theme of monarchy, and Moses ratifies the theme of priesthood.

Many ideas in the latter half of the book were new to me: the suggestion of priesthood for Joseph, a connection between the blessings of Jacob and Bilam, and the identification of human and priestly imagery in Moses’ blessings. I will also note here that the appendix to the book – a treatment of the terse song of Lemekh in early Bereshit – also uncovered layers of meaning that I had never before noticed. And while I do not agree with every assertion within the book, Twersky’s observations opened my eyes to new possibilities.

On the whole, this book is wonderful for those seeking a deeper relationship between form and content in the Torah. Returning to the artistic lens, Morah Geula Twersky’s identification of biblical poetry with impressionism is borne out in this work: biblical poems are portrayed as offering broad-stroke theological messaging. Beyond the artistic lens, Twersky’s use of both traditional and academic biblical scholarship is quite thorough, and she employs academic scholarship within the constraints of traditional commitments regarding the Torah and Tanakh as a whole.

While rooted in literary methodology, Torah Song is actually a book of theology. As Twersky summarizes: “The poetry of the Torah forms a coherent integrated network of musings on Israel’s role as keepers of the divine covenant. The songs and blessings of the Torah emerge as a broad meditation on Israel’s enduring role in the establishment and preservation of the covenant of destiny established at Sinai” (196).

[1] See Ex. 29:6; 39:30; Lev. 8:9; 21:12. See Lev. 22:2 for the n.z.r. root related to the Temple and priesthood.

[2] This translation depends on understanding olam as a divine epithet (see Hagigah 12b), the Bashan mountain range found in Joseph’s land allotment being called “the mountain of God” in Psalms 68:16, and the terminology of harerei kedem (“ancient mountains”) used in Moses’ blessing of Joseph (Deut. 33:15) as having a theophanic connotation.

[3] See Ezekiel 1:10.

Elana Stein Hain is the Director of Faculty and a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She was one of Professor Halivni’s final three graduate students.