Turning Poetry Into Torah

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18 Responses

  1. David says:

    Powerful message, indeed.
    I think that in the Torah world’s understandable efforts to perpetuate itself by instilling the younger generation with a love for Torah, some educators dismiss everything else as “nonsense.” The world outside the beis midrash is depicted as a lousy, hopelessly messed up and something to avoid. I understand why this happens – people, especially young people, have a hard time with nuance and complexity. It’s much easier to say “this is good and that’s bad” then to convey the message that there is value in both worlds. This essay certainly gives us what to think about.

  2. Menachem Lipkin says:

    Awesome! Thanks.

  3. Joel Rich says:

    I posted the sicha on our local shuls mail list earlier in the week and it was a big hit – I titled the email “Halachik Man meets Robert Frost” and closed with I often think about the line “and miles to go before I sleep” and how it relates to us, as individuals, trying to do God’s will in this world – it resonates (even more imho) with those of us who aspire to “shivti bbeit hashem kol ymei chayai” and, aiui, try to always be take the beit medrash with us no matter what activity we are engaged in.

  4. tzippi says:

    I greatly appreciate this article, and the concept that there is value in acknowledging and nurturing one’s aesthetic side, even (especially?) if one is a gadol. But one reason poetry analysis never resonated with me is that one can create all sorts of meforshim about literature, but unlike meforshim on Torah, we will never know if they are emes l’amito.

  5. MYCROFT says:

    “He also has a PhD in English lit from Harvard (in a program known to some as the Twersky Kollel), ”

    R Lichtenstein has a Phd in English from Harvard. His late brother-in-law was engaged in the following at Harvard “From 1956 to 1965, he served as an instructor, assistant professor and associate professor of Hebrew and of Jewish history at Harvard.

    In July 1965, Harvard named Twersky its second Nathan Littauer professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy. While holding that position, Twersky chaired Harvard’s department of Near Eastern languages and literature for six years. From 1978 to 1993, he directed the Harvard Center for Jewish Studies”

    The kollel description is one best avoided. R Twersky has been in the olam haemet since just after Yom Kippur 1997.

  6. Joel Rich says:

    unlike meforshim on Torah, we will never know if they are emes l’amito.

    Comment by tzippi
    Tzippi raises a great question – actually hinted at by R’AL in his intro – What is the proper way to relate to an artistic creation? This question is frequently raised by students of literature, and it concerns yeshiva students as well. Some hold that as readers, we should treat a poem as a self-contained entity. Of course, we know that the poem has a historical background: it stems from the poet’s personality and experience, from the cultural and societal context in which it was written – but all that doesn’t interest us. We focus completely on the poem, the literary creation, as an isolated entity. Conversely, many notable academics have argued that we cannot hope to understand an artistic creation without first becoming familiar with the artist’s biography, psychology, and native culture.”

    Now consider the ultimate artist, hkb”h, gave us the ultimate artistic creation – the Torah. We seek amito shel torah but are we ever 100% sure we have found it? Is it unique or can it differ for each of us?…

  7. tzippi says:

    Re comment 6: the difference is, that Hashem wrote the Torah with the intent of our finding all these meanings in it, within the parameters He sets. I just heard this over Shabbos attributed to R’ Yonasan Eibeshutz: the rishonim wrote (re halacha) in a way that could contain many true meanings.

  8. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    An astute reader wrote in to observe that a different Frost poem is subjected to (positive) hashkafic scrutiny on the Aish website:


  9. Joan Mooring says:

    A friend in Israel thought I would like this article on Torah and poetry. He was right.

    I appreciated thinking through both the meaning of this poem and the thoughts concerning a possible dilemma: “devotion to Torah that leads to divorcing the world”. Just by writing such a piece, the author demonstrates the possibility of a balance.

    Psalm 116:9 “that I may walk before the Lord in the land of the living”, leap to my mind as I read this article. Perhaps it is a good description of the desired peace and balance (“value in both worlds” see comment 1) and the “try to always be take the beit medrash with us no matter what activity we are engaged in.” (see comment 3)
    I also appreciated this: “But one who sees the beauty in God’s creation, who comes to love it, must be strong in order to devote himself to learning Torah.”

    No one can deny the beauty in G-d’s creation. It leads some to know that the world and heavens did not come to be by chance (evolution) but were created. It leads some to know that G-d is and to begin to search for Him. No wonder the poet’s thoughts went to who owns this (beauty?).

    In the poem, I was struck by the rider being “arrested” by something that did not (could not?) arrest the horse. I would love to hear Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s thoughts on that.

    Finally, I also appreciated the phrase, “yoke upon the narrator’s neck” as a wonderful picture of possibly every man’s condition. Yolks can assist in burden carrying, particularly if the yolk is the Torah.

    PS. There were many non-English terms in the comments that were not in my on-line Hebrew dictionary. Perhaps I did not understand Comment 3. If so, my apologies to Joel Rich.

  10. Baruch says:

    I believe the account of the Frost poem analysis referred to on the Aish website was originally authored by none other than R A Shafran regarding his daughter’s HS graduation ceremony.

  11. dr. bill says:

    Excellent post. BTW the book with RAL’s essay, Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures, is edited by R. JJ Scachter.

    three points:

    1) in the essay referenced, RAL illustrates one of his points discussing the hespedim for RAK and RMF ztl; contrast what he says about those hespedim with his hazkarah for RSZA ztl. i find the hazkarah almost as memorable as his remarks at the rav’s ztl sheloshim.

    2) Emphasis on studying the message or its context applies to the study of any written work including the Bible or the Talmud. RAL, while recognizing the need for both, always seems to bias towards the message, often arguing the lack of time to do both. (this was part of the rav’s argument against academic study of talmud for all but unique individuals. ) I would claim that this is not an absolute. Few books exist to introduce academic talmud or bible study particularly for high school/college age students. However, more are now coming on the scene. Were that the only argument, the balance would shift slightly. I assume that for most, the opposition is not time management but primarily hashkafic. Avoiding / denying historical context is more prevalent than avoiding / denying physical reality.

    3) RAL is unique; for almost everyone else the study of philosophy (or the classic arguments for science) is more relevant to developing deeper hashkafic / halakhic insights. In our entire history, I can think of no Gadol who studied literature other than RAL.

  12. Yonason Goldson says:

    Just for the record (and in response to comment #10), the Aish.com article linked by Rabbi Adlerstein in comment #8 did indeed begin by recounting the incident described in Rabbi Shafran’s article about his daughter’s BY graduation. His article can be found here:

    The analysis of Frost, however, was my own.

  13. cvmay says:

    Is it unique or can it differ for each of us?…
    the rishonim wrote in a way that could contain many true meanings.

    SEVENTY different shades and hues, each unique and matching the personal notches of every neshamah.

  14. joel rich says:

    re: 7 and 13
    So you are saying that two individuals (or gedolim) can interpret the same passage (or rishon) in logically mutually exclusive ways and yet both be amita shel torah? I happen to think yes but there are many who would disagree because this would imply that there is not necessarily one unique Daas Torah position on any specific question.


  15. cvmay says:

    L’kavod JR,
    Without question, “two individuals (or gedolim) can interpret the same passage (or rishon) in logically mutually exclusive ways and yet both be amita shel torah”. Looking at the halacha of using electricity in Eretz Yisroel, the Bnei Brak kehilla* follow the Chazon Ish while the Yerushayalim kehilla* follow Rav SZ Auerbach’s shita.
    *not all inclusive

  16. Joan Mooring says:

    Tzippi said (#4): “I greatly appreciate this article, and the concept that there is value in acknowledging and nurturing one’s aesthetic side, even (especially?) if one is a gadol.”

    Joel Rich asked (#6): “What is the proper way to relate to an artistic creation?”

    Is it true that in 1096, in Worms, Germany, Rabbi Meir bar Yitzchak wrote a poem containing 96 couplets proclaiming G-d’s eternal love for His people, titled “Akdamut”. I have read that it was written to defend the Jewish faith and plead for the continued existence of the Jewish community in Worms, Germany and that it was successful in doing both and is read on the first day of the Feast of Shavuot before reading the Commandments given to Moses.

    dr.bill (#11): I would not know how to learn if Yitzchak studied literature but I would think the historical context of this poem is not avoided.

    Thank you for your kindness in translating meaningful non-English terms. I know it can be troublesome.

  17. YM says:

    Rav Shlomo Carlebach quotes the Ishbitzer, who said that “Tahara (purity) means I’m not angry at G-d, although I don’t understand what he is doing.” We should be all blessed to let go of our anger at Hashem and even let go of our lovers quarrel with him, if we can.

  18. cvmay says:

    #17 YM
    What are you implying?
    No questions, no thought process and no attempts to understand challenging situations. Anger and Love are opposites, which are found in deep relationships, should we discard CH”V the closely-knit bond (with the anger/love)?

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