Torah, with rhyme and reason
By Sarah Bronson
Rabbi Ebner: "The Torah calls
itself a sefer shira - a book of poetry."
(Lior Mizrahi / BauBa)
It's no surprise that Rabbi David Ebner's first book, to be
released this week, contains Torah commentaries and explorations of themes such
as repentence and salvation. Ebner is a well-known educator at several Israeli
yeshivot catering to post-high school graduates from abroad, and is founding his
own yeshiva in Jerusalem. He is a sought-after speaker at synagogues around the
What may surprise some is that his work is a book of
The 96-page volume, published by the Jewish Education Institute ATID, is
entitled "The Library of Everything: Poems and Torah Commentaries." It
contains 21 original poems on themes including prayer, childhood traumas, and
mothers' love for their children. Each poem is accompanied by notes or an essay
explaining the genesis of the poem and its implications for contemporary
religious life. Though ATID is marketing the book mainly to educators, it will
be available at amazon.com and in select bookstores.
The American - and Canadian - bred Ebner said he hopes teachers in Jewish
schools will use his poems to help students connect with Judaism in ways often
ignored by traditional teaching methods. "In every class there are one or
two kids whom poetry speaks to, and their Jewish education isn't speaking to
them," he told Anglo File. "It's as if there's no room for those whose
mode of expression is poetry or music or art. Poetry is where I plug in."
The goal behind "The Library of Everything" is "the integration
of the curricula," Ebner explains, "of literature and its techniques
with Torah and its teachings." An example he gave is the use of Robert
Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" to stimulate discussion
about repentance. "It's Elul," he said, "There are roads
diverging in the woods. You've taken a path. Is it forever? Can you go back?
Frost is raising a religious question."
Rabbi Jeffrey Saks, the Jerusalem-based director of ATID and one of Ebner's
former students, approached Ebner about publishing "The Library of
Everything" because he believes that "moving between the [Judaic]
texts and the poems is a way of processing the religious experience, processing
things that normally wash over us."
The poems and their accompanying essays can be used in two ways, the publisher
said. The first is for students to see "the genesis of how a poet created
the poem through the [Jewish texts]," Saks said, "and how a sensitive
reader ... can distill the text into poetry." The book serves as an
invitation to others, he suggested, to create poetry of their own.
Second, Saks explained, yeshiva students and others "immersed in the
texts" can read Ebner's poems as Torah commentary. In that sense, he said,
the book is "a way to engage in Torah and look at ourselves."
Josh Cypess, assistant rabbi at Manhattan's Kehilath Jeshurun and also one of
Ebner's former students, said that while he believes Ebner's approach will
initially be met with curiosity and "guarded skepticism," the poetry
is indeed a powerful tool. Ebner spoke recently at Kehilath Jeshurun, and Cypess
reported that "while many people enjoyed the sermon, the addition of a poem
at the end, which summarized and sumblimated the content of the sermon, left the
whole room stunned, speechless, and greatly moved."
Ebner has been writing poetry since he was a teenager; he maintains a collection
of paper scraps with half-formed scribbles. He typically forms poems the way he
organizes sermons: through a process he calls "riffing." Starting with
a single text or concept, he brainstorms about other texts which relate to it,
and still more texts which relate to them, and so on, creating increasingly
The poem after which the new book is named was inspired by a discussion in which
someone told Ebner, "You said this," and he insisted, "No, I
"I started to wonder," he said, "Is there a Truth someplace?
Surely it's known to God." At this point he "was floating away from
the conversation. I started thinking that [when we die] we have access to all
the Truth of the universe in the `Library of Everything.' I asked myself: What
would I want to look up in this library? And where my riffing led me is that if
something is unimportant to look up [there], we have to `let it go' down here as
Ebner said that his second work, should he publish one, will be a compilation of
love poetry. Meanwhile he is creating with ATID researchers a complete
curriculum integrating Jewish Studies with prose literature; several Modern
Orthodox Jewish Day Schools in the U.S. eagerly await the results, according to
Whether the idea will be accepted in Haredi circles remains to be seen, but
Ebner believes strongly that "poetic sensibilities" and "a
sensitivity to the weight of words" are not only valid but imperative tools
for understanding the Bible and Jewish prayer.
"The Torah calls itself a sefer shira - a book of song or poetry," he
points out. "The last commandment in the book of Deuteronomy is to `write
this song.' The Torah has to be understood in poetic terms, the structure of the
words, the form of the words, the sounds of words, the music of poetry."
"I don't see," he said, "how developing a sense of the poetic is
not a proper way of raising the next generation of Jews.
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