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 world.

What may surprise some is that his work is a book of poetry.

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 and in select bookstores.

Inner reflection

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."

Stunned, speechless

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 complex connections.

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 didn't."

"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 well."

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 Saks.

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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