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Who’s the boss of the Bible?

Rutgers professor an expert on the interpretations of Rabbi Akiva and Bruce Springsteen

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Dr. Azzan Yadin-Israel will link scripture and Springsteen in his talk at Congregation Beth Sholom.

Dr. Azzan Yadin-Israel, arguably New Jersey’s foremost expert on the teachings of Rabbi Akiva, is coming to Teaneck Saturday night – to speak about Bruce Springsteen.

Dr. Yadin-Israel is an associate professor at Rutgers, where he teaches Jewish studies and classics. Late last year, Princeton University Press published his second book, “Scripture and Tradition: Rabbi Akiva and the Triumph of Midrash.”

But it is a 10-week freshman seminar on God in the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen that put him on the synagogue speaking circuit.

Rutgers asked Dr. Yadin-Israel for a topic that would engage freshman, and he remembered the good response he had received for an article in the Jewish Review of Books on biblical and talmudic references in the lyrics of Hadag Hanachash, an Israeli hip hop group. A fan of Mr. Springsteen’s music since his high school days in suburban Cleveland, Dr. Yadin-Israel had been struck by how often the New Jersey rocker “mobilized biblical images and discussed biblical themes.” So he printed out the lyrics and started going over them with a highlighter, noting every biblical and theological reference.

The students in his course, of course, “are not really of the generation that was committed to Springsteen,” Dr. Yadin-Israel said. He graduated from high school in 1985, perhaps at the peak moment of Springsteen’s commercial success. He does get some “very serious Springsteen fans” in his course, he said, but “other students are just curious about this juxtaposition of a rock singer and theology.”

For the class, he provides his students with lyrics to analyze and biblical sources to read. “If we’re reading ‘Adam Raised a Cain,” I’ll assign chapter four of Genesis,” he said. “The class will read that, read the song, and try to see what Springsteen is doing with the particular biblical narrative.”

Dr. Yadin-Israel’s appearance at Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom on Saturday night is scheduled to last three hours. That’s not long enough to go through the syllabus for the whole seminar. But it is enough time to explore what Dr. Yadin-Israel sees as “a very interesting arc in Springsteen’s songwriting.

“In his very earliest recordings, and also some of his unrecorded songs, there’s a fairly ardent anti-religious, or at least anti-Catholic, view,” he said. “Songs on Greetings from Asbury Park like ‘Lost in the Flood’ or ‘Hard to be a Saint in the City’ have aggressively negative religious images. I don’t know him, but it makes sense with some of the things he’s talked about in interviews about having a very hard time in Catholic school.”

Two albums later, Born to Run, Mr. Springsteen’s breakout hit album, “is in many ways the most theologically interesting album, because Springsteen really lays out a kind of alternative this-worldly theology. He takes theological categories and phrases and he removes them from their traditional ecclesiastical context and he applies them to a kind of celebration of this world, of the here-and-now.

“So you find in ‘Thunder Road’ the singer exhorting Mary, who is kind of reluctant to give herself over to a romantic relationships, ‘We’ve got one last chance to make it real / to trade in these wings on some wheels.’ In the context of the song it is clear that the singer is saying to the woman, ‘I can’t offer you wings, we’re not angels. That’s not going to happen, but I’ve got these wheels and I’ve got this car and we can go drive off.’

“Obviously that’s a much less glamorous form of salvation, but it has the distinct advantage of being real. It’s something you and I can reach for together. In that song and that album, you get a very interesting kind of alternative theology, a non-church-centered theology about the here-and-now.”

In his next album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, however, Springsteen “basically changes his entire position. The album deals to a great extant with the impossibility of the kind of redemption he championed in Born to Run.”

More recently, “in the last few albums he seems to be drawing on the theological motifs much more comfortably, in a kind of traditional sense. not reviving them but using them in their traditional biblical context in ways that just don’t appear in his earlier writings,” Dr. Yadin-Israel said.

“I’m not suggesting this is the only prism to read Springsteen’s writing,” he continued. “There are many songs that don’t deal with many of these themes.”

As for his work on rabbinic texts – “Much of what I do is much less accessible for the broader audience,” he said.

His focus is on tannaitic midrashim – works connecting the text of the Torah to its halachic interpretation, containing teachings of the same generations of rabbis whose teachings are recorded in the better known mishnah.

There were two main schools of interpretation in the second century C.E. – Rabbi Akiva’s and Rabbi Yishmael’s. Each of Dr. Yadin-Israel’s books deals with one of the schools.

The new one, “Scripture and Tradition,” examines the Sifra, a commentary on Leviticus attributed to Rabbi Akiva. Reviewing Dr. Yadin-Israel’s book this week, the Talmud Blog praised it as “detailed and meticulous.”

Dr. Yadin-Israel said he studied “the modes of interpretation that you find in the Sifra. Rabbi Akiva is kind of famous as a very free interpreter, who often learns a tremendous number of rulings from a single scriptural hint.

“My current book shows that it’s a much more complicated situation. If you separate the tannaitic sources from the later sources, you find that Rabbi Akiva has been read through a very specific prism by the later rabbis that isn’t really warranted.”

Among other findings, he said that well-known story of Rabbi Akiva as being a poor, ignorant shepherd who did not begin studying Torah until he turned 40 does not appear in the sources from before the time of the Talmud.

“That is apparently a very late tradition and that in and of itself is interesting,” Dr. Yadin-Israel said. “There are a number of earlier tannaitic sources that indicate that Rabbi Akiva may have been a disciple of the sages even his youth.”

Or as Bruce Springsteen might have put it: Maybe he was born to learn.

Information
When: 7:30-10:30 p.m., Saturday, February 28

Who: Dr. Azzan Yadin-Israel

What: “Finding Bruce in the Bible”

Where: Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Ave., Teaneck

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