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Why Can’t A Nation Of Talmudists Write A Poem?
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It’s funny that the same people that obsesses over a Tosfos can’t seem to warm up to poetry. The two forms are similar in their constrictions and have parallel goals, and both have historically been part of Judaism. What allows us to attack one with vigor, and never consider the other?

1. Talmudic Tribulations

What’s Tosfos? A Jewish religious text with multiple authors. One of the most challenging books ever written, and one of the most beautiful. A tour de force. Tosfos takes thousands of pages of Talmud – myriad opinions, legal positions, stories, practical advice, arguments, questions, answers – and dares look at the whole mess as an organized whole that ought not contradict itself. Then Tosfos plays different parts of the book against each other, searching for meaning in seeming contradictions. And what Tosfos says (and not in the easiest Rabbinic Hebrew, either) is only the beginning.

To wit: a certain Rabbi will opine in one tractate contrary to his opinion elsewhere. Tosfos will explain how it’s not really a contradiction with a dense five-line paragraph. From the beginner level of knowing basic Hebrew and Aramaic, it probably takes six months to a year of serious study to be able to understand those five lines.

But really it takes a lifetime.

Because those five lines aren’t five lines. They’re all of reality. Because Rashi, the commentary that chronologically preceded Tosfos and was available to the Tosafists, clearly has not just a different opinion, but the opposite opinion. It’s not as if Tosfos was working in a vacuum. For some reason Tosfos decides Rashi is wrong. So you dig deeper. Maybe you turn to later commentaries. Maybe you just rely on your own head. Turns out there’s a whole world here, grounded in the Gemara like an integral in its derivative, but operating at an entirely separate logical level. You find that Rashi and Tosfos disagree on this issue not just here, but in five other places spread across thousands of pages of Talmud. Not only that, but to understand their disagreements elsewhere, you must examine those tractates and dive into their flow. Now you have six different pieces of Talmud, each made of countless tiny pieces, and you have six opinions of Rashi and six of Tosfos. Tosfos doesn’t have to be internally consistent, as it has multiple authors (though of course it’s more elegant to explain it so if possible), but Rashi does. So first, you have to make all these Rashis internally consistent, and find the underlying logic that informs each of them. This is useful for the next step, because if Tosfos disagrees everywhere, their logic must be different. In the end, they have two completely different ways of reading all these sections of Talmud, internally consistent ways that fit into the exact same words of the Talmud equally well.

Tired of all this theorizing, you go to the codifiers, who take the whole mess and decide which position is more logical, and lay down the law for all generations. And there in Rambam (Maimonides), you see fell words, words that chill your blood: the great lawmaker seems to have borrowed freely from both Rashi and Tosfos; his ruling follows both of them, depending on the case. Rambam must have a way of reading the Talmud that’s completely different than both Rashi and Tosfos that allows him to mix these apparently contradictory opinions…

And so on, for the rest of your life, if you learn Torah.

The Talmudic novice often has a funny conception of Tosfos; he thinks it exists to make life more difficult. Everything was beautiful before they hacked away at it and rearranged it and insisted the whole thing had to make sense with itself. The Talmud (and with it, Judaism – in case you were thinking detachedly) is a shambles in its wake.

Of course, the student only appreciates the beauty of the Talmud at his own level. The ocean is indeed beautiful at the surface. Why is Tosfos bothering me with trenches and reefs? Who ever heard of a fish?

No, Tosfos is not here to destroy, but to lead us to deeper truth. It is only by disabusing us of the illusion of simplicity that it can then show us the light.

2. Poetic Parallels

These same Pharisees who study Talmud all day long can’t seem to appreciate a scrap of poetry. King David wrote poetry, it’s true – some of the greatest of all time, to this day, and even better in the original than in translation. King Solomon his son certainly wrote poetry. Many of Rashi and Tosfos’s contemporaries wrote poetry, religious poetry. But today, to my knowledge, very few religious Jews write poetry.

This, despite poetry being the Tosfos of reality.

Both poet and Tosfos plumb G-d’s work, and respect it. Both must find expression in small paragraphs. Both are plagued and vivified by the limitations of words and both must master these fragments of meaning if they hope to succeed. Where Tosfos sees edges of thought and logic and sharpens them against each other, the poet sees existential realms that must be interwoven – self and society, life and death, beauty and ugliness, joy and sorrow. What Tosfos reaches through analysis of the brain, the poet reaches through the deep appreciation of the heart.

Their instructive forms parallel each other. Beginners at poetry don’t understand why the poet cannot say his words directly and clearly. Why the strange line breaks, the odd rhythm, words no one uses, the otherworldly metaphors that menace even in their sweetness? Surely the poet is mocking reality, creating falsehoods? The rose is pink. Just say so. No need to tell me it’s like the blush of the palms of a newborn’s feet.

No! Just as with Tosfos, the goal here is to appreciate the Truth. And just as with Tosfos, the deeper truths cannot be brought in through the mind’s front door, and must be smuggled ‘round back. Our tendency is to see a rose for a rose. But G-d “blushed” both the flower and the child, and both of them grow, and both of them are born and then wither and fade away, and both of them call to mind love and family.

A rose is not just a rose. A statement in the Talmud is not just a statement. Nothing is just anything. And that’s why poetry and Tosfos, in their own realms, lead us beyond base contingent realities, beyond that which is for no reason, to the causal truth. To the sublime.

3. A Pervasive Coldness

Why don’t exegetes appreciate a form of expression whose axiomatic foundation is that if it can be said straight out, it’s not worth saying? Why don’t we tease at the surface of reality the same way we tease our texts? Why, in a word, aren’t we poets?

It’s not just the religious who no longer appreciate poetry. The secular Tosfos, so to speak, is ascendant as well. We moderns are awash with analysis if not outright skepticism, and our tendency is to question before we appreciate. And if we question and never come to appreciation, no one loses sleep over it. Read your Facebook feed. If it’s not some throwaway piece of humor or cheap inspiration tarted up for mass consumption, it’s endless politics and debate and disagreement. (Not that everyone must agree. There is beauty in diversity, as much as that word leaves an exit wound. It’s all valid. There is nothing wrong with using our minds and having opinions.) The model of the thinking modern man is the scientist, who understands by taking apart and reassembling, by digging at what things are rather than accepting that they are.

This approach prevents us from seeing the poetry. We exercise doubt before appreciation. Better to be the hard-nosed skeptic who believes nothing than the fool who believes everything, we think (in exact contradiction, incidentally, to something Rabbi Nachman of Breslov once said). In the sense of intellectual consumption, what we cannot digest, we discard.

Tosfos and the poet both aim at the truth, but Tosfos gets there through contradiction, with the cry of how can this be true?, and we relate to that in our confusion and alienation. To write poetry, we must be in the position to say how great is this truth!

Learning Tosfos and writing poetry both demand a taste for abstraction while adhering to the facts. But for Tosfos, the facts are ultimately the limiting force on the truth behind the text. To get carried away defeats Tosfos’ purpose, and this seems logical to our empirical common sense. For the poet, the facts are merely a gateway, and oh, to be swept off one’s feet!

In terms of outlook (though perhaps not raw intellectual acuity), it takes more work to be a poet. Whether the religious with their ancient texts or the secular with their scientific understanding, the idea of Truth as a subject of appreciation rather than dissection has fallen out of fashion. Even frum Jews tend to raise shields against life, to run everything through the microscope and the chromatograph-spectrometer until the mighty, raging love that pervades reality becomes a trickle that might wet our parched hearts.

4. An Example and a Prayer

If you’re still skeptical (heh), I place before you two quotes. They both describe the same creature. They both use objective facts, though in different ways. The first is about two-hundred words long. The second is about forty. The first categorizes and dissects. The second doesn’t even name its subject. The question is simple: Which one captures the truth?


Sample A:

Eagles are large, powerfully built birds of prey, with a heavy head and beak. Even the smallest eagles, like the Booted Eagle (Aquila pennata) (which is comparable in size to a Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) or Red-tailed Hawk (B. jamaicensis)), have relatively longer and more evenly broad wings, and more direct, faster flight – despite the reduced size of aerodynamic feathers. Most eagles are larger than any other raptors apart from some vultures. The smallest species of eagle is the South Nicobar Serpent Eagle (Spilornis klossi), at 450 g (1 lb) and 40 cm (16 in). The largest species are discussed below. Like all birds of prey, eagles have very large hooked beaks for tearing flesh from their prey, strong muscular legs, and powerful talons. The beak is typically heavier than that of most other birds of prey. Eagles’ eyes are extremely powerful, having up to 3.6 times human acuity for the martial eagle, which enables them to spot potential prey from a very long distance. This keen eyesight is primarily attributed to their extremely large pupils which ensure minimal diffraction (scattering) of the incoming light. The female of all known species of eagle is larger than the male.

Sample B:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.


Tosfos is beautiful, and it’s G-dly, and it’s perfect. Our scientific minds can discover plenty. But, G-d: If there’s no poetry between us, if I can’t learn to appreciate you as much as you appreciate me, if I can’t learn to love all the gifts you give me, chiefest among them life itself and your presence which are one, then how will we ever bring this long story to its sweet conclusion?


Image from Flickr.


Originally posted on Hevria.

Originally on Hevria Poetry Talmud

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