Profile of Reb Arthur Waskow in Zeek
My first Yom Kippur

From God to Verse: the Torah in rhyme

My friend Seth Brown is a mensch and a half. He's a terrific writer: regular humor columnist for a variety of newspapers, author of a few books, occasional render-er of current cultural matters into rhyme. (You should see -- or hear -- what he did with the text of the recent Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates.) All of these are cool things,  but the project of his heart over the last several years has been rendering the entire Torah in rhymed verse.

Religious Jews the world over read the Torah each year, devotionally. Seth is not, I think it's safe to say, a religious Jew. And yet he spent five years deeply immersed in this text, as attentive to the nuances of priestly detail in Leviticus and the closing monologue of Deuteronomy as he was to the Torah's famous opening lines. And now he's putting part of his long labors online. Here's how his Torah begins:

In the beginning when God was creating the heavens and all of the earth,
When the world was all wild and waste, and of light on the deep oceans there was a dearth,
And the wind of God hovering over the waters, God spoke and said, "Let there be light!"
And indeed, there was light. And God saw it, that light, and He saw that it was good and right.
After seeing his shining creation, God then separated the light from the dark.
So He called the light "Day" and the darkness as "Night" (and the difference between them was stark).
And then there was a setting and there was a dawning as earth's creation had begun,
There was evening and then there was morning, and that was the first day, so ending day one.

Seth is no Biblical Hebraicist. So to create this version of the Torah, he worked with four translations of the Hebrew text open on his desk at all times. (It's not unlike how zen abbot Norman Fischer created his renderings of the psalms, come to think of it.) Maybe it's not surprising that, as a poet and a humorist, he paid close attention to nuance and wordplay.

But that attention shows. His "In the beginning" echoes the way most of us have come to think of the Torah's somewhat mysterious first word, but he follows it with "when God was creating," the shift into the imperfect tense suggesting an ongoing action. Creation wasn't a one-time thing. God was creating the heavens and the earth then, and God is still creating them now: that's what that choice of tense suggests to me. And Seth made it purposefully. As a poet and a committed student of Torah, I love that. Look at "all wild and waste" -- what a gorgeous rendering of tohu vavohu! The alliteration in the English suggests the Hebrew's rhyme. Yes: Seth Brown is a man who takes words very seriously indeed.

And yet he doesn't take himself seriously, at all. That's part of his charm -- and part of the charm of this quirky and quixotic project, which is really not entirely like anything else I've ever read. I'll wager it's not exactly like anything you've ever read, either. Reading it, I see familiar texts in a new light.

Since Seth started these weekly posts at Rosh Hashanah, this week the newest post is Genesis 3. Here's a taste from late in the chapter, some of God's parting words to Adam:

By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, ’til at last you return to the ground–
For from it you were taken. You are dust, and back to dust you shall return (homeward bound).
The man named his wife Eve, for she was to become the great mother of all of the living.
The LORD God made Adam and his wife coats of skins and clothed them (being somewhat forgiving).

I love the alliteration of "bread" and "brow," and the parenthetical statement about God's forgiveness makes me laugh out loud (and seems right on.)

Im yirtzah Hashem and inshallah, all five books of From God to Verse will someday see print. (I know I look forward to shelving it alongside my other editions.) But for now, Seth is serializing the fifty chapters of Genesis online. Each week he'll post another chapter of the book of Bereshit. So if you're interested in Scripture, or poetry, or especially the intersection thereof, add From God to Verse to your RSS reader. And if there are turns of phrase that particularly charm you, drop Seth a line and let him know I sent you.

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