Interview'He finds the religious in the earthly'

Into the Fire: A Jewish studies prof. searches for The Bible in the lyrics of The Boss

Azzan Yadin-Israel maps theological parallels in the songs of Bruce Springsteen, finding Sodom and Gomorrah, the Exodus, and much more from Testaments Old and New

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Jewish studies professor Azzan Yadin-Israel. (CC, BY-SA, Asherif99444/Wikimedia)
Jewish studies professor Azzan Yadin-Israel. (CC, BY-SA, Asherif99444/Wikimedia)

NEW YORK — Azzan Yadin-Israel was at a conference in Pennsylvania when he told a colleague he planned to write a book about Bruce Springsteen.

“He burst out laughing. I had to wait until he stopped and then repeat, ‘No, I’m actually writing a book about Springsteen.’ It was a little awkward,” Yadin-Israel told The Times of Israel via Skype.

As a professor of Jewish studies and classics in the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, Rutgers University-New Brunswick, Yadin-Israel normally inhabits the world of early rabbinic literature, Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish mysticism and Plato. His previous book, which took nine years to write, was about early rabbinic commentary on Leviticus.

Nevertheless, he went ahead with his book idea and called it, “The Grace of God and the Grace of Man: The Theologies of Bruce Springsteen.”

Azzan Yadin-Israel at the Asbury Park boardwalk. (Courtesy)
Azzan Yadin-Israel at the Asbury Park boardwalk. (Courtesy)

For anyone expecting a biography or fan book, this is not it. Instead, it’s an exploration into Springsteen’s artistic relationship with various Old Testament themes including sin, redemption, and the notion of a promised land. It’s a meditation on The Boss and the Bible.

“I was interested in how starkly they [the lyrics] contrast with his public persona. Springsteen is always understood as a blue-collar guy, a hard rocker who plays to a large stadium. Unlike [Bob] Dylan or [Leonard] Cohen. When they say spiritual things it’s expected. When those same things are found in Springsteen’s lyrics it’s surprising,” Yadin-Israel said.

‘I was interested in how starkly the lyrics contrast with his public persona’

Yadin-Israel said he was also initially astonished at the level of Springsteen’s sophistication regarding biblical texts.

For example, the song “Lost in the Flood,” from Springsteen’s debut album “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.,” tells of a soldier back from war who finds America itself a foreign country: “They’re breakin’ beams and crosses with a spastic’s reelin’ perfection… And everybody’s wrecked on Main Street from drinking unholy blood.”

Yadin-Israel said that last line draws from Matthew 26:26 and Matthew 26:28, when during the Last Supper Jesus, who knows of his betrayal, turned to the apostles, gave them bread, and said “take, eat; this is my body,” and then pointing to the wine, said, “this is my blood.”

Steven Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform at the Los Angeles Sports Arena on March 15, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images via JTA)
Steven Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform at the Los Angeles Sports Arena on March 15, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images via JTA)

Springsteen fans might find the book a welcome companion to “Springsteen: A Photographic Journey,” an exhibition that runs through May 21 at the Morven Museum and Garden in The Boss’s home state of New Jersey.

During his two years researching the book, Yadin-Israel listened to a lot of Springsteen.

“Every time I got in the car I would play it,” he said, sometimes to the chagrin of his children.

Azzan Yadin-Israel at the back entrance to The Stone Pony, one of Springsteen's early clubs. (Courtesy)
Azzan Yadin-Israel at the back entrance to The Stone Pony, one of Springsteen’s early clubs. (Courtesy)

Now able to recite much of Springsteen’s lyrics by heart, Yadin-Israel said immersing himself in the lyrics, not just listening to them but also reading them, led him to conclude that while Springsteen’s working class background and Catholic upbringing informed his writing, the songs aren’t autobiographical.

“The assumption is often that the person is the same as the performer. There are a few issues with that. One, it’s not really helpful as an analytical framework. Two, it deteriorates into gossip very quickly,” Yadin-Israel said.

Just as a novelist can be authentic without being autobiographical, so too can a songwriter — it’s about drawing from ones experience and environment, said Yadin-Israel.

“My argument is not that they are not — I do not know Bruce Springsteen and could not in any case judge a song’s biographical ‘authenticity’ — but rather that his songs can and ought to be examined primarily as literary works, divorced from the circumstances of their composition,” he writes in the book.

One of the best examples of that is on “The Promised Land,” from Springsteen’s fourth album. He writes of being “On a rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert,” which represents, in Yadin-Israel’s view, the biblical desert wanderings the Israelite’s experienced during their Exodus from Egypt as well as their journey to the Promised Land.

It’s a long journey and the singer must overcome many difficulties, including an apocalyptic storm: “There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor, I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm.”

In the book, Yadin-Israel asks why would the storm come from the desert floor rather than the sky. The answer, he found, lies in Exodus 13:21, when “The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way.” Here the “dark cloud” is a biblical cloud, concluded Yadin-Israel.

Springsteen cites the Book of Genesis in “Hunter of Invisible Game,” from 2014’s “High Hopes,” when in the first stanza he sings about “an ark of gopher wood and pitch.” According to Yadin-Israel, the phrase is a reference to Genesis 6:14, when Noah is commanded to make the ark.

The second stanza takes the listener deeper into Genesis. Springsteen writes of the sound of trains, the image of a scarecrow on fire, and “empty cities and burnin’ plains” that greet the singer upon his awakening. The desolate cities, said Yadin-Israel, is a clear reference to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, when in Genesis 19:24 “the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire.” Further, in Genesis 19:28, Abraham “looked down towards Sodom and Gomorrah and towards all the land of the plain, and saw the smoke of the land going up like the smoke of a furnace,” wrote Yadin-Israel.

Another example is the song “Darkness on the Edge of Town” from the album of the same name, which describes a person torn between two different worlds, Yadin-Israel said.

“In Paul’s letter to the Romans, especially Chapter 7, there’s a description of a person at war with themselves, and that album really picks up on that and presents this kind of struggle within the individual,” he wrote.

Of course as art is to the eye of the beholder, lyrics are to the ear of the listener — to a degree, Yadin-Israel said.

'The Grace of God and the Grace of Man,' by Azzan Yadin-Israel. (Courtesy)
‘The Grace of God and the Grace of Man,’ by Azzan Yadin-Israel. (Courtesy)

“Whether he would agree with my interpretation is beside the point. I don’t think interpreters can run roughshod over text. If I said the song was really about Tibetan Buddhist breathing exercises that would be off the mark. But a compelling interpretation that is well thought out, you can’t completely dismiss that,” he said.

Like many artists before him, such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Ray Charles, Yadin-Israel sees Springsteen as “situated on the secular-sacred divide that has run through rock ‘n roll from it’s earliest days.”

Although unlike those artists, Yadin-Israel sees Springsteen as moving more easily between the secular and sacred spheres.

“With Springsteen it’s not so simple. He finds the religious in the earthly. He’s saying there are elements of the transcendent in our world. If Thoreau is about finding spiritualism in nature, if Nietzsche is about finding it in art, then for Springsteen it might be about [finding it in] the love of your wife or the freedom in the car,” he said.

‘Whether he would agree with my interpretation is beside the point’

For example, in “Streets of Philadelphia,” a song Springsteen wrote for the AIDS-themed movie “Philadelphia,” a man speaks of being incapable of recognizing his own reflection, and of his search for whether he will be accepted. Replete with religious references, the man in the song is addressing his fellow man as brother, feeling he has no hope for salvation and no place in heaven: “So receive me brother with your faithless kiss, Or will we leave each other alone like this, On the Streets of Philadelphia.”

“These lines are a reference to Matthew 12:46-50,” said the professor. “The phrase ‘receive me brother’ alludes to receiving communion, as well as Jesus pointing to his disciples and saying ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother,'” wrote Yadin-Israel in the book.

“The Grace of God” is divided into three sections: “Early Works,” “Sin, Grace and the Struggle Within,” and “Springsteen’s Midrash.”

The last section focuses on four songs: “Swallowed Up (In the Belly of the Whale),” “Into the Fire,” “Adam Raised a Cain” and “Jesus Was an Only Son.”

“It shows just how interesting an interpreter Springsteen is,” Yadin-Israel said of “Jesus Was an Only Son,” from 2005’s “Devil & Dust.”

“It is the passion narrative seen through Mary’s eyes and what she lost. He finds a new perspective and a new angle. It’s a classic, Midrashic tradition.”

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