The Boss on the Bible

The Boss on the Bible

Rutgers prof spins midrashic tales about Bruce Springsteen lyrics

Bruce Springsteen, musical legend, retells biblical stories in his classic rock lyrics. “Bruce on Highway,” photo by Pamela Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen, musical legend, retells biblical stories in his classic rock lyrics. “Bruce on Highway,” photo by Pamela Springsteen

Why has a Jewish scholar who grew up in Israel and Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and was trained academically on legal midrash written a book about Bruce Springsteen, a Jersey boy raised Catholic? Turns out that the academic interests of Azzan Yadin-Israel, professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University, are diverse — he has published works on such subjects as biblical text, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and early Christianity — and sometimes he just goes where his curiosity takes him.

His curiosity about the use of biblical language in music — which he explores in “The Grace of God and the Grace of Man: The Theologies of Bruce Springsteen” (Lingua Publishing, 2016), was piqued when he noticed something interesting about the Israeli hip-hop band Hadag Nahash (the fish-snake), which is a spoonerism for the Hebrew phrase “nahag chadash,” “new driver.” 

Yadin-Israel told NJJN, “The band’s lead writer and singer, Shaanan Street, uses a lot of biblical language in his songs and a lot of rabbinic language, but gives them a little twist.” For example, the title of one of their songs, “B’ezrat ha-Jem,” which means “with the help of the jam session,” is a takeoff on the expression “B’ezrat Hashem,” meaning “with God’s help.” 

“You wonder what he’s doing with that,” Yadin-Israel said. “One instance, it’s interesting; two, it’s coincidence; three, four, five, it’s someone engaging these sources in an interesting, fresh, original way.” 

So in 2010 Yadin-Israel wrote an article about the band’s biblical references and Hebrew wordplay in the “Jewish Review of Books.” 

Yadin-Israel spoke about his book March 23 at the Princeton Theological Seminary in conjunction with “Bruce Springsteen: A Photographic Journey,” an exhibition on view at Princeton’s Morven Museum & Garden through May 21. 

Soon after his article was published, Rutgers started a program called the Byrne Seminars designed to give first-year students an opportunity to learn about original research and new scholarship from senior faculty in a small setting.

When considering a seminar to propose for the program, Yadin-Israel thought there might be an analogue to Hadag Nahash’s use of biblical and rabbinic sources in their music among English-language artists. Foregoing a focus on Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen because “it is so obvious; they are explicit about those aspects of their writing,” he wondered whether Springsteen’s work might provide enough material to sustain a class. 

So Yadin-Israel bought a book of the Boss’s lyrics and started to mark it up, looking for interesting biblical references, theological statements, and allusions. Passionate in his youth about New Jersey’s beloved native son, Yadin-Israel said, “It wasn’t as though I had randomly chosen Springsteen. I knew there was a possibility that his music would lend itself to this kind of analysis.” 

Having explored Springsteen’s work on his own and with his students, Yadin-Israel concluded, “He is basically engaging especially the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, in a sophisticated and nuanced way. In that sense he can be read as a kind of interpreter and midrashic reader.” 

Yadin-Israel offered as an example Springsteen’s “Adam Raised a Cain,” where he sees Springsteen doing two things as an interpreter. First, he said, Springsteen “presents a song about a young man and his tense, maybe violent, relationship with his father, against the backdrop of the Genesis narrative of the first family and the relationship between Adam and Cain, on the one hand, and Cain and Abel, on the other.”

Although we tend to read the first four chapters of Genesis as if the stories of Adam and Eve and of Cain and Abel are completely separate, the song, he said, “insists that if Cain was the first murderer of fratricide, then Adam had a part in that — there was a dynamic at play between father and son that can’t be ignored and can’t be read separately.”

As proof he offers the verse where the father has thrown his son out of the house, and the son says of the father, “We were prisoners of love, a love in chains…. With the same hot blood burning in our veins.” 

Yadin-Israel suggested that Springsteen’s presentation of these two explosive, perhaps violent figures as the backdrop of the story demands that we “reread the Genesis story and recognize that Cain and Abel didn’t come out of nowhere, the way it is generally read. We may impose it on the text but we shouldn’t, because this man killed his brother, and he came from whatever dynamic he grew up in.”

The second point Yadin-Israel takes from this song has to do with the line, “You’re born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else’s past…. You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames.” This echoes lines in other Springsteen songs, and Yadin-Israel said, “Those statements are reminiscent of the doctrine of original sin.” 

But the reference, he said, was not the Catholic Church’s notion of original sin, which is understood as passed on through sexual reproduction, but rather, Yadin-Israel, suggests, “original sin is because of the family you are born into, and in this case as the father passes it to the son.”

Yadin-Israel found many thought-provoking instances of biblical references in Springsteen’s work. “What was most interesting to me was to see how it cohered in a very interesting and sophisticated way,” he said. “It was not just a collection of biblical allusions for the sake of elevating the register of the song, but rather because there was some process of grappling with the text that resulted in the song coming out the way it did.”

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