Guest Post: The Prophetic Torah of Ezra Furman

A brilliant musician illuminates her lyrics

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This is still a time of profound suffering, friends. Today I don’t have anything new or additional to say right now on Israel/Palestine, though, and I thought it might be a good day for this, which was originally meant to go out a few weeks ago—and which is as emotional and truth-telling and redemptive as it gets, and God willing may offer us all some of the Torah that we need right now.

Because of course that’s how this happened, I first encountered Ezra Furman at minyan.

I mean, there’s not that good a story, really—she turned up visiting her people at the place I usually went on Shabbat morning, a sleepy little lay-led community, and it was only much later that someone mentioned that they made music, and at some point I listened to it and realized that damn, they were good.

This was about ten years ago, before Perpetual Motion People (2015) started collecting “Best Album of the Year” citations, before Transangelic Exodus (2018) and Twelve Nudes (2019) skyrocketed her up in attention in the indie world, before she did the soundtrack for the TV show Sex Education, before, ohhh, All of us Flames last year.

They’re like Lou Reed’s true rock and roll daughter, except able to access the treasures of their shared heritage in a way that Lewis Allen Rabinowitz never did.

But of course it’s not just Lou in there. From 50s girl groups and rambling folk through ferocious punk, her influences are many—I am valiantly fighting the temptation to bog this paragraph down—but her voice is singular. So just listen.

It’s well-known, I think, at this point, that her Judaism has shaped her songwriting, and I find much truly powerful and new Torah in her lyrics. So I asked if she’d be down to share a few thoughts about some of what’s going on in some of her songs, and she generously said yes.

My suggestion? Listen first, then read.

(From here down, it’s Ezra writing.)

The Queen of Hearts (2012) (Lyrics here)

I had written songs about God before, but this was a breakthrough. The older songs always relied on “a wink and a nod,” a sort of plausible deniability about whether or not I was sincere. This was a major thread of the liberal Jewish culture I was brought up in: sure, yes, let’s do Judaism, but come on, really, you can’t be serious.

Here, though, is an unguarded declaration of a spiritual quest, expansively including both my longing for divine connection and the cynical materialist American landscape in which the search takes place.

This remains my outlook: I’m reaching for God, against the grain of a spiritually bankrupt culture.

Looking back at this song I notice the micro-references in the lyrics to the various Jewish writers who were influencing me.

“That the sublime was in my reach

That the ocean of the known ends at the beach

just up the street”

is directly from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. In a passage from Man Is Not Alone (1951) that has been ringing in my ears since I was a teenager, Heschel writes:

“The Search for reason ends at the known; on the immense expanse beyond it only the sense of the ineffable can glide... We do not leave the shore of the known in search of adventure or suspense or because of the failure of reason to answer our questions. We sail because our mind is like a fantastic seashell, and when applying our ear to its lips we hear a perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore.”

But right next to that sense of religious wonder is the voice of a postmodern alienated Jew like David Berman.

“In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection… they had to make a correction,”

Berman wrote in his masterful song “Random Rules” (1998). Whereas for me,

“People like that are considered aberrations

And I’m being corrected as we speak.”

I hear my younger self fighting through the alienation to get to where I’m going:

“This is my heart, it’s a motor

It will search the world over

A search engine, see what I mean?”

I’m trying to articulate a sincere spirituality that can exist without ignoring the broken world or regressing to a pre-modern naïveté. I can only hope it makes sense to someone else.

God Lifts Up the Lowly (2018) (Lyrics here)

To make a long story short, I wrote this concept album about people turning into angels called Transangelic Exodus. It had a whole dystopian sci-fi narrative but I ended up mostly forgoing the plot and just keeping the setting: me and my outlaw angel companion driving across America, sleeping in parking lots, dodging an oppressive government.

I think I really felt I needed a guardian angel, so I wrote myself one. But it turns out that angels need guarding, too. The vision was of mutual DIY care and protection from a hostile society. At the time I surprised myself by writing this way, but as I look back on the fact that I was coming out as trans as America descended into the Trump era, it makes a lot of sense.

I was also obsessed with the theological idea that God’s care for the least powerful people is inseparable from God’s greatness. There is a Talmudic passage that in many communities is read on Saturday night after the conclusion of Shabbat:

Rabbi Yochanan said, Wherever you find the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be God, there you find God’s humility. This is written in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets, and stated a third time in the Writings. It is written in the Torah:

“For God your God is Deity of deities and God of gods, the great, mighty and awe-inspiring God, who shows no favoritism and accepts no bribe.”

Immediately afterwards it is written,

“God upholds the cause of the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, giving them food and clothing.”  (Talmud Megillah 31a)

The passage goes on with more examples. Even before encountering this passage, this aspect of the Biblical vision of God jumped out at me, particularly in the Hallel service, a collection of various Psalms recited on most holidays. Hallel is recited as a moment of celebration, but it is a particular flavor of celebration: again and again, the liturgy speaks of being rescued from trouble, saved from death, released from chains.

The powerful impression that it leaves is that getting the weak out of trouble is central to what God does, who God is. This began to work its way into my songwriting.

I have long found it depressing (though not surprising) that so many liberal and leftist Westerners think of religion as a universe of conformity and oppression, one they wouldn’t go near if you paid them.

The Hebrew Bible is vehemently anti-oppression to its very core, and in it God always champions the cause of the lowly, the poor, the oppressed.

I wish that were more amplified, acted upon, by traditional communities. So again, in this song, I am reaching toward making that theology more clear, insisting that, while many religious communities may steep themselves in repressive practices, the heart of my spirituality is laser-focused on solidarity with the vulnerable.

Book of Our Names (2022) (Lyrics here)

One of the most important social awakenings I have had in my life is the process of coming to understand that American police are, in many cases, allowed and even encouraged to harm and kill innocent people. Though I had been aware of the phenomenon of police brutality, had even participated in public demonstrations protesting it, I started to really understand the scope of the problem in the mid-2010s, when the killing of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri ignited an international outcry. Countless comparable murders have taken place since, which have spiritually sickened me and perhaps politically radicalized me. I’m not sure I would call it “radical” to oppose the unplanned execution of civilians by the cops, but maybe that’s just semantics. I have become, spiritually, a conscious enemy of the state that carries out such violence.

A society which excuses state-sponsored murder of innocent people is fundamentally different from one that does not. Once that is happening, you are in a very different kind of a situation.

The second book of the Bible is predicated on just such a situation. Egypt enslaves and murders the Israelites as a matter of course, and God explosively intervenes with plagues of wrath and a dramatic rescue of the slaves. This drama culminates in all of Pharaoh’s cops being drowned in the Red Sea while the Israelites get out unharmed.

What I noticed a few years ago about the book is that in English we call it Exodus, but in Hebrew it’s called Shmot: Names. It struck me that this terminological difference might be more significant than it seems. If the book is called Exodus, it’s about leaving Egypt. If it’s called Names, it has to do with identity, with selfhood, both individual and collective.

The titular names are those of the individuals who first went down to Egypt and who originated the tribes of Israel, called by the same names.

Essentially, Exodus would seem to be a book about where you’re leaving from, whereas Shmot is a book about where you’re going, who you’re becoming, who the oppressors won’t let you be until you break their chains and get free.

Alongside the Black Lives Matter movement was a movement created by the African American Policy Forum called Say Her Name, and later Say Their Names. Launched as a social media hashtag in 2015, it became a well-known ritual of public protest: the saying out loud of the names of victims of police violence.

As Kimberle Crenshaw of the AAPF put it,

“If you say the name, you're prompted to learn the story, and if you know the story, then you have a broader sense of all the ways Black bodies are made vulnerable to police violence.”

There is power in knowing a name, saying a name, especially in memory of a victim.

It emphasizes their personhood, their irreplaceability, in defiance of those who treated them as expendable, less than human. The Jewish people have collective historical experience of being dehumanized and murdered, and it goes back to our most foundational texts. I see our tradition as challenging us to draw on this experience to oppose such treatment of any community, in any society, with everything we’ve got.

Temple of Broken Dreams (2022) (Lyrics here)

Maybe you remember the springtime of 5780. Also known as the springtime of 2020. The start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly most of civilization shut down and our dwellings became islands. There was mass death and there was universal mortal fear.

Other than those twin terrible realities, the worst part was that we could not be together. We couldn’t safely gather and we couldn’t see the ones we loved if they did not live in immediate proximity.

No one was fully prepared for this moment. But the Jewish people did arrive at it with certain spiritual resources at the ready. The first week of full lockdown, I heard a dvar Torah (sermon) given by the great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, whose writing and teaching has nourished me for many years. The Torah portion that week was Vayakhel, and Rabbi Sacks marveled at the uncanny timing of the portion. Vayakhel means “he gathered,” as in, “And Moses gathered the entire community of the children of Israel.”

He gathers them to begin the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in which they were to worship God, the model for the eventual holy temple in Jerusalem. But before the building instructions begin, he reiterates a crucial practice: that the seventh day of the week is Shabbat, a day of rest on which no work should be done.

The obvious question about this text is, why does Moses need to tell the Israelites about Shabbat, here? The idea of Shabbat has already been articulated multiple times before this point in the text.

The classic answer is that it was a reminder that Shabbat takes precedence over all work, even the urgent and holy work of building a sanctuary for God. The rabbinic categories of work prohibited on Shabbat end up being structured on the categories of work needed to build the Mishkan.

But here Rabbi Sacks offered a different response to this textual problem, or deepened and widened the meaning of the classic response. He said that this was a case of God providing a cure in advance for a hardship not yet felt. At the outset of the creation of a physical, central space for Jewish worship, God knew that there would come a time when the Jews would not be able to gather, when we would become decentralized, exiled, scattered across the map.

Barred from our sanctuaries, as we were from our synagogues that spring. And so a ritual was given precedence over the place-based ritual of worship in the sanctuary: Shabbat. Shabbat is a time-centered ritual that can be observed anywhere, and the Jewish people observe it all over the world. Our time-based rituals are what have held us together as a community despite being thousands of miles away from one another.

We say the same prayers, and read the same texts, and do the same rituals, at the same time.

The Jewish people is a virtual people, a conceptual community, and though you can burn down our temples, you can’t burn down Shabbes.

That week, the synagogues were closed. But the Jews read Vayakhel anyhow, and so we were in some way together. Families, friends, lovers, organizations and communities were similarly learning how to practice virtual togetherness over the ensuing months. And I wrote songs, an artform which I have always felt as a mystical fiber of connection between myself, alone in a room, and a world of people who, like me, yearn to defeat loneliness, to all sing together.

There is a yearning that is fundamental to Judaism, a sense of the world as incomplete or broken. It is the brokenness and separation that allows us to love and care for each other, to experience the adventure of self-transcendence, even perhaps allows the world to exist at all.

This thread is famously developed in Lurianic Kabbalah, but I don’t even really know much about all that. It is intuitive to me that brokenness calls us to connection with one another, and the disappointments of life, our broken dreams, are what make love and care possible and vital. And it is our geographic displacement that has taught us to be together in a way far deeper than physical proximity.

Suddenly I wish I could talk to you all about this in person. I can’t, but I am very grateful to Danya for asking me to write in this context and connect with all of you who are reading this. Thank you, all of you, for listening.


DR here, closing out with a bonus song. Evening Prayer lyrics here.

Ezra Furman’s website is here. Follow her on IG here, not-twitter here, fb here, and on Spotify here.

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