Rabbi Springsteen, please

An Israeli professor at Rutgers University uses a one-credit undergrad course to delve into the Old Testament theology of Bruce Springsteen.

Bruce Springsteen performs in Rio de Janeiro 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Bruce Springsteen performs in Rio de Janeiro 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Bruce Springsteen may never have stepped foot in the Holy Land, but his lyrics are steeped in biblical imagery and concepts. However, it took an Israeli professor in rabbinic literature to connect the dots on the Boss’s long highway of thought and create an undergraduate college course called ‘Bruce Springsteen’s Theology.’ The just completed, standing room only, one-credit Rutgers University 10-week seminar was taught by Azzan Yadin-Israel, an associate professor of Jewish Studies and Classics, and a self-confessed longtime Springsteen fan.
“The concepts of redemption, crossing the desert and entering the Promised Land crop up repeatedly in Springsteen’s lyrics,” Yadin-Israel told The Jerusalem Post in a phone conversation last week from his Rutgers office. “And more often than not, like in songs like “Adam Raised a Cain” or “In the Belly of the Whale” (bonus track from Wrecking Ball), he refers to stories from the Hebrew Bible, recasting well-known biblical figures and within a modern context.”
Yadin-Israel was born in the US, lived in Israel between the ages of five and 10, and then returned as an adult for his BA studies at Hebrew University and his IDF service.
He first heard Springsteen in middle school and has followed his career ever since, but had never actually dissected his lyrics before for their theological makeup. However, an article he wrote for the Jewish Review of Books on the Israeli hip hop band Hadag Nahash pointed him in that direction.
“The article was called “Measure of Beauty’ and focuses on how Hadag Nahash draw from a very rich range of biblical and rabbinic Hebrew. But they do it in a very innovative and subversive way – subversive meaning in an educated, almost midrashic way,” said Yadin-Israel.
“The article got me to thinking about who their American counterpart might be, and when I started listening to Springsteen’s lyrics again, I began hearing them a little differently. I guess when you spend most of your adult life trying to interpret texts in a certain way, it becomes a habit.”
Yadin-Israel noticed that “Springsteen tries to drag the power of religious symbols that are usually relegated to some transcendent reality into our lived world. In many of his songs, you have the language of traditional religion and salvation but they’re transposed to the key of earthly existence,” he said Nowhere is that process more apparent than in the material Springsteen wrote for the seminal albums that made him a household name – Born To Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Both records used the open road as a metaphor for freedom and salvation, but also for danger and damnation.
According to Yadin-Israel, Born To Run’s opener “Thunder Road” provides the perfect example of the yin yang that characterizes Springsteen’s best work.
“’Thunder Road’ is a song that sets up an interesting theological debate,” he said.
“The narrator is wooing a woman named Mary who is committed to the notion that the traditional views of redemption are applicable to this world. She throws roses in the rain and wastes her summer ‘praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets.’ “While she wants this unattainable deal, he says, ‘I’m hero… all the redemption I can offer is beneath this dirty hood.’ He’s not saying that he can’t offer redemption, but that it’s a worldly redemption. And later he says, ‘We got one last chance to make it real, to trade in these wings for some wheels.’ The wheels are not divine, not angelic – they’re real and what we have here on Earth. It ends up being a pretty fascinating theological debate.”
Later in his career, Springsteen shifted away from writing as much about the open road and cars and the infinite possibilities of the night and began focusing more on relationships. But according to Yadin-Israel, religious references continue to serve as a lyrical cornerstone. With a song like “I’ll Work For Your Love” from Working on A Dream, Springsteen juxtaposes the mundane and holy to surprising effect.
“It starts off as a scene of domesticity, where the narrator asks his wife to pour him a drink from one of the cups she’s washing,” said Yadin-Israel. “And suddenly, the next line goes ‘And I’ll watch the bones on your back like the stations of the cross.’ “It’s kind of a shocking, but stark and powerful transition, like he’s telling us this is where the passion and the redemption is.”
Onstage, of course, the cerebral quality of Springsteen’s lyrics take a back seat to the performance, which can take on the aura of a spiritual revival, with plenty of gospel- like call-and-response moments, and a sense of liberation and fervor. But Yadin-Israel chose to focus on the words – ranging from the apocalyptic storms that accompany the narrator’s journey in “The Promised Land,” to the allusions to Elijah the prophet ascending in a chariot of fire as Springsteen describes the first responders of 9/11 rising up to “someplace higher” in the flames in The Rising’s “Into the Fire.”
While Yadin-Israel hasn’t seen any overtly Jewish quality to Springsteen’s writing, he offered that the Boss has succeeded in creating a couple lasting works of midrash in the rabbinic tradition, citing “Jesus Was an Only Son” (from Devils and Dust) and “Adam Raised A Cain” as examples.
“Jesus Was an Only Son” is a New Testament midrash and an extraordinary song,” he said. “It tells about the last days and hours of Jesus’s life, but he shifts the focus from the traditional theological emphasis to Mary, this mortal woman losing her only son.
“And on 'Adam Raised a Cain,' he creates a narrative of bringing Adam into the Cain and Able story to exemplify the tension and potentially very problematic relationship between fathers and sons. He’s relating the narrator’s issue with his father by using the Book of Genesis.”
Yadin-Israel said that he’s writing a book about Springsteen’s theology based on the seminar, and that he hopes to repeat the course soon.
“It garnered a lot more attention than my other courses, that’s for sure,” laughed Yadin-Israel, who was interviewed by Rolling Stone and other national US media outlets.
“It was a lot of fun and the students were engaged. At the beginning, it was hard for them to think of Springsteen in the terms I was asking them for, rather than a rock figure performing in stadiums,” he said, adding that university students in their teens are still into the Boss. “After all, we’re in New Jersey, so there are more students who are fans than there might be elsewhere.”
And Yadin-Israel himself has gained a new appreciation for the hall of fame rocker, and his place in the tradition of great story tellers.
“Certainly, most rock and rollers, certainly not white rockers, have dealt with issues like this in their songs. Springsteen has been able to do what really powerful midrashim do – retell you a story so you then think about the original story in a different way.”