Poem of the Week |

A Scribe Is Not Just a Scribe When Jerusalem Is Not Jerusalem

Norman Finkelstein looks to ancient sources for the poet’s work: 'You have heeded the word of the outside god / and you have heeded the word of no god at all'.

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A scribe, stone relief carving, date unknown,  Huangyuan County, Qinghai Province, China.
A scribe, stone relief carving, date unknown, Huangyuan County, Qinghai Province, China. Credit: Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden


Norman Finkelstein

You enter the city with harps and with flutes,
with drums and with baskets
of grapes and pomegranates.
You enter the city of blue ash and blue spruce,
that terraced city rumored of the spirit.

You come there as would a fire,
but neither you nor anything you touch is burned.
There is no sign upon you,
but there are signs upon the doorposts,
amulets of silver shaped like a hand
with letters upon the palm and fingers.

You wander into the little streets
unguarded by leopards or the statues of leopards,
where love is brought to you like an offering
stolen from the altar of a civic deity
who blesses the family with contentment.

Norman Finkelstein. Credit: Alice Finkelstein

You may say you have failed your calling,
that your riches and your debts have taken you this far
and will take you farther, you who have traded
upon yourself and upon the idols that you broke and reassembled.

You have written a history of renunciation
and a genealogy of indulgence,
mistaking pleasure for experience
and experience for wisdom.

You have raised your voice against the sufficiency of silence,
and answered by silence you were silenced,
but never with sufficient severity
and never without sufficient hope.

You have heeded the word of the outside god
and you have heeded the word of no god at all,
like a prophet turned archaeologist,
a scribe turned into a scribe.

From Scribe (Dos Madres Press, 2009), reprinted with permission

This coming weekend, Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah. In the traditional story, God gave Moses the entire Pentateuch verbatim on Mount Sinai; the scrolls read in synagogues are faithful copies handwritten by scribes.

Reading this poem, which was written in English, bear in mind that “scribe” in Hebrew – sofer – means both one who transcribes existing material and one who writes original material.

Shavuot is also the festival of the first fruits, which pilgrims brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. The opening image here might be of such pilgrims bearing two of the biblical seven species (two grains and five fruits)--– though of the fruits Norman Finkelstein mentions, only grapes are ripening now; pomegranates ripen in the fall.

But the “terraced city rumored of the spirit” isn’t Jerusalem after all: the trees are native to North America. Yet scriptural materials abound and we begin to realize they could have been put together in other ways by whoever wrote them down: Harps and flute are the first instruments mentioned in Genesis and in 1 Samuel 18:6, David (who was to become the Bible’s major poet) enters triumphantly into Jerusalem after slaughtering the Philistines, accompanied by “timbrels, joy and three-stringed instruments.” In the New Testament, Jesus also entered the city triumphantly, astride a donkey.

Stanza 2 references the burning bush that was not consumed. In Egypt, the Children of Israel signaled the Angel of Death to skip their homes, with signs (blood, not letters) upon their doorposts. The harmless leopards in stanza 3 purr “not Jerusalem” – by recalling the leopards in Jeremiah 5:6, which “tear to pieces” wrongdoers exiting Jerusalem and other cities; the “civic deity” indicates the presence of idols – anathema to the Prophets.

The last three stanzas critically examine “the scribe” – whom by now we realize is the poet – and finally celebrate him as “a prophet turned archaeologist / a scribe turned into a scribe” – encapsulating both meanings of the Hebrew sofer.

Poet Norman Finkelstein (not the controversial political scientist, but a respected critic of modern American and Jewish American literature), has published eight poetry books and teaches at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Of “Scribe,” he writes: “I am always reminded of the self-consciousness that, I believe, must accompany the fundamentally romantic but still crucial attempt to connect with the archaic powers of the poetic imagination on one level it will always be what the poem is about.”

* Musing: Who talks to whom in this poem?

*Bonus: A real-world triumphal entry into Jerusalem



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