The Wexner Foundation Electronic Beit Midrash Parashat Ki Tissa

Today’s Biblical Landscape: Midrash and the Boss

By Stephen Hazan Arnoff

February 20, 2008

An alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Stephen Hazan Arnoff is the Executive Director of the 14th Street Y of The Educational Alliance. He will be speaking on Bob Dylan’s religious vision in context of Jewish education, culture, and leadership at a Wexner Foundation Lunch & Learn on Tuesday March 11th. He can be reached at To register for the Lunch & Learn, please contact Rosemary Cohen at

When last writing for this newsletter I reflected on the “biblical landscape” of songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen, whose liturgies challenge the cultural fear and complacency that so often block the light of Jewish creative life today. For an even sharper contemporary view of the vista of re-imagined biblical myth, descend Cohen’s Mount Baldy meditation retreat and set out for the Jersey Shore, where the Boss’ thirty years of midrash makes the Exodus story a quintessentially American tale from which all of us can learn about the path from religious myth and narrative to real world righteousness.

Bruce Springsteen’s characters roam the Promised Land of a covenant reversed. While God chooses the Israelites, carries them out of slavery, binds them in service for forty years of wandering in the desert, and ultimately leads them to the Land of Milk and Honey, Springsteen’s heroes come of age in the Land of Milk and Honey only to discover that it is a desert no man’s land on a journey towards slavery.

The narrative perspectives in this covenantal drama are many, shifting throughout Springsteen’s career. In the 70s, heroes spend “month-long vacations in the stratosphere,” bucking the authorities and expectations of their lives. But even when work numbs them, blood runs in the streets, or they cannot hold onto relationships, Springsteen’s heroes proclaim “I believe in a Promised Land” because music, love, and a good fight offer opportunities for hopeful, passionate wrestling with the world.

 In the 80s, the landscape of the Promised Land grows progressively more arid. Images of rusted out factories and dying cities and towns concretize betrayal of the covenant between the American working class and the powers of government and industry. While his 70s heroes’ wanderlust challenges them to rise above what is humdrum about the American dream – managing working wages and a family even as fantasies of adventure fade – by the 80s moral corruption from Vietnam to Reaganomics shatters the basic template of working class life. If “Born to Run” confronts the vision of the Promised Land with a vow that “We’re gonna get to that place/Where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun,” a decade later the quintessential Springsteen hero of “Born in the U.S.A.” agonizes: “I’m ten years burning down the road/Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go.”

Since the 90s, the betrayals described in Springsteen’s world have become ever more intimate, violent, and inevitable. The tributaries of middle class dreams and labor which had once irrigated the Promised Land have all but dried up. Functional, conservative neighborhoods with borders too narrow for many of Springsteen’s heroes to abide at the beginning of his career are now rotted through and through. Impoverished immigrants – often migrant workers, the most invisible of all Americans – seek hardscrabble survival on unforgiving soil. Now thirty years down the road, men and women who should be in the prime of their lives mourn not only the loss of their youthful adventure and rebellion, but also the disintegration of the economic and social foundation that the Promised Land is supposed to provide.

Like great American public voices from Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. to Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen employs the biblical trope of the Promised Land – supported by themes of covenant, exile, wandering, and redemption – to critique the possibilities of America, challenging America to face its mythology of itself.

Springsteen’s contemporary telling of the biblical story of the Promised Land reveals a covenant traveling in reverse – with visions progressively stark, apocalyptic, and resigned to failure – modeling how artistic fantasy and imagination can fuse ancient mythologies and common contemporary narratives to report the impact of a nation’s grandest visions on the everyday lives of its citizens.

 The Boss’ passionate courage and creativity model how interpretation of traditional narratives can inspire and challenge. He crafts a biblical landscape come to life in a time of countless choices about how and where to lead, hearts set on justice and eyes on the road.