Judaism Is Like Haiku

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Navigating a task without directions is a challenge, an additional burden that complicates any endeavor. Art has rules that guide artists in unleashing their creativity. Judaism, too, has rules that direct its practitioners to creative lives full of religious meaning. Within those limitations, the rules of the game, we best explore our abilities and express ourselves. Robert Frost once said about free verse that it is like playing tennis without a net. Very few people can succeed in chaos.

Last week, at the Orthodox Forum on developing a Jewish attitude to culture, a healthy discussion took place on religious limitations and art. Can an artist fulfill his creative impulses while facing halakhic boundaries? While halakhic limitations on art are generally loose, people operating on the borders of lashon hara and tzenius face potentially frustrating constraints. My view, and I believe that of most participants, is that halakhic boundaries are immutable. While they may be subject to interpretation and debate on specific details, they are in general binding on all Jews regardless of the potential creative loss. However, who is to say that art will suffer because of these rules? In struggling to adapt and comply, perhaps an artist will reach even greater heights. Creativity thrives within a bounded environment.

This came to mind as I explored R. Neil Fleischmann’s recent book, In the Field: A Collection of Haiku. With the strict limitation of a seventeen-syllable poem, the Haiku form does not strangle poets. It sparks creativity, forcing writers to find new ways of expressing complex ideas briefly yet profoundly. The boundaries are part of the poet’s art. Similarly, the halakhic boundaries should be a part of the religious artist’s creations, forcing him to find original ways to express his thoughts.

I won’t pretend that R. Fleischmann is the Shakespeare of Haiku. He is an amateur poet, a thoughtful individual who uses his ample talent to express his observations. In doing so he creates some excellent poetry such that even I, normally allergic to poetry and other forms of high culture, found among R. Fleischmann’s poems some that really spoke to me.

For example (p. 18):

Where do you find the time / I get asked all the time / Seems the time finds me

I love this poem. It expresses a common theme in my life, with an original ending — and all within the form of Haiku. And here’s another one (p. 69):

Life like a postcard / we write real big at the start / then run out of space

And since I spend a lot of time on the different building blocks of a book, I appreciated this clever acknowledgments page:

Too many to name / Thanks to all who made this book / Boundless gratitude

Art is not the only area of life where the observant Jew finds limitations. Perhaps halakhah is, at least to some degree, about creating rules to life, providing a tennis net, around and within which we grow. The rules offer us an opportunity for creativity. They serve as guidelines that are not meant to suffocate but to generate a framework for a more dynamic and successful life in tune with God and ourselves.

Judaism is like Haiku. By following the rules we can create great art.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. Probably the best Haiku (5-7-5) I’ve seen is the Shma. “She-ma Yis-ra-el | A-Mon-Ay E-lo-kei-nu | A-mon-ay Eh-chad!”

  2. Excellent post and review.

  3. Is Haiku great art, or elementary school stereotype?

  4. Pam Machefsky

    Perfect parallels: living beautifully within the “limits” of halakah and haiku!

  5. Michael Feldstein

    Haiku halacha
    Follow the proper shiur
    Five seven and five

  6. Joseph Kaplan

    Judaism is like haiku/Follow the rules/You create great art.

    All you needed, Gil, was a bit of editing.

  7. Next you’ll tell me that medieval Jewish rabbinical poeetry followed some non Jewish patterns?

  8. Lawrence Kaplan

    Alas, Walt Whitman!/Not knowing you were playing/ tennis with no net.

    A wise man once said:/ “A sneer’s no refutation.”/Take that Robert Frost.

    And on anther subject, mei-inynana de-yoma:

    Montreal, where Spring/ is just a brief pause between/ Winter and Summer.

  9. “Is Haiku great art, or elementary school stereotype?”

    Is this commenta joke, or snobbish pseudo-intellectualism?

  10. “I won’t pretend that R. Fleischmann is the Shakespeare of Haiku.”

    This was an unecassary comment, in an otherwise thoughtful review.

  11. This was an unecassary comment, in an otherwise thoughtful review.

    I thought it was necessary to forestall commenters critiquing the quality of his poems. If I had not put it in, people would start questioning his qualifications and ability. They might also buy the book based on my review and then complain to me that it is not on the level of poetry they expected.

  12. The comparison betwen the rules of art and the rules of halacha doesn’t work, in my opinion.

    The rules of art are dynamic, constantly changing. When the old rules no longer serve their purpose, they change. The ones who spark those changes are often considered the greatest artists, “strong artists” in Harold Bloom’s term.

    The rules of halacha are imposed from without, and are static. Often, their original meaning is lost, but the rules carry on.

  13. >Is this commenta joke, or snobbish pseudo-intellectualism?

    It was and is completely serious.

  14. While it’s quite cute, technically speaking Sh’ma can’t be made into a haiku because a standalone sh’va is not a syllable. Syllables require vowels, which sh’va is not.

  15. DTC: Haiku is not, actually, based on syllables (a Gaijin reform of the original Japanese rules).

  16. The irony in Gil’s post is twofold, from my perspective:

    first, is that if there were some article that oversimplified Halacha, the way in which this post oversimplified Haiku, it would be lampooned by many Hirurim readers.

    second, Gil’s post and comment history indicates he is a small “c” conservative who is resistant to creativity in Judaism (e.g. https://www.torahmusings.com/2010/09/nusach-feminist/) which makes the comparison downright funny to me.

  17. IH-even if one is a small “c” conservative as you defined R Gil, there is much room for creativity. That is the essence of the transmission of TSBP, whether in terms of Kula, Chumra, Psak or in simply understanding a line in a Rishon or Talmudic passage that presented difficulties for Talmidei Chachamim.

  18. Exhibit B: Blues.

  19. Interesting to follow Gil’s analogy a bit further.
    One needs to bear in mind that just following the rules is not what makes art – both in Haiku and Judaism.
    In Haiku, art results when you can fit a worthwhile idea into the form. Then you get a good poem.
    In Judaism too, simply following halacha does not by itself accomplish the goal, whatever that may be – life worth living, closeness to God, olam haba…it is when you can frame this larger goal within the framework of halacha that it becomes an art form.
    It is also worth noting that Haiku is not the only form of poetry – there are multiple ways to achieve the larger goal. Vi-dai li-chacima bi-remiza.

  20. There was an old man
    From Peru, whose lim’ricks all
    Look’d like haiku. He

    Said with a laugh, “I
    Cut them in half, the pay is
    Much better for two.”

  21. The issue in my mind is-
    Is setting boundaries helpful and creative or is it only limiting?
    But even from Etz Hadaas you can smell it,see it,touch it,hear it.
    Similarly with Halacha there are limits but much room to grow and be creative-freedom towards…

  22. another haiku halacha – to be a proper haiku, it must have a nature theme. other 5-7-5s are called senryu.

    although, apparently 17 is a maximum, there are other forms/patterns of haiku/senryu

    for more, with examples and references:

  23. Another reason why the art/halacha comparison is inapt: The goal of art is creativity and self-expression. The rules are necessary as a means to that end.

    The goal of halacha is, initially, obedience to God, and at a deeper level, closeness to God. Self-expression doesn’t enter into it.

  24. I would hope that ones Judaism is not like Haiku with its rather arbitrary and unnecessarily limiting rules. The examples of Haikus cited hardly fall into the category of great art or important creativity. While rules are necessary in order to live in this world and to interact with the “other”, it should not be so governing in terms of what we think, imagine, or believe. Those have rules, too, but they are more flexible and individualistic.

  25. Lawrence Kaplan

    Sonnets or blank verse or terza rima would be much better comparisons.

  26. Thank you Gil for reading and posting about my book. I wrote about this post and some of the comments and shared sundry related thoughts here – http://rabbifleischmann.blogspot.com/2011/04/life-is-like-life.html. Wishing you and all of your readers a Chag Kosher VeSameach.

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