Distance, part 2

The distance between people and God, and if/how that distance may be bridged, is a major question in theology, philosophy, and the arts, including contemporary Hebrew poetry. The previous post looked at related ways that “touch” [Hebrew: נָגַע] occurs both in Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed and in some verses from Yehuda Amichai. The distance between people and God is explored in a different way in the poetry of Leah Goldberg, according to Rabbi Dalia Marx in “Israeli ‘Secular’ Poets Encounter God.”

Goldberg’s God

Marx’s essay explores three Israeli poets, all considered “secular” rather than “religious,” in order to show that “religiosity and engagement with God are not limited to classical forms of prayer and to ‘religious’ circles.” In addition to Goldberg, poets discussed are Yona Wallach (1944-1985) and Orit Gidali (b. 1974).

Marx analyzes several Goldberg poems, including the series “From the Songs of Zion.” This four-poem series, Marx tells us, looks at the question raised in Psalm 137: How can we sing God’s song in a strange land? It concludes with “Journeying Birds” (translated here by Marx):

That spring morning
heaven grew wings.
Wandering westward,
the living heavens recited
T’fillat Haderekh: [22]
“Our God,
bring us in peace
beyond the ocean
beyond the abyss,
and return us in fall
to this tiny land
for she has heard our songs.” [23]
— Leah Goldberg IN Marx, pp.188-189

The essay continues:

Unlike Goldberg’s other poems discussed here, “Journeying Birds” reflects no distance from God — who appears like the God of tradition and who is addressed in a heartfelt prayer for a safe journey. Yet the prayer emanates from the mouth of birds, not the poet’s. What is impossible for her, who does not possess the language of prayer, can be uttered freely and naturally by the birds.

This is not a typical poem for Goldberg in the sense that she uses a familiar liturgical phrase, T’fillat Haderekh, even drawing upon its contents, which, traditionally, asks God “to bring us to our destination for life…and peace…and to return us to our homes in peace.” Like traditional Jewish prayer too, the birds speak in the first person plural [24]. Goldberg, by contrast, could only address “my God,” not the “traditional God” of common Jewish prayer [25].

…Goldberg often writes about birds, who symbolize, for her, joy and freedom. [26]. In this very native and local poem she allows birds to address the ineffable with a joyful prayer that she cannot make herself.
— Marx, “Israeli ‘Secular’ Poets Encounter God,”
IN Encountering God, p.189

The comment above about Goldberg’s use of “my God” refers to two poems also discussed in Marx’s essay: “I Saw My God at the Cafe” and “The Poems of the End of the Journey, 3.” The former does not address God, but describes “my God” in the third person. The latter begins, “Teach me, my God…,” and remains singular and personal throughout:

Teach me, my God, to bless and to pray
Over the secret of the withered leaf, on the glow of ripe fruit…
…Lest my day become for me simply habit.
— Goldberg, from “The Poems of the End of the Journey”
Poems II. Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hame’uchad, 1986

NOTE: See Marx’s essay for her translations and discussion of these poems. The full three-part “Poems of the Journey’s End,” translated by Rachel Tzvia Back, appears as a Haaretz poem of the week. (Requires a little patience with ads, but the poem will show up, free of charge).

Tradition and Alienation

In “Poems of the Journeys End,” Goldberg “negotiates with the living God from whom she feels alienated,” Marx tells us: “Traditional prayers are a manifestation of faith; this one is a supplication for faith to arise” (Encountering God, p. 188).

Perhaps it’s a question of chicken and egg, in terms of who picks up a siddur in the first place. But traditional prayers, in contrast to Marx’s declaration, are filled with words and imagery meant to spark a prayerful attitude…a sense of faith, one might say, which the siddur does not take for granted. (Imagining that we are imitating choruses of angels, joining our voices with “all living things who praise,” outright begging God to “open our lips.”)

Moreover, far from being new or unique in Goldberg’s poem(s), a feeling of distance or alienation from God is a major theme in the Book of Psalms. The Jerusalem Commentary on Psalms, e.g., includes a category called “descriptions of the spiritual distress of the psalmist, who feels himself far away from God” (p.xxiii).

It seems hard to believe, in fact, that Goldberg’s “Poems of the Journeys End” is not in active in dialogue with these themes in the psalms:

And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water,
that brings forth its fruit in its season, and whose leaf does not wither;
and all that it produces prospers.
— Psalm 1:3

So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.
— Psalm 90:12

But, somehow, her poetry seems to be read as oddly disconnected from the tradition that helped forge it:

As the orison of an ever-receding horizon, Lea Goldberg’s poems blur the line between the secular and religious divide. They reach for a “contiguity” (Dan Miron’s term) between tradition and a breach with that tradition, awakening anew the religious power of the Hebrew language. And so, this volume of poetry speaks uniquely to this generation of Jewish readers. It should be kept by one’s bedside, read as meditations, “blessings” or “hymns of praise” each morning and night, just as God renews Creation each day (Psalms 104), in the glory of dappled-things, a “withered leaf” or “ripe fruit”, reviving “all things counter, original, spare, and strange” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Pied Beauty”), so that your words do not blur in vulgar gibberish, so that your days not turn mundane.
— Rachel Adelman, 2005 review of a Goldberg volume

Hers? Mine? Ours?

Psalms are an odd hybrid of poetry and prayer. It’s not clear where they would fall when Marx declares, in “Israeli ‘Secular’ Poets Encounter God,” that prayer and poetry share an affinity but differ in essentials. But it seems odd that Marx makes so much of Goldberg’s shift from first-person singular to plural in the three poems discussed, without even mentioning that the psalms also include first-person singular and plural language, for both narrator and address to God.

Marx concludes her essay by reiterating the hope, expressed by poet Avot Yeshurun, that “Hebrew literature should renew prayer.” And she does make her point that ‘secular’ poets participate in a “vivacious religious sentiment…far richer and more bountiful than initially expected” (Encountering God, pp.196-197). But her decision to contrast poetry with “traditional prayer,” without mentioning psalms serves to dissociate Goldberg’s work from its background.

Psalms have, it seems, been considered somewhat old-fashioned for millenia —

When the sages in the Second Temple period composed the prayers and blessings that all Jews are obligated to recite, they created new texts rather than selecting chapters from Psalms….The main reason for this tendency seems to have been that the psalms were written in an ancient poetic style not easily understood in the Second Temple period. The rabbis used a style similar to the spoken language of their day, so that ordinary Jews could understand them.
Jerusalem Commentary on the Psalms, p. xliii

— but also demand their own renewal: “Sing unto the LORD a new song” (Psalm 149:1).

Goldberg’s “withered leaf” and desire to avoid the mundane are a fine example of renewing an old theme — except when authors, like Adelman, fail to mention the theme being renewed.

NOTES

“Israeli Secular Poets Encounter God” by Rabbi Dalia Marx
IN Encountering God: El Rachum V’chanun: God Merciful and Gracious. Lawrence A. Hoffman, editor. Woodstock, NY: Jewish Lights, 2016
Full paper also posted on Academia
TOP

Marx’s end-notes:

22. T’fillat Haderekh (literally, “the Road Prayer”) is the title of the traditional prayer for beginning a journey.

23. Leah Goldberg, Milim Achronot (Last Words) (Tel Aviv, 1957) reprinted in Poems II, 221 (my translation, DM).
BACK

24. Talmud, Berakhot 29b

25. For another exception, see Amir, “Prophecy and Halachah,” 52-53.
[Yehoyado Amir, “Prophecy and Halachah: Toward Non-Orthodox Religious Praxis in (Eretz) Israel. Tikvah Working Paper 06/12 (New York: NYU School of Law, 2012)]

26. Lieblich, Learning about Lea, 237
[Amia Lieblich, Learning about Lea (London: Athena Press, 2003)]
BACK

Roads, Birds, and Distance: Amichai, Goldberg, and the Rambam

“Touch” [Hebrew: נָגַע] is a word-of-the-week, as my study partner and I plow slowly through Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. This common verb, as it happens, is central to a Yehuda Amichai piece Temple Micah’s Hebrew Poetry group discussed this past Shabbat. The two explorations of touch shed a little extra light on one another — and on the Leah Goldberg poem, “Journeying Birds,” which our group also considered. (more on Amichai and the Hebrew Poetry group) Note: this post updated slightly 5/18/17.

Highway to Heaven

Maimonides’ non-stop stress on God’s non-corporeal nature might seem, for contemporary readers, like way too much attention on the obvious. Until very recently, I confess, I thought The Guide for the Perplexed was engaged in page after page of beating a horse long-dead, if ever it lived: After all, who among us, in this day (or in 1200 CE, for that matter), is convinced that the God of the Jews has literal feet? But I’ve come to appreciate a subtle truth in The Guide that shares a lot with Amichai’s use of playful irony and with Leah Goldberg’s God-approaching themes.

In Chapter XVIII of The Guide, the Rambam discusses the verb “touch” [נָגַע] and two others:

The three words karab, “to come near,” naga’, “to touch,” and nagash, “to approach,” sometimes signify “contact” or “nearness in space,” sometimes the approach of man’s knowledge to an object, as if it resembled the physical approach of one body to another.

…Wherever a word denoting approach or contact is employed in the prophetic writings to describe a relation between the Almighty and any created being, it has to be understood in the latter sense.
— Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed
(M. Friedlander, trans., pp.50-51)

The path “nearer” to God is a “spiritual approach, i.e., the attainment of some knowledge, not, however, approach in space,” Maimonides explains, citing these texts:

The LORD is near [קָרוֹב] to all who call Him,
to all who call Him with sincerity
קָרוֹב יְהוָה, לְכָל-קֹרְאָיו– לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת.
— Psalms 145:18

Observe therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, that, when they hear all these statutes, shall say: ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’
For what great nation is there, that hath God so nigh [קְרֹבִים] unto them, as the LORD our God is whensoever we call upon Him?
And what great nation is there, that hath statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?
— Deuteronomy 4:6-8 (The Guide cites 4:7)

But as for me, the nearness of God [קִרְבַת אֱלֹהִים] is my good;
I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all Thy works.
— Psalms 73:28

Yet they seek Me daily, and delight to know My ways; as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God, they ask of Me righteous ordinances, they delight to draw near unto God [קִרְבַת אֱלֹהִים יֶחְפָּצוּ].
— Isaiah 58:2 (Yom Kippur’s “Is this the fast I require?” passage)

—-“spiritual approach” citations from The Guide, chapter XVIII

While the philosopher often speaks of “knowledge” as essential in “spiritual approach,” his illustrative texts here suggest that the real requirement is intention or focus.

Bow Thy Heavens

Maimonides closes his chapter on “contact by comprehension,” with a return to the verb “touch.”

In the passage “Touch (ga’) the mountains, and they shall smoke” [Ps. 144:5], the verb “touch” is used in a figurative sense, viz., “Let my word touch them”….as if he who now comprehends anything which he had not comprehended previously had thereby approached a subject which had been distant from him. This point is of considerable importance.
The Guide, p.51

The verse Rambam cites —

יְהוָה, הַט-שָׁמֶיךָ וְתֵרֵד; גַּע בֶּהָרִים וְיֶעֱשָׁנוּ
O LORD, bow Thy heavens, and come down;
touch [גַּע — ga’] the mountains, that they may smoke.

— is often linked with Exodus 19:18 with its smokey revelation: “Now mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire.”

Maimonides has already gone to great pains to explain that God is no nearer “whether a person stand at the center of the earth or at the highest point of the ninth sphere, if this were possible.” But he doesn’t argue that asking God to “touch the mountains” or “bow the heaves” is meaningless. To the contrary, he takes the verse’s extreme imagery as a comment on the power of God’s “touch,” understood as comprehending a “subject which had been distant.”

For Maimonides, any biblical images of God “approaching,” “nearing,” or “touching” serve to emphasize change of human cognition. In a similar literary move, Amichai gives agency to a paved road in order to emphasize a human couple’s state of mind.

Highway Decision-making

While most of his later works use free verse, some of Amichai’s earlier pieces, including “Pinecones on the Tree Above,” rhyme. This long piece begins with a few verses about a highway and two lovers:

[It] reached (הגיע) almost here — but thinking of
The bit of eternity that a lover and his love

Found here, close to their everyday drone
Made a detour and left them alone.
— Amichai, “Pinecones on the Tree Above”

IN Yehuda Amichai: A Life in Poetry, 1948-1994
Benjamin & Barbara Harshav, translators (NY: Harper Collins, 1994).

The highway’s apparent consciousness — making the decision not to touch the couple — is happily accepted within the context of the verses: The playful image only enhances the reader’s understanding that it’s the couple who feel that the road, and world beyond, cannot touch them for the moment.

My contemporary Bilingual Learners Dictionary notes that the Hebrew verb naga’ — nun-gimmel-ayin — means “touch,” “concern,” and “connection.” A more prosaic description of Amichai’s scene might have said the road “didn’t concern them” or that the couple’s intimate connection dis-connected them from the nearby road. The couple’s state of mind, their lack of connection/concern with the road, is only emphasized by poetically giving (their) agency to the highway.

Should a reader object to the playful granting of decision-making ability to the highway, the poetry would cease to function. The poetry would equally fail for a reader who somehow believed that roads do, in fact, make choices. In a similar vein: Should a budding philosopher object to a God capable of sky-bending and mountain-smoking, Psalms 144:5 would lose its power. The verse also fails when such extraordinary imagery is taken as even potentially factual.

God Approaches

I’m still at start of The Guide, and remain pretty seriously perplexed, but I am increasingly sympathetic to Maimonides’ approach and find it oddly poetic — or, perhaps, oddly “Amichai-ish.” In approach, that is, not in content. (Although Amichai’s themes sometimes involve God and the distance between man and God, I don’t think “Pinecones on the Tree Above” is intended to explore this territory.) Leah Goldberg’s “Journeying Bird,” on the other hand, shares some of the philosopher’s quest for understanding how humans and God might approach one another. [Next post]

Throne, Heel, and Holidays

And whenever God sits upon His Throne of Glory He immediately thinks of the blue thread of the fringes worn by Israel, and bestows upon them blessings.
— footnote in Soncino edition, Chullin 89a

Does the color sapphire [sapir] somehow remind God of tekhelet [the blue of ritual fringes]? Or are the blues and God’s thoughts linked some other way? Are blessings contingent on the fringes? The process or causality described here is obscure to me. But I think the image can still inform this thread exploring tzitzit and “light” (minor) commandments. The key seems to be the importance of connection.
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