(American) Religion, Judaism, & Poetry (Robert Frost & Rabbi Victor Reichert)

frost reichert

A very interesting article by Naomi Zeveloff, one of my favorite writers at the Jewish Forward, about the friendship between poet Robert Frost and Rabbi Victor Reichert, a Reform rabbi from Cincinnati. It adds a different texture to the American Jewish landscape, this addition of a certain type of Judaism into the American mix.

What I like about the association between Frost and Reichert is, of course, the combination of 1940s Americana and Judaism with its combinations of skepticism, spiritualism, craggy Old Testament groundedness and its harsh, craggy God alongside philosophical convergences between Swedenborg, Santayana, William James, and a Reform rabbi from Cincinnati.

The letters between Frost and Reichert have are down rt. 90 at SUNY  Buffalo’s poetry collection, where they were donated by Reichert’s son. This could be very interesting for anyone interested in the exploration of American Judaism, American religious thought, and American poetry.

According to Zeveloff’s article, the Hebrew Bible and, in particular, the book of Job figured prominently in Frost’s poetic universe. The interest in Job makes sense of these remarks by Lionel Trilling, quoted here by Gary Sloan in this very excellent piece about Frost and religion.

“The universe that he conceives,” said Lionel Trilling, “is a terrifying one.” In 1935, Frost described for students at Amherst College the cosmic milieu in which he wrote: “The background is hugeness and confusion, shading away into black and utter chaos.” Ominous forces lurked within and without. In “A Loose Mountain,” Frost imagines a cosmic assassin awaiting a propitious moment to sling a cataclysmic meteor at us (“But” means “only”)

Years and years ago (in the 1960s?), the eminent Conservative rabbi Robert Gordis wrote an essay critical of the emergent post-Holocaust theology called “A Cruel God or None at All?” Gordis rejected this as a false choice, but perhaps Frost, already much earlier, saw no way out of the dilemma.

Both Sloan and Zeveloff mention A Masque of Reason, a poem based on Job, about whom Frost seems to have consulted Reichert. There’s more, much more –an address at Reichert’s synagogue in 1946, a commencement address at Oberlin, his wife Elinor’s own atheism, remarks to his biographer. About religion, as observed by Sloan, Frost seemed to have vacillated. “’He tossed the idea of God up and down like a ball,’” said critic Alfred Kazin.”

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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