Theology, Poetry, and Crossword Puzzles After Auschwitz (Jacob Petuchowski)


Despite its dowdy title and drab cover, Jacob Petuchowski published Theology and Poetry: Studies in Medieval Piyyut as a popular and user-friendly book for the middle brow American Jewish reader. It’s a very modern book, a complex little thing with four main pillars:

[1] There’s a light introduction to medieval Jewish liturgical poetry, which speaks for itself, more or less –except that it won’t. There’s an edge to the book. For Petuchowski, the essence of piyyut is its meditation upon human finitude and the finality of death.

[2] Published in 1979 (with a 1975 pre-date in the intro), the book takes up the post-Holocaust predicament in Jewish theology. He writes explicitly with and against Richard Rubenstein, highlighting anti-theodic motifs in medieval piyyut. Pointing to the protest strain in Jewish religious thought, the argument is that there is more to medieval Jewish theology than the justification of God.

[3] There’s a theory of language at work. Nothing is meant literally. You sing what you can’t say with a straight face. The meanings come out different that way, depending upon the medium. That means that there is more to liturgical, expressive thinking than semantic content.

[4] Petuchowski takes an arch look at the modern postwar liberal religion of edification. No doubt, the modern Jew will leave the “aesthetic and intellectual joys of ‘problem solving’ for the crossword puzzle in his daily newspaper.” But the medieval synagogue was more comprehensive. According to Petuchowski, the kind of problem solving and intellectual games represented by medieval piyyut and the crossword puzzle were once a part of the “total worship experience.” (p.142)

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.
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