Playing with the notion that the place of the gods and God is not outside in conventionally physical space, but inside language, inside the line of a poem. I wrote this little bit on theology and poetry, which appeared in Ken Koltun-Fromm and Leonard Kaplan’s edited Imagining the Jewish God. They asked me to provide a commentary on poems that were assembled together in the volume. The focus is for that reason both phenomenological, on the one hand, but specific to the way God is made to appear by these contemporary poets, i.e. for the most part, a mess of a figure. The essay is split into discrete sections: Imagination, Place, Time, Line, Jews & Animals, and Affect & Emotion. Nods are made to Andrew Benjamin, Gadamer, C.S. Lewis, Neusner, Petuchowski, and Santayana. You can find the whole thing here and the introduction below:
In the opening lines to his short study of medieval piyyut, Theology and Poetry, Jacob Petuchowski defined theology as rational discourse about God and about religion in general. As rational beings, Petuchowski understood that human beings verbalize, rationalize and systematize their discourse. Presented this way, theology is framed as an interpretive discipline. In this familiar view of it, theology does not constitute a primary source of religious knowledge. It wades only in the shallows, just outside such human experience as love, suffering, and death. Prior to its crystallization into theological statements, religion would stand in a closer bond with poetry as a form of lived sensation. The language of prayer would be poetic, if not poetry itself. Comparing it to theology, whose presuppositions and conclusions pass and fade, Petuchowski saw a quality of consistency in the tradition-based form of liturgical expression. Recommending not to mistake poetry for prose-like or conceptual doxa, Petuchowski took a dim view of Abraham Ibn Ezra in his castigation of the payytan Eleazar Kallir, or nineteenth century traditionalists and reformers alike, who viewed liturgy as a list of literal propositions whose truth one had either to affirm dogmatically or to reject critically.[i]
On Petuchowski’s lead, I am introducing this brief commentary to these secular poems about God with a short line from the musaf amidah service recited specially for Sabbaths and holidays. The phrase forms a part of the so-called kedushah or holiness section of the prayer. “Where is the place of His glory?” (aya makom kevodo)? Playing its part on the liturgical stage structured by the Siddur, the congregation joins the chorus of angels in asking a question which would mock that fixed tenet of rationalist-philosophical theology according to which an infinite God transcends time and space. Where is God’s place, God’s glory, or semblance of God’s glory? An answer might be simpler than it appears. Phenomenologically structured as a speech act, perhaps it turns out that the place to look for God’s glory is situate along the poetic line that constitutes the liturgical expression itself, the poem conceived as a place to which nothing in the world necessarily corresponds.
The point conveyed by Petuchowski is both counterintuitive and not. As a tradition based form, a liturgical image of God enjoys a measure of temporal consistency. While the precise definition of a concept signified by a liturgical image might change, the sign itself stays more or less the same across a larger historical duration. In traditional Jewish liturgical settings, one assumes that “God” will look consistently masculine: an overpowering and sublime presence, enthroned like a Canaanite deity in a bright nimbus as the skirts of “his” robe fill the sanctuary place. Brought directly from the prophet Isaiah into the image world of the kedushah, that is the way God has been traditionally pictured in Jewish prayer up until and through the modern period. While the liturgical poems of the later Spanish or German payytanim might shade this figure with this or that affective quality, the figure itself remains pretty much the same.
As the place to look for a poetic image of God now transfers out of the synagogue, the old rules and conventions may no longer hold in modern and contemporary non-liturgical poems like the ones collected here for this volume. It could be that the actual figure of God will assume the same buff masculine pose, but the aura of “his” nimbus may very well have dimmed and disappeared. Holding precariously in the poetic imagination, God has been colored in the modern and contemporary poem by agnosticism, secularism, skepticism, and atheism. “He” looks like the same God, only limned less by awe and more by anger. Gone is the grand style of the Spanish court or the baroque and rococo synagogue.
In reading through the poems presented here, I decided that the best approach for my purposes would be not to address individual poems or poets one after the other in sequence. Instead, I have decided to present them all together as a single aggregate voice, solely on the accidental basis of their happening to sit here together in this collection. On the first and then second and third reading, whatever insight about the poetic form of God that I might have wanted to draw from each individual poem or poet will have blended together into a common sensibility formed out of my own interpretive making. For my purpose in this commentary, what’s more important than the individual statement is the serial form in which the poems and poets are framed by their inclusion in this volume. It is my own sense that the poems belong with each other, their locus situated outside the synagogue, outside naïve piety, outside in the open. As I have sought to read them together, the figure of God coalescing in these poems are structured by simple concepts —imagination, place, time, form, creature, affect.