Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Poetry and Liturgy: Notes from Maeera

Back to poetry and liturgy, this time with help from Maeera Shreiber's essay "A Flair for Deviation," from my own anthology Jewish American Poetry: Poems, Commentary, and Reflections.

Maeera takes up the relationship between poetry and liturgy from a historical perspective. "Formally, prayer rather than prophecy is poetry's closest kin," she writes, "‑‑most specifically the piyyut or the liturgical poem which began as a supplement to the fixed or statutory prayer service." She cites liturgical historian Ismar Elbogin, who "explains that liturgical poetry served as an 'escape'‑‑a way of relieving the tedium of the fixed synagogue service (221)": a role which it certainly retains today (grin). "Taken as a whole," however, Maeera goes on, "his account suggests a considerably less benign function: for he frequently likens poetry to an epidemic‑‑a 'contagious disease' that is beyond restraint (225). Poetry is figured as a colonizing or "conquering" force that works to violate or trouble the integrity of the synagogue ritual, the dominant religious institution; interruption becomes disruption: once restricted to festivals and special Sabbaths, 'it also took control of the minor festivals and fast days' (225)."

The tension between liturgy and poetry played out differently in different places, the essay notes, in a paragraph worth quoting at length:
In Palestine, for example, where issues of exile were perhaps felt less acutely, prayer‑poems were tolerated rather easily, even encouraged. But in Babylonia, where anxiety about God's enabling presence reached an absolute fever pitch, it was altogether another matter. Viewed as a "foreign" and hence dangerous element, piyyutim were subject to serious opposition. The extent to which these poems represented a subversive presence is evident in a brief Talmudic fragment, which begins with the well‑known claim, "From the day that the Temple was destroyed, the Holy one of Blessing has no place but the four cubits of Halacha" (B. Berachot 8a); in other words, God dwells only in the Law, not in aesthetic productions such as prayer‑poems. This Talmudic fragment continues with Rabbis Asi and Ami responding to this claim, determining that "even though there were thirteen synagogues in Tiberias" (presumably where they lived), they would pray only "in between the pillars where they studied," shunning the synagogues where prayer‑poems occur.
Having just finished Daniel Boyarin's remarkable book Border Lines, I tend to see this Talmudic fragment primarily as evidence of some other Judaism, a non-Talmudic synagogue Judaism, competing with what would become (or was in the process of becoming) the normative rabbinic model--and I love the idea, however fictive or anachronistic, that it was a more poetry-friendly variety. Distinctions ripple outward from that Talmudic passage:
  • Poetry vs. Halacha
  • Poetry (which makes it new) vs. the set prayer service (which grows old, dull, routine)
  • and, as activities, Poesis (which invites the foreign and heterogenous into the mix) vs. Study (which turns inward, stays native, safely boundaried)
All of which would suggest that poetry should find a natural home in the liturgy of post-halachic, post-rabbinic Judaisms like those of the Reform and Reconstructionist movements.

But are poems the same as liturgical songs (piyyutim)? Or is this a difference we still need to wrestle? And what of the traditions of liturgical song / poetry within normative (halachic) Judaism? What do we need to say, know, teach about them?

More on such topics tomorrow.

1 comment:

Norman Finkelstein said...

Eric, these last two posts have been very worthwhile, and I thank you once again. Since I have been spending too much time out here in blogland, I will simply say that however attractive the idea of liturgical or even synagogue-friendly poetry might be, in either a historical or contemporary context, I for one would prefer not to have my poems used in a religious service, no matter how liberal or innovative. I wouldn't want them appropriated by that form of authority. I hope they are read and appreciated by communities of readers, but I hope that the members of those communities are first and foremost "believers" in poetry. In other words, though I spend a lot of time reading, writing and thinking in the space between religion and literature, it is important to me that this space is left open, at least in regard to my own work.