- Agnon’s Yamim Nora⋅im: Then and Now
It is at this writing 75 years since S. Y. Agnon’s classic anthology of High Holy Day material and lore, Yamim Nora⋅im, was first published.1 This moment provides a good opportunity to raise some questions about it—actually, two questions or sets of questions. The first is a question we may fairly ask of any work that has attained the status of a classic: Is it as widely read today as its reputation warrants? Is Yamim Nora⋅im as valuable and as potent a resource for twenty-first century Jews as it was for those of earlier generations? Is it still a standard work for Jews, rabbis or laypersons, who want to prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and who seek to enhance their experience and observance of those days? The second question concerns the origin and objective of the work: How did Agnon come to write it? Why did he write it? And what did he hope to accomplish by it? The two sets of questions are related, for in answering the second we can hopefully make some headway with the first.
To some extent, to ask about the status and stature of Yamim Nora⋅im in our time is a leading question. A strong case can be made that the principle of dor dor v’dorshav (i.e., different generations require their own interpreters) applies here. The cultural horizon under which Jews today live— [End Page 39] not all Jews by any means, but many or even most Jews—and within which they read and interpret the texts and traditions they have inherited, is quite different from the pre-World War II, pre-Holocaust, pre-State of Israel, prepostmodern, pre-cybernetic, pre-globalized horizon upon which Yamim Nora⋅im first appeared. It would therefore be quite understandable if the work could not address the spiritual condition of those twenty-first century Jews who want to make Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur less an autumnal Jewish “gathering of the clans” and more an experience of two (or ten) days that are religiously meaningful.
On the other hand, the midrashim, parables, ḥasidic vignettes, rituals, customs, and teachings that Agnon painstakingly collected in Yamim Nora⋅im are not costume jewelry or, as Kafka complained, intriguing souvenirs that belonged to our grandparents or great-grandparents. Rather, they are spiritual assets created by significant Jewish minds and souls in the past and preserved in the vault of cultural and national memory. That, at least, is how Agnon perceived them, but with one other important assumption in mind: that these are liquid assets, available and usable by any Jew willing to claim and be enriched by them.
Although some may think so, it is not a foregone conclusion that these two perspectives are antithetical and mutually exclusive. It may not be a case of “either/or” but of “both/and.” The disconnect between the present and the past is real and profound. And yet, at the same time, the received texts of our tradition and the values enshrined in them are no less available to us today than they were to our forbears, even as we do not—cannot—read them as they did, and even as we appropriate them differently. I believe Agnon understood all of this, understood it as well as anyone, and it is this realization that I think underlies the whole laborious project he undertook of compiling Yamim Nora⋅im.
Why did he undertake it? What was it that impelled Agnon in the mid-1930s to forego more than two years of literary creativity and give himself over, often for as much as sixteen hours a day, to research, review, and evaluate, thousands of texts from the Bible, Talmud, Midrash, Zohar, and other mystical, ḥasidic and halakhic lore, and then select and arrange them into an intelligible series and a coherent whole? It was a decision for which he was [End Page 40] criticized by some literary critics, including his friend and colleague Dov Sadan. Sadan had heaped praise on Agnon’s stunning 1935 novel, Sippur Pashut (“A Simple Story”), but when Yamim Nora...