- The Religious Turn:A Review Essay
It is impossible to speak Hebrew, to write in Hebrew, without the shadow of biblical and religious language hovering over one’s words. It is not surprising then that modern Hebrew poetry reflects religious struggle and yearning. Yet the religious issues of each generation are different and poetry undoubtedly reflects that difference.
There was a decided impulse of rejecting the Jewish religious past that characterized the founding generation of modern Hebrew poets. Bialik, the ‘father’ of modern Hebrew poetry, typically writes from the standpoint of the one shutting out the lights on the religious past. In his poem, “Levadi …”/“Alone,” he returns to the empty beit midrash and twice remarks, “They have all been taken away by the wind, they’ve all departed, and I, I alone am left …” Classical textual learning is over—and only Bialik is left to survey the loss. In a later essay, he writes that a canon of classical rabbinic literature need be established so that we can move on. Bialik’s nostalgic effort at museum-like preservation of the past was the most sympathetic attitude a generation in revolt against its religious past could muster. [End Page 147]
Others, especially those of a subsequent generation of Hebrew poets, may speak of “spiritual” moments or of religious quests, but the images used to capture that sense of spirituality are frequently drawn from nature and speak to a universal human experience. For instance, Leah Goldberg, now celebrated—the subject of an ongoing centennial exhibit at the Hebrew University—and whose captivating lilting poetry has sometimes been transformed into popular Israeli song, hardly refers to any Jewish religious practice. Insofar as she writes of the “spirit,” it is of spiritual vitality nurtured by nature, as in these lines: “The silent soul shall sing of the beauty of the world to the accompaniment of the psalmic chant of the stream.”1 Psalms are not the words of prayer uttered in the synagogue but nature’s chants. While Leah Goldberg’s poetry shows none of the revolt against a religious past that characterizes earlier Hebrew poets—when she speaks of the “spiritual,” her poetry is not fed by traditional Jewish religious sources or practice. Other poets of her generation are more steeped in Jewish tradition, but though they may touch on religious themes, many times one feels that their use of biblical themes or their speaking of the Divine reflects a poetic conceit rather than a genuine religious standpoint. A critical exception are a great number of poems that reflect in religious terms on the Holocaust—many of them incredibly moving; in the main, though, these are poems protesting God’s absence. Few of the poets of this generation live within a religious or observant context; certainly, religious practice is not central to their poetic muse. The poets of the early generations of modern Hebrew were largely not observant Jews nor did they see themselves as writing with the hope that they might be read by an observant audience.
In the second half of the twentieth century a sea change occurred in Israeli poetry, marked by the publication of the poetry of Zelda Shneerson Mishkovsky, simply known as Zelda. An Orthodox woman who wrote about religious themes, she used remarkable imagery to describe religious yearning and spoke unselfconsciously of Jewish religious practice. Take for [End Page 148] instance Zelda’s description of the way an observant life ties together two lovers, one of whom died, a poem that appeared in Zelda’s first collection of poetry published in 1967.
My peace is tied to yoursby a thread.
And the beloved festivalsand the wonderful seasons of the yearwith their treasury of smells, the flowers,the fruit, the leaves and the wind,and with the darkness and rain,the sudden snowfalland the...