People of the Book:
Finding ‘a fresh Jewish theology’ in modern Hebrew-Israeli poetry with Professor Haim O. Rechnitzer
January 3, 2024
Long before Haim O. Rechnitzer, a professor of Jewish thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, put his first scholarly publication into the world and taught his first HUC-JIR course, he published his first poems. At age 16, he was one of six Jerusalem high school students selected to participate in a poetry workshop with the late Israeli poet T. Carmi. Since then, Rechnitzer has published dozens of scholarly books, articles, and chapters on political theology and contemporary Jewish theology and three volumes of poetry (the recent Pictures/Reproductions is the first available in translation). Now, for the first time, Rechnitzer is publishing a book that brings together these two worlds. In Ars Prophetica: Theology in the Poetry of Twentieth-century Hebrew Poets Avraham Halfi, Shin Shalom, Amir Gilboa, and T. Carmi (Hebrew Union College Press, 2023), Rechnitzer uncovers the theological elements in the work of four renowned Hebrew-Israeli secular poets. We caught up with Rechnitzer to talk about his new book and why he thinks these poets should be on every student’s bookshelf.
Want to learn more about the book and join a conversation on the subject with Rechnitzer and HUC-JIR alumni and students on the historic Cincinnati campus? He’ll be participating in our inaugural Alumni Study Retreat, January 7-9, 2024).
Haim O. Rechnitzer: The book is stemming from my search for a relevant, fresh Jewish theology, which I couldn’t find in me or around me. I realized it’s not on the regular shelves of Jewish thought. I had to look elsewhere. I found it in Hebrew-Israeli poetry. I found there a fresh, unbound engagement with the divine and with existential questions that touch on our relations with God, whatever that God is.
HOR: No, it was on me to take their poetry to speak their theology — to look at their poetry and ask: What is the religious worldview that immerses their poetry and emerges from their poetry? If they were reborn as theologians, what would be their teaching? Even though the four poets were secular and modern in various ways — the way they lived, what they wrote about — they present different models of talking to, about, and with God. They each got a traditional Jewish education. There’s a significant layer of canonical Jewish texts that are speaking with and into their poetry.
HOR: I close-read the poems, listen to the allusions, and trace each canonical source. Then, knowing all the sources that are referenced and alluded to, I try to see how it changes my understanding of the poetry. I read the entire corpus of each poet and identify every poem that is rich with these allusions and create a table of contents of their work, noting the religious motifs that emerge and repeat: canonical, religious, Hasidic, mystical, and others. It’s an excavation.
HOR: T. Carmi wrote a series of 10 numbered poems titled ‘Poems (and Imaging) against My Will,’ about his own last days. He knew he was going to part from this world because he had very advanced cancer. He’s not looking for religious escape, or Nechama. He knows there’s no afterworld. But he faces his own death — this very human, existential, secular situation — using Jewish canonical sources. I can read one of them. The guesthouse he’s referring to is a hospice.
Now I am a guesthouse
Empty at this hour,
At this moment, at this minute,
But it’s clear
that there will be no vacancy
What should one do in the meantime?
Leave a light at the entrance
Make the beds?
A time to remember
(the taste of coffee)
and a time to forget
(the taste of dust)
a time to die
(for it will surely come)
and a time to die
(for it has come).
He is playing with Ecclesiastes — Kohelet — at the end. ‘For everything there is a season.’ He’s insisting that, at these moments, I can go all the way to my sources or my roots and still not forget what I miss in the here and now — the taste of coffee.
HOR: Take that T. Carmi poem, for example. If you wanted to teach pastoral care, you might want students, who are usually young, to try to understand the situation of someone who is aware of their own end. If a student has never experienced this, how can they connect? The poem provides a way to do that using contemporary, modern, secular language and biblical sources. You can see how it could become a point for pastoral care: ‘Let’s read it together. Tell me what you think.’
HOR: One of the motivations that I had to jump into training to become a rabbi back in Israel was that I felt that the dichotomies between secular and religious were not fruitful for spiritual growth. I wanted to open another door. My book is a modest attempt, at least in one small area, to address that dichotomy. It’s an invitation to open another door.