Toward a Jewish (M)orality: Speaking of a Postmodern Jewish Ethics

By S. Daniel Breslauer | Go to book overview
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playing with Zionist themes, no less than his playing with the elements of Jewish tradition and Western culture, follows a moral imperative, in this case the imperative to record the voices of those who are left out.

Shimon Halkin misreads Tchernichowsky's poem, taking the allegories as serious options. He concludes that "only on the basis of the best in humanity can the poet seize the greatest of poems for himself, for thus and only thus does he see the basis of humanity which comes from the world of the creative spirit."27 Halkin has read the allegories correctly. The poet does indeed evoke the best and greatest of Western thought. The allegories, however, are not identical to the myth the poet spins. The myth, given the definition with which we began, must be the story that the poet tells. In that story the hero does not seize the former great works for himself. Instead the substance of the myth tells of repeated failure. The recurrent pattern is that of the unsuccessful quest. The poem describes the impossibility of such appropriation of the great works of the past and issues a cry of pain on behalf of all the spiritually homeless.

This myth functions clearly and logically, in contrast to those theorists who claim that myth cannot be reproduced in coherent language. The myth of the poem, as Robert Alter has already intimated, is a nationalistic one and expresses a familiar image in Zionist literature. The choice of myth as the means for transmitting the message reflects the personal preferences of the poet, the way the poet understands his audience, and the impact that he wants to make upon that audience. Realizing that this Zionist myth lies at the heart of the poem transforms the way one should understand it and obviates the universalism that Halkin imputes to Tchernichowsky. By focusing on the poem's allegories and not on its myth, Halkin fundamentally misconstrues the poet's intention. Only by thinking through both the substance of Tchernichowsky's myth and its message about the recurring pattern of failure without nationalism does the meaning of the poem emerge. With this understanding in mind the poem presents itself as both myth and allegory, as a statement concerning both the historical situation of the Jewish people and the eternal nature of Jewish existence. This poetic play on the sources of Judaism, the West, and Zionism illustrates how postmoderns respond in morally responsible ways as they engage in their word plays.

Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, Barbara Johnson, tr. ( Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 1981), 64.
Edith Wyschogrod, Saints and Postmodernism: Revisioning Moral Philosophy ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 55.
See the discussions of Jewish poetry in Ross Brann, The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain ( Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).
Robert Alter, After the Tradition: Essays on Modern Jewish Writing ( New York: E. Dutton, 1969), 234.


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