Academic journal article Shofar

Agnon's Kaddish: Mourning for God

Academic journal article Shofar

Agnon's Kaddish: Mourning for God

Article excerpt

In memory of my teachers and friends Frank Talmage and Abe Pessis

ABSTRACT. In 1947 S. Y. Agnon responded to the daily bloodshed incurred in defense of the soon-to-be-declared State of Israel with a composition entitled Introduction (Petiha) to the Kaddish: After the Funerals of Those Murdered in the Land of Israel. Under the guise of a seemingly innocuous introduction to a prominently pious text lies a subtext that, in its artful and ironic weaves of the language of tradition, subverts the core kaddish text. Agnon's use of a classic rabbinic literary convention, the petiha, as its structural model is a striking example of his "revolutionary traditionalism." Agnon has reenvisioned a kaddish which straddles both the traditional world of Buczacz and the post-Holocaust embryonic Zionist state with language drawn from the former yet transfigured to meet the tragic dimensions of the latter. A new kaddish emerges out of a hermeneutic that has been identified as "mad midrash."

Wieseltier contra Agnon

In response to the daily bloodshed endured by the Jews of the soon to be internationally declared State of Israel, S. Y. Agnon was moved to compose an Introduction (Petiha) to the Kaddish: After the Funerals of Those Murdered in the Land of Israel.(2) The year was 1947 and the core liturgical expression of Jewish mourning could no longer be recited without addressing both the near annihilation of Eastern European Jewry (including Agnon's own hometown of Buczacz) and the endless human qorbanot which the fledgling Jewish homeland seemed to demand. The continuing losses experienced by the Jews called into question the viability of a prayer which exclusively glorifies God while ignoring those who are killed on His behalf. Agnon felt a particular urgency to rethink the kaddish when it was meant to honor those who perished in their capacity as "the guardians of His palace" on earth -- the land of Israel. It was becoming apparent that Jewish national independence, the "consolation" for near annihilation, was merely more of the same assault on the physical integrity of the Jews. Why should the "guardians" not abandon their posts? The "palace" was really a hovel and, worst of all, the royal occupant ("His") had abdicated. What I will demonstrate is that Agnon's new kaddish is a desperate attempt to salvage religious metaphors such as "guardians of His palace" from becoming languid clichés.

The impetus for my study of this small, yet intricate, text was Leon Wieseltier's reaction to it in his masterful hybrid of scholarship and existential reflection, Kaddish.(3) His brief encounter with Agnon's kaddish left him with a mixed emotional response of both admiration for its aesthetic quality and disdain for its misplaced focus and offensive choice of imagery. Wieseltier's exploration into the roots and meaning of kaddish was limited to his own period of mourning.(4) Given his halakhically prescribed time constraints (eleven months), Wieseltier chose to leave his eventual readers with a series of seductive roshe peraqim (chapter headings) related to death and mourning in Judaism. Kaddish therefore challenges the reader in a number of ways. Firstly, there is simply the problem of reading and understanding highly technical, and often abstruse rabbinic material -- a difficult, if not impossible undertaking for those not attuned to the nuances of the rabbinic tradition. Secondly, and more importantly, the reader is challenged to pick up where Wieseltier has left off, at times in an entirely different direction. My intent is to do so with his treatment of Agnon's Kaddish. Initially I shared Wieseltier's revulsion. How was it possible for Agnon to have profaned a moment of supreme spiritual reflection with an appeal to military triumphalism? However, the more I examined the text the more I began to be drawn away from this visceral reflex. It became evident to me that Agnon's use of wholly inappropriate, indeed obnoxious and patent metaphors was an artful ruse intended to propel the reader along a path of increasing frustration and disgust. …

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