Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Religious Metaphor and Its Denial in the Poetry of Yehuda Amichai

Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Religious Metaphor and Its Denial in the Poetry of Yehuda Amichai

Article excerpt

THE POETRY OF YEHUDA AMICHAI (1924-2000) IS ON one level a critical revaluation of Judaism. The loss of faith and the denial of religious metaphor illumine the discontent that hurt him into poetry. Cut adrift from Jewish orthodoxy, prone to difficulties in human relations, writing in a relatively affluent, materialist, secular society, Amichai sought a new basis for existence in or through poetry.

What does the denial of religious metaphor achieve? Degeneration into absurdity? An incapacity to imagine a world with satisfying richness? Or a higher consciousness of the real, a struggle toward new metaphoric reality? Spiritual insight might come from the conflict of imagination and reality, of past fixities and present chaos, submissive reverence and heretical blasphemy, in which neither extreme is dominant but each dynamizes and fructifies the other. Even loss of faith, with its rich poetic associations, the traditional awe and reverence in the face of a mystery beyond comprehension, and its replacement by chaos and meaninglessness, might ultimately be fruitful. The brilliance and beauty of the language often seem to undercut the questioning. The poet may not believe but he is not indifferent. And Judaism from the Book of Job onward has in any case a distinguished tradition of doubting wisely.

Yet Amichai, writing in a tumultuous life and a highly charged literary tradition, denies metaphor on a higher emotional register than practically any other modern poet. The poet cannot blame the world's unpredictable violence, immorality, and instability (as the prophets and rabbis did) on human evil and the failure to create a society based on truth and justice, nor rid himself of his all-powerful childhood God. Perhaps it is the Shoah above all which leaves the poet with faith shattered and a puppet-like God, absconded, uncaring and guilty, in whom he will not believe and whom he cannot entirely escape. Through this paltry God, like a ventriloquistic parody of the prophets, the poet mouths his bitterness and pain, as in his poem on Ibn Gabirol:

       ... through my chest wound
       God looks into the world.

       I am the door
       to his apartment.


Poetic metaphor is vital in religion. (1) It makes the abstract concrete and communicates the idea of God in human terms. Religion and poetic metaphor are virtually inseparable. Perhaps no theological concept has been so profound and lasting as the simple words "The Lord is my shepherd." Poems such as Dante's Divine Comedy and Milton's Paradise Lost express and are themselves part of the religious fabric of Western civilization. As long as the Bible remained the daily-read blueprint of this civilization, religious metaphor was a mostly happy marriage of collective faith and the private imagination. Especially in agricultural, pre-modern societies, metaphor was not just beautiful and imaginative language but also the way to people's hearts, a vivid, practical explanation of the world in human terms, making believers feel more at home in a world of "that sovereign Light/From Whose pure beams all perfect beauty springs" (Spenser's "A Hymn of Heavenly Beauty"). Even when religious metaphors were altered or reversed, as in Herbert's "The Agony" ("Love is that liquor, sweet, and most divine,/Which my God feels as Blood, but I as wine"), the effect was to enhance, not diminish, faith.

The decline and discrediting of religion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has in some ways hindered the expression of (simple) faith in familiar images and led to a questioning of the traditional language of faith. In an atheist discourse, poets could, for the first time, deny the religious metaphoric imagination: "The Lord is not my shepherd"; light is simply light, not the Light of God; the wine of the Eucharist is merely wine, not the Savior's blood. For the most part they did not do so--though they expressed the breakdown in religious faith in other ways--perhaps because this would have betrayed their calling. …

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