Monday, September 17, 2007

Agnon's "Days of Awe" (Book Review)

"Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days" by S.Y. Agnon, (Schocken Books, 1995).

Is literature penned by a Nobel Prize-winning author appropriate reading material during High Holy Days services? I am not sure how your rabbi would react if you sat in the pews reading T.S. Eliot or William Faulkner, but if you were found poring over the pages of 1966 Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon's "Days of Awe," originally published in Hebrew as "Yamim Noraim," I trust most rabbis would happily approve. So would Agnon. In his introduction, Agnon states that he created this book so that one may read it "between prayers," as a way of intensifying one's spiritual experience during the High Holy Days.

Agnon's "Days of Awe" is a rich anthology of biblical, talmudic, rabbinic, mystical, poetic and philosophical texts -- all on the subject of the High Holy Days. The bibliography to "Days of Awe" lists more than 500 volumes from which Agnon culled this material, and Agnon tells us that he actually consulted "one thousand books and more" in preparing what amounts to a multi-generational conversation of sorts on the High Holy Days. I call it a "conversation," because it differs from other encyclopedic anthologies in that the sources do not stand isolated from one another, rather they poetically flow one into the other. "Days of Awe" is an anthology compiled by a master novelist and storyteller, so it is not surprising that it can evoke an almost narrative-like aura and conjure up images in the reader's mind that the average anthology simply cannot.

For example, in the section about the shofar, Agnon presents Avudraham's list of Saadia Gaon's 10 reasons why the shofar is blown, most of which are historical and nation oriented (e.g. binding of Isaac, revelation at Mt. Sinai, Destruction of the Temple). This is immediately followed by Maimonides' more personal teaching that the shofar hearkens the individual to "awake from your slumber, search your deeds, and turn in repentance towards God." This, in turn, is followed by a homily from the teachings of the Chasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, comparing the physical and spiritual aspects of "sound travel" as a lens through which one may understand the deeper meaning of the notes of the shofar. These three sources come from different geographical regions and historical eras (14th century Spain, 12th century North Africa and 18th century Eastern Europe, respectively), yet Agnon creatively juxtaposes them in a manner that gives the reader the feeling that Avudraham, Maimonides and Rav Nachman are in the same room having a conversation about the shofar.

Many have questioned why a writer whose creative genius lies in the domain of novels and short stories would spend, as Agnon himself stated, "Sixteen hours a day for two and a half years," in composing an anthology of texts. The simple answer is that he was asked to create this book by his lifelong patron and publisher, Zalman S. Schocken, who wished to present to German Jewry a book through which they could understand the significance and meaning of the High Holy Days. But beyond this pragmatic answer lies a much deeper theological issue that serves as a window into the world of Agnon's fiction.

Literary critic Malka Shaked devoted a lengthy article to the theme of Yom Kippur in Agnon's writing, remarking that Agnon's "deeply personal spiritual connection" to this subject is expressed through Yom Kippur serving as the setting or background to many of Agnon's plots. "In compiling 'Days of Awe,' Agnon virtually forgoes his own personal creative voice," Shaked writes, "yet [the act of creating this volume] demonstrates Agnon's deep interest in this theme."

Is Agnon's personal voice completely absent in "Days of Awe"? Agnon admittedly massaged some of the texts, adding his own introductions and transitions to create the poetic flow to which I alluded earlier. Agnon compares his editorial activity here to "an artist who is handed fine silk from which to weave a garment, his only personal addition being the strings he uses in weaving."

While this beautiful analogy does paint an accurate picture of Agnon's role as editor, it is somewhat incomplete. In typical "Agnonic" fashion, Agnon masks his own voice, here in the guise of a peculiar bibliographic listing to which there is no description, author, place of origin or publication date, simply reading "Kol Dodi (in manuscript, in possession of the author)." In the section on "The Parent's Blessing," given on the eve of Yom Kippur, Agnon "quotes" from Kol Dodi that "when a man comes to bless his children, he ought to shut his eyes, so as not to see their flaws."

What is this "Kol Dodi manuscript"? In her personal memoir, Agnon's daughter Emuna Yaron reveals that "Kol Dodi" (which means "My Beloved") is actually a fictitious title used by her father when inserting his own ideas into this volume.

The High Holy Days are a time for deep thought and personal reflection. This brilliant volume is a direct interface with the struggles, traumas, hopes and aspirations that form the core of the High Holy Days experience. Bring it to synagogue, and, in addition to finding Agnon's voice, you might find your own voice deeply embedded within the voices of our tradition's greatest thinkers.