Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Reflections on Agnon from A Jerusalem Cafe

Writing to you from Jerusalem, I’ve got S.Y. Agnon on my mind. There are many reasons for this. First, the obvious – Agnon lived most of his life here, wrote the bulk of his literary output here, and is one of Jerusalem’s great modern-day figures, bringing pride to Israel and Hebrew Literature by winning the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature. Whenever I sit down to write in Jerusalem, the shadow of Agnon hovers over me. The spirit of his charming, intimidating and awe-inspiring little home on 16 Klausner Street in Talpiot follows me from my room at the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC) in the Old City to every café where I sit and write.

Speaking of cafes, one my favorite writing spots in Jerusalem is a café named Tmol Shilshom, located in the Nahalat Shiva quarter near the center of town. This literary café is named after one of Agnon’s greatest novels - Tmol Shilshom – Only Yesterday. It is an inspirational café lined with books, and it is the café where I am currently sitting to write this article.

A few nights ago, I sat in this same café -- Tmol Shilshom -- with some of my students, and we were discussing the beauties and complexities of Israeli society. “There is the Israel that we fantasize about as the ideal Jewish society, and then there is the real Israel, which indeed we love, but often falls short of the perfect Israel we fantasize about,” I told my students. As I said this, one of my students responded, “Exactly, just like that novel you taught us about, Tmol Shilshom, by your favorite Israeli author, S.Y. Agnon.”

We proceeded to discuss Agnon for the next hour, with a particular focus on Agnon’s unique religious and theological orientation.

What was S.Y. Agnon’s religious orientation?

In her personal memoir, Emunah Yaron, Agnon’s daughter, addresses the question of her father’s religiosity and faith: “There are many who did not believe that my father was an observant Jew, even though a big black kippah always covered his head. There are those who said that this kippah was simply a mask, a deceiving appearance intended to fool the public into believing that he was actually a religious Jew who observed the commandments.”

What could possibly account for this wide held perception amongst many of Agnon’s readers and critics? Yaron continues: “Perhaps the lack of belief by many in my father’s religiosity stems from the fact that in reading my father’s works, they often detected in his plots and characters subtle or even overt theological speculations into religious matters, which many of his readers interpreted as outright heresy.”

To better understand, let’s explore some of Agnon’s “theological speculations” in his stories.

In the story Afar Eretz Yisrael (The Dust of the Land of Israel), the narrator proclaims:

“The doubters and skeptics, and all who are suspicious of things -- they are the only people of truth, because they see the world as it is. They are unlike those who are happy with their lot in life and with their world, who, as a result of their continuous happiness, close their eyes from the truth.”

In his signature story Agunot, Agnon boldly plays with a Rabbinic Midrash when describing the divorce proceedings between a couple whose marriage was arranged, and who were mismatched from the very beginning: “Our sages of blessed memory said that when a man puts his first wife away from him, the very altars weep – but here the altars had dropped tears even as he took her to be his wife.”

Yom Kippur plays a central theme in Agnon’s writing, as does the harsh reality of the physical destruction of Eastern European Jewry. In his story At the Outset of the Day these two themes come together, as the narrator and his daughter (whose home has just been destroyed) come to the synagogue on the eve of Yom Kippur. As the father tells his little daughter that they will soon bring her a “little prayer book full of letters,” he asks his daughter “And now, dearest daughter, tell me, an alef and a bet that come together with a kametz beneath the alef – how do you say them?” “Av,” answered the daughter.

The word “Av” means “father,” but it is also the name of the darkest month on the Hebrew calendar. By asking the daughter to spell “Av,” Agnon is alluding to the fact that this particular Yom Kippur (a fast day) closely resembles the gloom and darkness of Tisha B’Av (also a fast day). The theological irony is that the narrator goes on to tell his daughter “And now my daughter, what father (Av) is greater than all other fathers? Our Father in heaven.” In his typically sarcastic fashion, Agnon employs a linguistic double entendre linking the Av in heaven (God) to the mood of the month of Av (the destruction of the father and daughter’s home) on this Yom Kippur.

In one of his most controversial short stories, K’neged Otam Shekov’im Yeshivot Shel Ts’chok V’Kalut Rosh (Against Those Who Establish Gatherings of Laughter and Frivolity), Agnon tells of a woman who sits at home alone knitting on the Sabbath instead of gossiping with her neighbors. Moses happens to pass by her house and notices that God’s spirit hovers over the house (something only Moses can recognize). Moses is shocked to find that the woman is actually “working” on the Sabbath, violating one of the 39 prohibited Sabbath labors. He instructs her to sit with her neighbors so that she would not violate the Sabbath, yet the following week, when he once again passed by her house, he notices that God’s spirit no longer hovered above the house. Moses understood that her original practice was better, and he instructs her to return to it. Agnon boldly challenges the notion of “violating the Sabbath,” and through the character of Moses – God’s Lawgiver – Agnon suggests that gossip is more of a legal violation of the Sabbath than are any of the 39 prohibited labors (knitting included!). This is a direct challenge to the conventional notions of religious tradition and authority, using the very figure of religious authority (Moses) to challenge the tradition from within.

Is God actively involved in the affairs of the world? Particularly, is God actively monitoring the lives of His “Chosen People”? Agnon handled this question throughout his literature, often with subtle ironic hints that smack of sarcasm and cynicism.

In the story Ha-hadlakah (The Kindling), Agnon tells the story of the great pilgrimage and kindling of bonfires on the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai on Lag Ba’Omer (the 33rd Day of the Omer Period). The Omer period is traditionally associated with collective rites of mourning (no shaving, no weddings or celebrations) due to the tragedies to have befallen the Jewish people during this time period (plagues, pogroms, massacres). Agnon frames the turning point of the story – when the situation starts to improve -- in sarcastic theological terms: “With the passage of time, the Holy One Blessed Be He returned His head into the place from where it was removed, and He saw what had happened in
His world.”

In one of his most daring pieces of modernism, Agnon wrote a meditation on the Kaddish, the prayer recited by Jews when in mourning. The Kaddish has always been a peculiar theological concept, having the mourner praise and exalt God while weeping in grief for a departed loved one. In this Peticha L’Kadish (Introduction to the Kaddish), Agnon states: Therefore all brothers in the House of Israel, who are gathered here in mourning, let us turn our hearts towards our Father and Redeemer in Heaven, and let us pray for ourselves – and for Him, as it were, Yitkadal V’Yitkadash Shemei Rabba…etc., etc.

Agnon places the narrator as one who is eulogizing the dead of Israel after yet another war. Following his introduction to the Kaddish, the eulogizer begins to recite the Kaddish, a praise of God, and then continues by saying “etc., etc.,” as if to say – “you know the rest, you’ve heard it so many times, I am tired of reciting it.”

There are many commentators and literary critics on Agnon’s works, but Israeli author Amos Oz is one of the rare few that dared to explore Agnon’s theological ruminations. In his semiautobiographical A Tale of Love and Darkness, Oz devotes an entire chapter to Agnon, where he writes, “Agnon himself was an observant Jew, who kept the Sabbath and wore a skullcap. He was, literally, a God-fearing man: in Hebrew, ‘fear’ and ‘faith’ are synonyms. There are corners in Agnon’s stories where, in an indirect, cleverly camouflaged way, the fear of God is portrayed as a terrible dread of God: Agnon believes in God and fears him, but he does not love him.”

So what type of writer was S.Y. Agnon? Was he a “secular writer masked in religious garb?” Was he a “traditional Jewish writer with modernist tendencies and styles”? Emunah Yaron writes that in response to these sorts of questions, her father would respond that he is “an author of truth, who writes things as he sees them, without any ‘make-up or rouge’ camouflaging the face of things, without any décor trying to deter the eye from the core issues.”

“For these very reasons” writes Yaron, “my father – who was a religiously observant Jew – refused to join the ‘Union of Religious Writers’ in Israel.”

In the words of Amos Oz, “it is in this paradox, the tormented tension between one tenet and its opposite,” that we truly come to understand Agnon’s theological universe, that is, a world where faith and doubt were eternal roommates.

In The Silence of Heaven: Agnon’s Fear of God, a work which Oz devoted in its entirety to investigating Agnon’s theological soul searching, Oz writes in his introduction that Agnon’s heart was “tormented by theological doubts,” and that Agnon’s characters often treat their challenges in life as “religious issues – providing that the term ‘religious’ is broad enough to encompass doubt, heresy and bitter irony about Heaven.” Oz aptly captures Agnon’s tormented religious soul, and is one of the few commentators on Agnon who refrained from looking at Agnon’s “kippah and observance of mitzvot” as a “mask.” Instead, Oz recognizes that it is possible for Agnon – or any Jew -- to observe God’s commandments while simultaneously struggling with that same God.

In fact, it is even possible to sit in prayer -- fully wrapped in Tallit and Tefillin -- with questions of faith on your mind as you address God.

In his famous story Tehilah, Agnon has the narrator standing at the Kotel – Judaism’s holiest site -- reflecting on his feelings towards prayer: “I stood at times among the worshippers, and at times among those who question.”

That’s life in an Agnon story. In fact, that’s life.