Wrestling with God in troubled times


These are hard times for any of us who are struggling to develop or to continue our relationship with God. To echo the words of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / ... The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

For us Jews, how much the more so. The barbarism of Oct. 7. The ensuing brutal and ongoing war in Gaza. The explosion of antisemitism here in the United States and around the world. The never diminished shadow of Auschwitz.

Feeling a suffocating sense of foreboding regarding the future of the State of Israel and the very survival of democracy here in this country, I have recently come to a place of some solace within the pages of a volume I found by chance hiding among our large collection of poetry books: “Creator, Are You Listening? Israeli Poets on God and Prayer,” (2007), by David C. Jacobson, professor of Jewish Studies at Brown.

Jacobson’s very first sentence makes clear his intention: “The purpose of this book is to challenge the conventional wisdom that Hebrew poetry by contemporary Israeli writers is essentially secular in nature.”

My decades-long encounter with the poetry of Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) attests to Jacobson’s thesis. Ever since I first tasted Amichai’s poetry, back in the mid-1960s, I have been struck by what one might call his God-wrestling – a God-wrestling not dissimilar to my own.

In many ways, Amichai has echoed my own lover’s quarrel with God, my own growing arguments with traditional Jewish texts, which I continue to love even when I cannot hold to traditional interpretations of what these texts are saying. To label Amichai’s poetry as “secular” is to be deaf to the complexity of his lifelong religious struggle.

In addition to devoting one of the six chapters in his book to Amichai, Jacobson has introduced me to the work of five other relatively contemporary Israeli poets: Zelda Mishkovsky (known in Israel as, simply, Zelda), Asher Reich, Rivka Miriam, Hava Pinhas-Cohen and Admiel Kosman. The first-born of these six poets is Zelda (1914-1984), while Asher Reich, Rivka Miriam and Admiel Kosman are still alive. Hava Pinhas-Cohen died in 2022.

What all of these poets have in common is that, like Amichai, they are wrestling with Judaism’s biblical, rabbinical and especially liturgical sacred sources. Many of them grew up in traditionally observant homes, where from early on they developed a knowledge of our fundamental religious texts and observances.

However, as they turned away from Orthodox interpretations of these texts and practices, they felt compelled to pour their new, sometimes radical, interpretations into the old bottles of traditional Judaism. At times, these poets’ reinterpretations are angry, and at times sarcastic, but at other times warm and loving.

In exploring their work in the original Hebrew, these poets have given me permission, as it were, to continue my personal God-wrestling during these dark and threatening days.

I am focusing on Jacobson’s chapter on Amichai because he is the contemporary Israeli poet with whom I am most familiar. I am not at all surprised that out of Amichai’s hundreds of poems, Jacobson has selected “God Full of Mercy” (“El Malei Rachamim”) as one of the dozen or so that he chose to highlight.

This poem drips irony. As many of you know, “El Malei Rachamim” is a traditional Jewish prayer of mourning, recited at almost every Jewish funeral, as well as at a number of collective memorial services throughout our liturgical calendar.

With what appears to be an exercise of great bitterness, Amichai twists the opening words of the prayer to make it say the opposite of its original intent: “God full of mercy, / if God were not so full of mercy, / there’d be mercy in the world, not just in Him.”

As is the experience of so many of us, when we seem most to need God – at the death of a loved one, say – what we feel is not God’s compassionate presence but rather God’s absence and silence.

Amichai’s combat experience in Israel’s wars adds to his sense of God’s absence: “I, who brought corpses from the hills, / can say for sure that the world is empty of mercy.”

“God Full of Mercy,” published in 1958, is one of Amichai’s earlier poems. His final collection, “Patuach Sagur Patuach” (“Open Closed Open”), published in 1998, testifies to his softening, the warming of Amichai’s attitudes toward traditional texts and to the God reflected in these sacred writings.

These final poems contain extended meditations on such biblical characters as Abraham, Isaac and King David. Gone is the angry stance against Tradition, with a capital T, found in Amichai’s earlier work.

To the contrary, Amichai’s final poems seem to reflect his coming to terms with his mortality and with his place in the millennial stream of Jewish history. He seems to be celebrating his lifelong wrestling with God and with those sacred texts that manage to embrace some of our ancestors’ varied views of God.

Jacobson chose as his last text from Amichai’s work a short section from “Gods Change, Prayers Remain Forever,” a long, multisectional poem found in “Open Closed Open”: “Verse of Psalms: Innocence rises up from human beings / like steam of warmth from a cooked dish rising up / and becoming God and sometimes other gods.”

Jacobson concludes his chapter on Amichai with these words: “Not one to be tied to a single, eternally fixed image of God, the poet has his speaker declare rather playfully that as the steam rises, it may not be the one God of Israel that will emerge, but one of many possible alternative gods that might even be more appropriate for the spiritual needs of humanity in our time.”

But, perhaps we contemporary God-wrestlers have it all wrong. Perhaps we should not be asking, “What are the spiritual needs of humanity in our time?” – but rather, “What are God’s needs for humanity in our time?”

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.

It Seems to Me, Rabbi James Rosenberg