Jeffrey C. Robinson
'A Big Jewish Book': Subterranean Bible
November 30, 2017, Mitchell Library, Glasgow
Tonight I will introduce to you, or, for those who already know it, reacquaint you with a wild, unexpected, and yet scholarly and authentic anthology or assemblage of Jewish poetry, published in 1978, called A Big Jewish Book: Poems and Other Visions of the Jews from Tribal Times to Present, edited by Jerome Rothenberg. Although it gathers materials, and commentaries about them, from the Bible, the Talmud, Apocrypha, the Zohar, the famous medieval Jewish poets, poetry from the Yiddish traditions, and modern poetry — many familiar works in their own right — it creates out of them and less canonical writings a subversive and subterranean Bible. This analogy Rothenberg makes explicit, transposing and transforming the threefold division of Torah, Prophets, and Writings into Ways, Visions, and Writings. Jerome Rothenberg, likely the premier anthologist of poetry in the world today, has a calling: to create assemblages of poetry that, by their fecundity and surprise, demonstrate how the institutions that govern culture and society have straitened, reduced, and homogenized all available writings to suit the needs of the prevailing empowered monoculture. Like the Bible, the Big Jewish Book is “big” because of its heterogeneity. The poets aren’t only patriarchs but, as he says, “mystics, thieves, and madmen.” I will give you a taste of the book’s contents, its spirit and intention, moving from its acknowledgement of exile, nothingness, and constraint to its ecstatic otherworldiness, to its diversity and this-worldliness, to its rituals in lyric, and to its political contentiousness.
The book’s epigraph, from the Babylonian Talmud, sets the terms for what is to come:
Rabbi Eliezer said
“his supplication bears no fruit
. . . . . . . . . .
the question next came up: what
Rabba & Rabbi Yosef answered
“whatever blocks the will
“to MAKE IT NEW
How ever-present in history and theology seems this blocking agent! — whether the monotheistic god, kings, makers of the Torah, institutions like churches and synagogues, and, in our own times, many prestigious publishing agencies, and schools and universities; or historical catastrophes from the Babylonian exile to the expulsion from Spain to the European Holocaust. The Stony Law, in all its manifestations, becomes the challenge for the poet to reject authority, to make it nothing, and in so doing, in accepting the at once theological and political void, he or she, like God in Genesis, is positioned to create and to name, to “make it new.”
Unlike God, the poet him- or herself, exiled and seeking liberation for an exiled or repressed people, reflects the difficult human position in the face of the void, which is unstable, inhabiting more than the normal domain of consciousness: “the wind of freedom blows as hard as that of madness.” “Unreason is the Jew’s vocation. It means believing in his mission.” “I am no longer with myself. / I am with all of you. / With your foreheads. With your hearts / For the same tomorrows.” The Jewish poet situates him- or herself in the human and the nonhuman at the same time. A Big Jewish Book wonderfully presents the account of Jacob wrestling with the Angel as an embodiment of the poet wrestling with the tyranny of divine rule that gives him access to divinity itself:
Let me go (says the Angel)
for the dawn is breaking
But he said
I will not let you go
unless you bless me
He said to him
What is your name
And he said
Now he said:
Not Yaakov / Heel-Sneak shall your name be said henceforth
but rather Yisrael / Fighter of God [man-who-sees-God]
for you fought with God
O tell me your name
But he said
Why do you ask about my name
And he blessed him there
Yaakov called the name of the place Peniel / God’s Face
I have seen God
face to face
and my life is saved
As the commentary to this passage says: “The line between sight and vision vanishes: the man who fights the angel-god becomes the angel Israel himself.” From the point of view of the standard institutional hierarchies of society and religion and poetry, the poet is indeed a mystic, thief, or madman, or in the case of Yaakov, a trickster. These Jewish poets identify with Jews generally as “mental rebels, who refuse consensus, thus become — even when bound to their own Law, or in the face of ‘holocaust,’ etc. — the model for the Great Refusal to the lie of Church and state.”
The poetry that results actually, says Rothenberg, is “no minor channel, it is the poetic mainstream that [the poet] finds here: magic, myth, and dream; earth, nature, orgy, love, the female presence the Jewish poets named Shekinah.” And this mainstream begins with the void — what in Genesis precedes creation. The eighteenth-century Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, in an incredible poem called “The Torah of the Void,” writes:
The light [God] condensed
thus was space made
an empty void.
In space days and measures
came into being.
So the world was created.
This voice was needed
for the world’s sake,
so that it may be
put into place. …
And the void?
It is nothing but
the no-thing which takes up
no space at all.
All it does is separate
between the Divine which fills
and the Divine which surrounds
Without the void
all would have been One.
there would not have been
any creature — any world.
So the void is a kind of
Divine Wisdom of not being
so there can be division
between one kind of being
This wisdom of not being, he goes on, is not a something, but it makes all somethings possible.
All somethings: the vision of these poets and of Rothenberg as their gatherer thrives upon a belief in representing the diversity of lives and states of being. In a poem called “Moon” from the thirteenth-century Zohar, or Book of Splendour, Moses de Leon writes in the following disturbing way about such diversity, contrast, contradiction:
[The Moon’s] hands & feet take hold of it, she’s like a lion clinging to his prey.
Her nails are those who call to mind the sins of men inscribing them with rigor & exactness.
The parings of her nails are those who do not cleave to the King’s Body & suck from the side of uncleanness when the moon begins to wane.
So Solomon, after he had inherited the moon in its fullness also desired to inherit it in its defective state, to gain the knowledge of the spirits & the demons, inheriting the moon on every side.
In A Big Jewish Book, the Jews aren’t the chosen people, but, simply and diversely, people. Out of nothing — whether the original nothing, the iconoclasm of the patriarchs, or the nothings of holocaust — the trickster poet in his or her madness creates a wild mix of voices and images, worldly and unworldly.
The poets refuse the vision of a diminished, quotidian reality. From the Zohar: “Alas for the blindness of the sons of men, all unaware as they are how full the earth is of strange and invisible beings and hidden dangers, which could they but see, they would marvel how they themselves can exist on the earth.” And the eighteenth-century Nachman of Bratzlav proposes the following “vision event” of an outpouring of angels:
Imagine that you could constantly recall all that we know about the future world.
There is an angel with a thousand heads.
Each head has a thousand tongues.
Each tongue has a thousand voices.
Each voice has a thousand melodies.
Imagine the beauty of this angel’s song.
Out of the void, breaking from the Stony Laws of tradition, the poet, what Gershom Scholem called the “nihilist mystic,” makes ecstatic events of beauty, which expand the notion of the person to the divine, the natural, and even the world of daily tasks: all is holy. The poet’s work is just as laborious as it is ungovernable and instinctive. Consider this poem, “Illustrious Ancestors,” by the American poet Denise Levertov, about the near-impossible poetics of craft mixing with visionary immediacy:
of Northern White Russia declined,
in his youth, to learn the
language of birds, because
the extraneous did not interest him; nevertheless
when he grew old it was found
he understood them anyway, having
listened well, and as it is said, ‘prayed
with the bench and the floor.’ He used
what was at hand — as did
Angel Jones of Mold, whose meditations
were sewn into coats and britches.
Well, I would like to make,
thinking some line still taut between me and them,
poems direct as what the birds said,
hard as a floor, sound as a bench,
mysterious as the silence when the tailor
would pause with his needle in the air.
A Big Jewish Book, refusing to rely for its power on the orthodox narrative of the Jewish people, nonetheless seems to push for a kind of poetic ritual, of poetic making, that absorbs some of that narrative’s themes: the void before creation, diversity of beings natural and human and divine, naming them, the sexuality of man and woman, exile (always exile), and the endless desire to improve the conditions of life, to acknowledge its mystery, and yet find it good … and beautiful. The brilliant and still underacknowledged twentieth-century New York poet Charles Reznikoff wrote these two tiny poems that capture the ritual:
How difficult for me is Hebrew:
even the Hebrew for mother, for bread, for sun
is foreign. How far have I been exiled, Zion.
What are you doing in our street among the automobiles, horse?
How are your cousins, the centaur and the unicorn?
Defining himself squarely as a Jewish exile but a poet who liberates the gloom of exile with the whimsy of fantasy, Reznikoff participates in the Great Refusal — his own form of lyric politics.
Reznikoff translated the medieval poet Jehuda Halevi’s Song to Zion, the beginning and end of which I present here. Notice again the ritual movement from exile to liberation in song:
My heart in the East
and I at the farthest West:
how can I taste what I eat or find it sweet
is in the cords of Edom and I
bound by the Arab? …
Zion, do you ask if the captives are at peace —
the few that are left?
I cry out like the jackals when I think of their grief;
but, dreaming of the end of their captivity,
I am like a harp for your songs.
The more I think about it, the more A Big Jewish Book seems the shining result of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel — wrestling with all forms of constraints to liberate the vitality of song across all stretches of humanity. With Gertrude Stein (a Jewish poet in A Big Jewish Book), the constraint is unquestionably “patriarchal poetry.” Here the traditional narrative, or “history,” tilts towards the vision of the patriarchs, and towards the makers of the Torah; the very idea of origins has the same familiar bias. As she writes:
Their origin and their history patriarchal poetry their origin and their history patriarchal poetry their origin and their history.
Their origin and their history.
Patriarchal Poetry their origin and their history their history patriarchal poetry their origin patriarchal poetry their history their origin patriarchal poetry their history patriarchal poetry their origin patriarchal poetry their history their origin.
To conclude: In what has become a well-known outcry and challenge to post-Holocaust poetry, the left-wing German Jewish critical thinker Theodor Adorno declared: There can be no poetry after Auschwitz — by which he means, as I understand it, no poetry can be written that does not diminish and divert one and inevitably become trapped in the oceanic darkness of that anti-event. But the primary dynamic of Jewish poetry from earliest times to the present — of creation out of the most totalizing constraints — which, by the way, is the dynamic of everything written in what Rothenberg called the “poetic mainstream” — has led him to insist that “there is only poetry after Auschwitz,” a promise fulfilled by A Big Jewish Book.
[Editor’s note: A Big Jewish Book went out of print many years ago, but a condensed version, Exiled in the Word, published by Copper Canyon Press in 1989, remains available through Amazon and other outlets. The later account by Jeffrey Robinson, above, is, however, the best summary ever and opens up facets of the project that provide a revelation of the possibilities that Harris Lenowitz and I were exploring when the book was first composed in the mid-1970s — also its connection to our poetics overall. Talk of an expanded and revised edition has been going on for several years now, and news of its progress will appear on Poems and Poetics as, and if, it develops. (j.r.)]
Poems and poetics