God at Arm’s Length

In her new book "Figuring Jerusalem: Politics and Poetics in the Sacred Center," literary scholar Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi calls attention to the dangers of assigning God a particular geographic space. An interview.

Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi’s new book, Figuring Jerusalem: Politics and Poetics in the Sacred Center, was recently published by the University of Chicago Press. She has been living in Jerusalem since 1962, when she arrived from New York on the Israeli ship, the S.S. Jerusalem (!): “I felt at home the moment I got off the boat, kissed the ground of Eretz Yisrael (literally—like S.Y. Agnon’s Yitzhak Kumer!) and traveled the bumpy road from Haifa to Jerusalem. And, like my fictional counterpart, I experienced the inevitable disappointments that come when expectations are too high. But I was already hopelessly in love with the ‘thin,’ the ‘quiet’ Jerusalem, as Amichai would call her. Later, a short time after the victory of 1967, along with a significant number of other Israelis, I saw the dangers that annexation of East Jerusalem and access to and control over the Temple Mount entailed. It was then I realized that I had fallen in love with the Hebrew language and literature as well as with their built-in controls against yearning for proximity to the Sacred Center.”

Can you say more about the significance of 1967 in the context of proximity to the Sacred?

“I view 1967 as the watershed year, and not 1948 or any previous year in the history of the Zionist movement or the Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael. It is not necessary to review here the changes that the Israeli victory wrought in the millennial chronicle of Jerusalem. Everyone who reads TARB can recite this as well as I can. I focus rather on the valence of symbolic language as opposed to action vis-à-vis concrete sites. But even before we undertake this inquiry, we should answer a more fundamental question: ‘Where does God “dwell”’? This seems like the question a five-year-old would pose to his grandmother—but evidently, some of our compatriots didn’t have grandmothers, or haven’t bothered to read their own Scriptures—where they would discover that God doesn’t ‘dwell’ in any spot—not in the Burning Bush or the Tent of Meeting, not on Mt. Sinai, and, most relevant for our time, not in any House, even one that was built (and rebuilt) on the Temple Mount. The Bible itself is fairly emphatic about this, especially in God’s dramatic response to King Solomon, who has just constructed what the Divine insists on calling a ‘house to my name’ (‘bayit le-shmi’-I Kings 8: 15-19; Jer. 7:11,14)—that is, the place from which human prayers can address, ‘name’ or invoke the divine—whose glory fills the universe. And, in this context, allow me to add an observation based on a close reading of another fundamental biblical text, without the static of midrashic interpretations: the poem that is attributed directly to King Solomon, that is, Song of Songs, never once mentions the Temple that King Solomon built, nor the God who was worshipped there. It is a love poem in Jerusalem, not a love poem to Jerusalem.”

Given this reading of the locus of holiness, how do you explain what happened after 1967?

“The rather obvious explanation is that 1967 constituted a watershed in the modern ‘sacred history’ of Jerusalem as the moment when the Temple Mount once more came under our auspices after 2000 years. But the real question is: did we learn nothing, during those two millennia of ‘wandering’ and of creating, about the value of distance from the sacred? Did we learn nothing from Maimonides, the revered Rambam, who clarified in The Guide of the Perplexed, in precise philosophical and theological terms, that God ‘is not a body,’ and that space itself should be abolished in describing the Divine and our relation to divinity; that ‘“there is no difference whether an individual is at the center of the earth, or, supposing that this were possible, in the highest part of the ninth heavenly sphere. For he is not farther off from God in the one case and no nearer to him in the other.’”

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I first met DeKoven Ezrahi, now Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in 2007. Since the first seminar I took with her, she has been my teacher and mentor. But although I had known a little about the long journey she took while “Figuring Jerusalem,” I was still surprised when she described that, having received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2007 for this project, she wrote much of it during summers in New Hampshire, at a considerable “distance from the Sacred.” She adds: “It is worth mentioning, perhaps, that I avoid approaching the contentious Temple Mount even when in Jerusalem, for all the reasons I elaborate in the book.”

In which language did you write Figuring Jerusalem?    

“I thought I wrote it in Hebrew! Or to be more precise, I was ‘thinking Hebrew’ when I wrote this book in English, my native tongue. I hope that the bilingual reader will be able to juxtapose the plurality of voices represented here and appreciate the main argument, which is that no matter where one is positioned, and no matter what language one speaks, the mandate for our time is to resist the temptation of proximity to the sacred center. In a way, writing about this subject and this literature in English provided me with the kind of distance I am endorsing.”

Can you enlarge on the connection or tension between the ‘voyage’ of 2000 years and the destination?

“‘Longing’ (ga‘agu‘im in the most primordial collective sense) has been the prevalent, I would say ‘official,’ mode of Jewish imagination for 2000 years of ‘wandering’ or self-styled ‘galut’ after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. Longing for return to Zion/Jerusalem, perhaps a natural reflex for those directly affected and their descendants in the first few centuries after the destruction, evolved over the millennia into a sophisticated pose in the poetry, prayer, philosophy and practice in the many diasporas, and came to be associated with the expectation of eventual redemption. But note that as soon as we invoke the word ‘diaspora’ or ‘tefutzot,’ rather than ‘galut,’ other possibilities and poses become visible that are cultural and existential as well as religious in nature. ‘Practical’ texts composed in the various centers of Jewish culture, like the Shulchan Arukh, and halakha generally, deal with the challenges in front of us in the here-and-now (wherever and whenever that may be), solving the quotidian as well as the spiritual problems of living in the exilic ‘meantime’ between Destruction and Redemption.”

Does this distinction help you better understand the difference between sacred Jerusalem and secular Israel?

“I actually have a problem with these dichotomies. The absence of twilight in Israel is extended to all areas of life. Partly because of the climate, but largely because of cultural baggage and social/political dynamics, nearly everything in Israeli culture is defined as one or the other: winter/summer, day/night, sacred/secular, Jew/goy. There are very few twilight zones in such a culture. That is why I am so enamored of Yehuda Amichai’s poetry and poetics: he manages to create a capacious universe that is ‘both…and.’ His Jerusalem embraces the Arab shopkeeper in the Old City and the Arab looking for his goat in the wadi beneath the poet’s home in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, as well as many versions of the Hebrew self.”

Then she added: “That is not to say that modern Hebrew culture, as reflected in literature, music, and theatre, is not the product of the Enlightenment that let air into the Study House and was largely responsible for the project that became the State of Israel. But many of those achievements have receded in the shadow of the Temple Mount; see the current battle being waged over the teaching of the humanities in high school.”

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Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi’s findings are essential to current affairs in Jerusalem. She and her husband, Bernard Avishai, co-authored an oped in the English Haaretz entitled “Jews Don’t Have a Holiest site” (May 13, 2022). When I asked her to elucidate the immediate connection she draws between literature and politics, she responded:

“I could give a very long or a very short answer. The short answer is that in a sovereign state, there is no protected space that is not political—unlike the shtetl in Eastern Europe or other porous but insular Jewish spaces worldwide. My overall argument is that classical Jewish texts, ancient and medieval, and the modern literary imagination, carry wisdoms that our politicians need now more than ever, even as the ‘ship of State’ has been hijacked by fundamentalist, messianic Jews.”

So the roots for our complex reality can be found in the Bible and classical Jewish literature?

“I don’t want to give away too much, as I’m hoping some of your readers will actually read my book. But here is a taste: although I am not the only one to argue that the Akeda has comic elements, I believe I am the first to lobby so systematically for reading the entire narrative as a comedy, beginning with the annunciation to Abram, and then to Sarai, of Isaac’s miraculous birth. This can be corroborated both in structure (do we have to be reminded that Isaac doesn’t die?) and in rhetoric: some version of the Hebrew root ‘z-h-k’ [to laugh] appears 20 times in Genesis 17-22, the chapters surrounding and including the Akeda—and it is embedded, of course, in Yitzhak’s very name (even if, clearly suffering from PTSD after the ‘binding,’ he doesn’t laugh very much). But (mis)readings can have consequences in the real world. By the time of the Crusader massacres in the 12th century, and as part of the ongoing implicit dialogue with Christianity and its martyrs, this story had been adopted as the paradigm of Jewish martyrdom (see for example, the ‘Akeda’ poem by medieval poet, Ephraim of Bonn).”

Can you say more about this in the present context?

“A comic reading can save us from applying the tragic, sacrificial impulse to our own time and place. (Indeed, comedy is the bravest form of speaking truth to power; consider how Zelensky’s comic, compassionate worldview informs his actions as a leader.) I suggest we in Jerusalem take our cue from Kafka, who claimed, in a short letter to a friend after reading Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, that he could never imagine himself as Abraham; he was just too busy getting his house in order. Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin followed suit in The Bathtub Queen in 1970, positing a rather hilarious exchange between Isaac and Abraham on Mt. Moriah. But Kafka and Levin are outnumbered; as the fanatics in our midst prepare to take down the mosques, rebuild the Temple and reinstitute sacrifice (instead of putting their own houses in order), they are eager for a repeat or intensification of the bloodiest encounters between the sons of Abraham. This time the consequences will be truly apocalyptic.”

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Informed by new readings of classical texts, the second half of Figuring Jerusalem explores the ways modern Hebrew writers S.Y. Agnon and Yehuda Amichai engage with them and with the challenge of bringing the Hebrew imagination “home.” When asked why she chose these two very different writers, DeKoven Ezrahi replies: “Both Agnon and Amichai, each in his own way, confronted Jerusalem against the background of traditional texts and impulses. And both lived before and beyond the watershed event of 1967—though Agnon by only three years.”

Can you give us a few examples? 

“I present new readings of two of Agnon’s most beloved short stories, ‘Agunot’ and ‘Aggadat ha-sofer’ (Tale of the Scribe), tracing in each of these the temptations of proximity to the sacred; in the first case, the sacred object is an ark that the craftsman Ben Uri is constructing to hold the Torah scroll in a synagogue in Jerusalem; in the second, the object is the Torah scroll itself, which Raphael the Scribe writes in memory of childless women and finally of his own deceased wife. In both cases, the consequences of giving in to the temptation of clinging to the holy object are disastrous, and the sacrifice is the human love that has been offered to the artisan—and, effectively, rejected in favor of his ‘holy work.’ But perhaps the most radical of my readings is of Agnon’s magnum opus, Tmol Shilshom (Only Yesterday): I argue that we can find in this novel an instance of the Akeda as comedy, though it is ultimately preempted by Yitzhak’s tragic death by rabies (I won’t say more because I hope not only that your readers will read my book, but also that they will [re]read Tmol Shilshom!).”

And Amichai?

“Amichai is the writer who most embodies the stance I am endorsing: standing in the middle, holding both ends of any presumed dichotomy. He favoured the ‘makaf,’ the hyphen that separates birth from death, the self from the other—but that also maintains the connections between them. Amichai is the capacious, dialogical writer who resists the dialectics I alluded to before; he is the best counterpart we have in modern Hebrew poetry of the ‘metaphysical’ poet of the Hebrew Middle Ages, the 17th century and the 19th-20th centuries in England and America, from John Donne through Emily Dickinson to Wallace Stevens. One line of his poetry sums it up: ‘with the same body/ that stoops to pick up a fallen something from the floor,/ I bow down to God. That is my faith, my religion.’”

Before we finish, I must ask about the beautiful book cover 

“I chose Menashe Kadishman’s ‘Wailing Wall’ as the cover art for Figuring Jerusalem because it features a gray-and-white photograph of the Wall covered by splashes of color, signifying both distance from the Sacred and the value of human acts of creativity.”

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