At the end of July I was privileged to attend the Sami Rohr Prize Literary Institute, where I spent three stimulating days with the other prize finalists and judges. We were each asked to offer a short presentation about our favorite book of all time. I panicked–I like too many books, and too many genres, to name just one. I offer here my presentation, as transcribed by the Institute staff (and spruced up just a bit by me).
Sefer Yermiyahu, the Collected Poems of Avraham Halfi, and Paradise Lost
I had a hard time coming up with a single most important book, so, to make the assignment easier, I limited myself to my most important reading experiences of the last year—and managed to get myself down to three books. All three share, I think, an effort to deal with the question of what do we do about God when we don’t see God in the world. That is, the empirical evidence that we see before us precludes God’s presence in the universe, even though we intuit that we need or should have, or have to have a God. The first book was Sefer Yermiyahu, the Book of Jeremiah, which I completed this year with my Friday morning study group. The second is the poetry of Avraham Halfi, who was a poet and actor, and whose Collected Poems I have been reading slowly for a couple years and am now close to completing. The third is Paradise Lost, by John Milton.
What sets Jeremiah apart from other prophetic book is the sense of near-desperation that Jeremiah displays in trying to deal with the fact that all logic and all common sense runs against his prophetic message. There are two scenes in particular where this comes into focus. The first is in the middle of the book, Chapter 28, where Jeremiah encounters Hananya, who’s prophesying in Jerusalem, just like Jeremiah is. But his message is a different one—instead of death and destruction and punishment for sins, Jeremiah’s message, Hananya’s prophesy is one of comfort, that the war will soon end with a Judean victory. Jeremiah hears Hananya speaking in the marketplace, and he makes no response, because he has no empirical evidence to back up his prophecy about the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple and exile, and what will happen after the exile. All the political and diplomatic logic is against him. He goes home not knowing whether he’s right or he’s wrong. Then God talks to him again and tells him to continue prophesying. But he’s caught, he still doesn’t have an answer for Hananya, because the evidence isn’t on his side.
Then, at the very end of the book, after the destruction, when he’s a refugee in Egypt, where he’s gone with a group of exiles, the exiles come to him and they say, “We did what you said. We followed the Torah, we did everything. And look what happened.” In other words, if you were right, and we did as you said, how can this catastrophe have happened to us? Don’t the facts falsify the prophecy?
Generations later, his prophecies were falsified again. Jeremiah said that after the exile, the world would change. People would be fundamentally different—they would lose the capacity to sin. Yet the world didn’t change. Despite all this, the book was still canonized and Jeremiah’s version of the history became the official version. God’s empirical absence from history caused the Jews to insert Him into history.
Halfi is not one of the great poets of the Hebrew language, but he has a unique voice. He was an actor, and he speaks his very brief poems as a player, as a person on the stage observing the world. He’s a man who desperately wants to believe in God, but can’t believe in God because of what he’s seen: the Holocaust, wars, death, his own loneliness. Again and again he returns to this theme of I wish I could, I would rather live in a world in which there is God, but I live in a world in which there is not a God. He keeps coming back to this, he can’t leave the idea behind.
Milton deals with a great many things in Paradise Lost—as you can see, this is a very well-thumbed copy, it’s really falling apart. I think one of the astounding scenes in the book is when Eve eats the apple in the garden and then she comes to tell Adam what she’s done and Adam has a choice—he can do what he knows he’s supposed to do, which is not eat the apple, which is God’s command to him, but that means that Eve will be sent to exile and he’ll remain in the garden. One of the intense experiences of reading this book is the love between Adam and Eve. It’s a very human, carnal love in this divine paradise. Adam makes the choice to eat the apple so that he can stay with Eve. In other words, he violates the divine command because it doesn’t work. It can’t possibly be that God’s will is to separate him from his love. This plays off Satan’s rebellion in the same story. Satan also disobeys the rule of God, but for his own selfish reasons. Adam affirms God’s presence by denying him, whereas Satan rejects God’s presence by trying to take God’s place.
I don’t think it’s an accident that all three of these books are poetic works. This issue of God and the world is something we really can’t get at in any sort of expository prose because the issue is so different, so beyond any grammatical sentence that we can formulate. We can only talk about it in the language of metaphor and language of poetics. And that is the language that all great writing uses.
For more on Halfi, see
Hours Without Mercy (Nextbook)