The prolific author Avi Sagi has an article on prayer. Sagi’s prior work was to create a pluralistic traditionalism of an open canon, non-metaphysical positions based on Wittgenstein, Leibowitz and Goldman, and more recently to propose a Gadamer reading of the tradition. For our prior discussions on Sagi, see here and here.
In the last issue of Reshit, Avi Sagi has a long article “Casualties of Worship: Tefilah after the death of God- a Phenomenological Inquiry into Hebrew Literature.” The article is selected pages from a forthcoming book on the topic. Html- here and pdf – here
Sagi wants to return us to prayer in our post-secular age through a sensitive reading of Israeli poetry- connecting the themes of secular Israeli poets to those of Rav Nahman and Rav Kook. The overall effect is his advocating prayer as a personal act in which people express existential themes. Even though he is footnoted only once, the project seems to continue the work of Eliezer Schweid in seeking to create an Israeli Jewish culture.
Sagi argues that prayer after the death of God and expressing one’s disbelief is still in front of God; it is still a religious act. It is not atheist or theist, rather a presence and then absence. Sagi rejects those who seek dialogue and connection with God. Buber wanted I-Thou presence as did William James and A J Heschel. Sagi claims that these experiential approaches have no real transcendental available. Prayer in Sagi’s reading is about the self. It is about the human subject. Sagi offers us the Kierkegaard’s struggle, Camus acceptance of fate, and Feuerbach’s prayer as the alter ego of the person.
From this modernist idealistic and existential base, Sagi analyzes a broad spectrum of Israeli writers most of whom were formed in the early part of the twentieth century including Yizhak Lamdan, Abba Kovnor, Uri Zvi Greenberg, Sim Shalom, Brenner, and Amir Gilboa. This book will offer the Israeli high school teacher a way of re-tooling for an era when there is less of a religious –secular divide. Everyone is now existential religious. The early poems of Amichai are not read as sardonic or cynical, rather as noble and religious. Amir Gilboa whom once upon a time was considered by critics as too exilic, too Jewish, and too metaphysical, and not secular, rebellious, or expressive enough—is used by Sagi to transition into the very human prayers of Rav Nachman and Rav Kook. Gilboa is associated with the secular in order to show how close they are to the religious.
Israeli poems of recent vintage are not discussed, even though they would lead to a different direction, for example there is no discussion of the generation of Binyamin Shevili, Ella Bat Zion, or Rifka Miriam. This work rests in classic modernism. The work is also entirely a cognitive discussion, more would have been gained by looking at how contemporary religious poets look at the issues, for example through the important journal IMAGE:Art, Faith and Mystery.
In the 19th century, Prayer even without God changes a person declared Kierkegaard, prayer as a projection of the ego is the essence of religion decided Feuerbach. Sagi returns to find the pieces of modern Jewish thought on prayer that speak to this approach, such as Franz Rosenzweig’s – expressive and emotive prayer and Wiesel’s prayer at God instead of to God. Sagi manages to even glide Rav Nachman into considering prayer as the modernist action since “ Every blame of grass has a prayer”- so it is not expressive or faith but an action. Sagi finds that the common principle to modern prayer as self-expression and traditional prayer is their depth structure. He proves this by quoting rabbi S R Hirsch that the essence of prayer is self-judgment. So we prove tradition and modernity coincide by showing that a cultured 19th century Wiemar romantic rabbi just so happens to sound like early 20th century Hebrew poets.
Religious moderns used to ask about the efficacy of prayer, and they used to answer using shards of Albo that prayer is a self-fulfilling statement, personal transformation, and acceptance that God’s will be done. This is true whether they framed prayer as a gift from God or as a human obligation. Philosophy of relgion deal with the coherence of prayer in the modern age but for Sagi the real question is what model of prayer?
In conclusion, Sagi offers us an alternate model that “Prayer is not the inheritance of religion, on the contrary the religious ritual of prayer …is one of the expressions of human existence. We now have a modernist prayer without belief. Prayer is about fate, existence, and the questions of life. God’s death is a moment in our demythologized human narrative. Sagi has officially crossed the line into liberal theology reminiscent of Bultmann.
From my American perch, Sagi is attempting to create a minimal deity far from the theism that people cannot believe anymore, akin to discussions of prayer in Arthur Green and Elie Wiesel. Sagi can also be compared to the discussion in Adam Kirsch’s review Unorthodox Theology about “an anthology of liberal Jewish thought evinces a deep unease with traditional conceptions of God.” Kirsch continues his summary: “God, in these pages, is not a being to be described but a process to be experienced. As Kalmanofsky puts it, “Theology is discourse about God. Religion is the human, social response to transcendence; systems of ideas, tales, and behaviors that help us keep faith with our deepest spiritual experiences.”
The weak part of the presentation is that Sagi still does not understand the turn away from self in a post-Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida world. Yet, he wants to be part of this post-modern discourse. Sagi wants desperately to offer a phenomenology based on Jean Luc Marion in which Sagi’s modernist prayer of self-expression and in which God does not appear is equated with the God beyond self, a Given, in the Marion sense. However, the given for Marion “is famous for the idea of what he calls the “saturated phenomenon,” which is inspired by his study of Christian Neoplatonic mystical theologians….[The idea that] there are phenomena of such overwhelming givenness or overflowing fulfillment that the intentional acts aimed at these phenomena are overrun, flooded—or saturated.” Sagi’s phenomena of prayer never overcomes the self or has a givenness of God that overruns our theological categories. Sagi should listen to Caputo’s classes or read Richard Kierney, in which God returns after God- a disorientation that we learn to welcome.
Depending how the book is edited, it may become a classic for Israeli high schools and an entrance for Americans into Hebrew poetry as a religious quest. The approach will definitely not excite the new generation of spirituality, meditation, and new age. It probably has drifted too far afield for use in the religious community. But it is still nice to have a humanistic approach to Jewish prayer, that should find many an eager reader. If there is time to still work on the manuscript, I would suggest a greater emphasis on questions than answers and a coda of some of the recent thinking about poetry and religion found in the journal IMAGE.
Garcia Lorca once said, ‘we need four white walls and a silence where the poet’s voice can weep and sing.’ One enters that space with the hope that, through the making of language, the making of poems—poesis, after all, means making—one will be taken away, one will go where one hasn’t been before. We hope to be possessed.”
More recently, writing in Image #49, Robert Cording sounds a similar note. “Both poetry and prayer acknowledge the limits of the ego. In this sense, their origins are rooted in invocation—a calling out to that which cannot be seen or logically understood and which ultimately cannot be put into language.
OK- go read the review and come back to discuss.