Avi Sagi, Casualties of Worship—Reshit II

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.

From 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.

9 responses to “Avi Sagi, Casualties of Worship—Reshit II

  1. This might not be particularly relevant, but do you think Sagi is describing what prayer is, or what prayer could be in the event of “the death of God”? That is to say, is he expressing his own views or trying to create common ground?

  2. I think both and more. It is an entire book of several diverse chapters condensed in an article. His discussion of prayer as self-expression seems to be his description, the poetry section is closing a gap, the treating prayer as an action is constructive philosophy of relgion.

  3. The shift in understanding Amichai strikes a chord with me. In conversations I have had with (non-specialist) friends of my generation (born during the 1970s) – especially in Israel, I have found that people are less likely to read Amichai as radically breaking with tradition. For myself, I have been particularly bewildered with the (once) standard consensus that Amichai was a religious iconoclast who through his subversions completely detached himself from Judaism. At an Amichai conference at Yale a few years ago, the only person who said things that really resonated with my reading of the poet was Leon Wiselter. He spoke (and has written) about Amichai, especially in his final work, as creating a humanist midrashic structure and one which is not only a critique of religion. When I mentioned to some of the specialists at a dinner party after the session that as an Orthodox Jew I have found myself close to tears when reading “Patuah Sagur Patuah,” they did not know what I was talking about.

  4. Why must a pragmatic question like how are we now going to use prayer be given an essentialist response? For Sagi, the essence of tefila according to X is Y, only to be followed by according to A it’s B, and so on, as we take this little trip through the humanities. What goes on in our minds during actual prayer services both consciously and pre-consciously is an empirical issue, and certainly not one thing. Minds wander in the strangest ways. Are these fragments related to prayer? How does Sagi know that in our post religious world we should use prayer as a sort of self reflexive medicated psychotherapy? The same goes for self expression and all the many other essences of prayer. How do we go from the purported fact that we are not making real contact with the transcendental to everyone must now use prayer according to its essence, though no two people agree what this essence is?

    All this talk of a phenomenological reconstruction is faced with the actual liturgy we use. We never say “My father, my king…” or “I sinned, I rebelled…” or “My subjective- self object I call God, onto whom I project forever and ever.” It’s always the impersonal collective ‘we’. On Sagi’s views why do we need a tzibur? Simone Weill didn’t need a minyan , nor did Rosenzweig.

    The 19th century saw many attempts at coming to terms emotionally with the feeling that there is no God. The strongest response was the use of beauty and its sublime qualities as a substitute. What is common to late- romanticism and early modernism is this almost ‘religious’ devotion to style and art. I want to know why prayer can’t be used for such aesthetic purposes? I also want to know why prayer can’t be used to deepen our sexual consciousness? There is an abundance of sexual imagery in the Zoharic literature waiting to be redeemed. And then there is always the old charedi standby, taking up a pre-modern attitude as a protest against modernism and all the posts and post-posts . What makes some uses of prayer proper and others not?

  5. “I also want to know why prayer can’t be used to deepen our sexual consciousness? There is an abundance of sexual imagery in the Zoharic literature waiting to be redeemed. …What makes some uses of prayer proper and others not?”

    Religion functions according to knowable historical and social mechanisms. Regarding the questions you ask about sexuality and mystical imagery — it is fair to say that the synagogue, i.e. the mechanism that govern Jewish prayer, has excluded over the millenia most mystical and sexual material from what it deems acceptable. That’s on the surface – just read the (Orthodox) prayer book to see what is not there. Now if you propose to change that, consider how the services and the rabbis who govern them are resistant to even the smallest change, at least in the Orthodox instance. No chance a major shift as you suggest will occur in their institutionalized prayer. If you are satisfied to take your quest to Reconstructionist, Reform or even Conservatives, you have a better chance of an open reception and of finding some Jews with authority or influence who will consider changes that you wish to see “proper”. But why is it important to you to have “prayer” accomodate your needs for mystical and sexual expression? And likewise, we ought to ask Sagi, why is it legitimate to ask literature to speak about prayer? Neither the literary nor the religious expect prayer to be confused with literature.

  6. Tzvee… I’m not proposing a change in the nusach of tefila, nor is Sagi. We’re talking about the correct kavanot or experiences that one should have during prayer, since ex hypothesi both petitionary and laudatory prayers are no longer in place. I was just throwing out what I consider plausible alternatives. If you look back at the history of kabbalah, all sorts of kavanot were quasi sexualized, for example in the work of the Ari z”l. Many of mental yichudim use an accepted nusach attempt to join the feminine and masculine aspects of the Godhead. My larger point is that there is no essence to prayer, and there is no one way of using prayer in a post religious time that ought to be privileged. Most of the people Sagi mentions were never involved in the liturgical cycle, and now they are going to be used as poskim on how and with what ideations we ought to pray. C’mon.

    On a different topic, Dr. Brill has spoken at length on the relationship between evangelical styles and developments in Jewish congregational practices. I came across a Kol Nidre service that has the feel of a revivalist meeting. It combines different styles of music, with traditional liturgy under the leadership of a dramatic rabbi. My association was with the show Garrison Keillor and his Lake Woebegon ensemble put on at Ravinia. Like Bnei Jeshurin in NY, this combination of traditional nusach, Carlebach songs, smooth jazz, mixed with a little Country and Western and a little foot stomping makes for an emotionally satisfying evening. (http://www.jewishjournal.com/kol_nidre.) Add in some leftist activism and it’s a winning formula that is scalable. Listen to the Rabbi Naomi Levy’s sermon at 1:20 and read her write up in this week’s Forward Top Fifty. (http://forward.com/forward-50/ ) This woman has had her share of existential angst. Doesn’t mean that the entire congregation must take existential leaps three times a day.

  7. “What makes some uses of prayer proper and others not?” OK good, that is THE question and is amenable to answer once you agree on what you mean by “jewish prayer”. if you start from the premise that the siddur defines jewish prayer, then i can tell you what is in it and we can extrapolate from there the basic rules that govern its logic and canonical integrity. (and that is what i am doing in part in my current book project.) if you start from another mode of defining “jewish prayer” then it also behooves you to spell out some concrete brackets of logic and canon and it is desirable that you explain why you don’t choose the siddur-model.

  8. I offered up 4 possibilities….charediism which is in total respect of the nusach of the sidur, kabbalistic kavanot (suitably modernized or not) that changed the nusach from Ashkenaz to Sefard, and is used by balei madreigah everywhere, and an ambitious joyous Conservative version, that adds nothing to the nusach but does eliminate piyutim and more. If you have better ideas how to speak to the millions of Jews who are leaving synagogue life, America is waiting.

    My fin de sie’cle idea starts from the Kantian thesis in his last crtique that the closest we get to the sublime is by the apprehension of the beautiful. It need not have anything to do with the sidur or Judaism, though many a Jew from Sarah Bernhardt to Proust lived more meaningful lives because of this ideal. The Anglican-Catholic version from Chesterton to TS Eliott to today’s Radical Orthodoxy pumped some life into religion long after materialism was dominant. I see echoes of this Brideshead Revisited style in the yichus driven wealthy Orthodox families. Reform prides itself on having aesthetically pleasing services. For the most part I find the high- church of angels singing and an organ playing quite boring, and the Debbie Friedman low- church kumsitz style not much better. My point is that you have to put some backbone, some stulzkeit into these sad empty temples.

    You have the last word.

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