Yehuda Amichai and God

Original copy of Amichai's poem, "Yom Kippur." Reproduced courtesy of Hana Amichai from the archives of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

Original copy of Amichai’s poem, “Yom Kippur.” Reproduced courtesy of Hana Amichai from the archives of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

Yehuda Amichai frequently argues with God in his poems.

Raised in an Orthodox household, Amichai stopped practicing when he became a teenager — much to the dismay of his father. They argued about God and Jewish ritual practice for years. In fact, Amichai continued to argue with him long after his father died.

In his work, Amichai frequently played with Hebrew prayers and Biblical stories to create a sense of irony and reflect his own perspective. In an interview with Avirama Golan of IETV that Amichai gave a few weeks before his own death, Amichai’s views about God and religion remained as sharp as ever.

“I had this argument with God since I was a child,” said Amichai. “My father always wanted to prove to me that [God exists]. That I would understand one day. That there has to be some kind of big director in heaven but it doesn’t mean that because of that I’m forbidden to eat a sandwich with meat and cheese together.”

“But the director exists. . .” said Golan.

“The director exists . . . but it doesn’t interest me,” said Amichai. “Call it nature or a higher intelligence . . .”

“It doesn’t matter to you if he’s Jewish or . . .” said Golan.

“If he was a Jew I would fire him,” said Amichai.

“Why?” asked Golan.

“You see what he did to the Jewish people?” asked Amichai, referring to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.

This exchange is typical of Amichai’s irony, of his outlook on God and Jewish history. For example, in a poem about Yom Kippur that will appear in The Amichai Windows, Amichai plays with the Yom Kippur liturgy in which worshipers plea for God to remember them and to inscribe them in the book of life. Rather, Amichai suggests, the Jewish people would be better off if God forgets about them and allows them to live in peace.

Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur without my father and without my mother
is not Yom Kippur.

From the blessing of their hands upon my head
only the tremor remains like the tremor of a motor
that has not stopped even after their death.

My mother died just five years ago.
She is still caught in the bureaucratic process
between the heavenly offices above and the paperwork below.

My father, who died long ago, has already been resurrected
in other places but not in my place.

Yom Kippur without my father and without my mother
is not Yom Kippur.

Therefore I eat in order to remember
and drink in order not to forget
and arrange the vows
and classify the oaths by time and severity.

By day we cried out, “Forgive us,”
and in the evening we cried out, “Open the gates of heaven for us,”
but I say forget for our sake, forget us, leave us be
at the time of the locking of the gates, for day is done.
The last rays of sunlight are shattered
in the synagogue’s stained-glass window.
The sunlight is not shattered,
we are shattered,
the word “shattered” is shattered.

Translated by Rick Black – all rights reserved.

Even though Amichai was no longer a practicing Orthodox Jew, he continued to argue with God — or call it history or fate — each of which seemed to thwart him and those he loved. I think that Amichai—or the speaker of his poems (it’s hard to distinguish between them)—was wrestling with God in light of the tragic nature of modern Jewish history. He continued to question God’s involvement in human existence and to search for a way to relate to God, to a being or an entity that he no longer trusted.

“He surely no longer believed in the God of Jewish tradition,” writes Robert Alter in his introduction to a new collection of Amichai poems in English, The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. “Yet God is not absent from his work, persisting as an idea to grapple with, a being to challenge or turn inside out, even occasionally as a kind of lingering ghostly presence.”

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