Abel killed Cain and Moses entered
the Promised Land and the children of Israel stayed in the Wilderness.
I ride in Ezekiel’s chariot,
and Ezekiel himself dances like Miriam the prophetess
in the Valley of Dry Bones.
Sodom and Gomorrah are booming
and Lot’s wife has turned into a pillar of sugar and honey
and David king of Israel is alive and well.
I so want
to mix up the Bible.
~Yehuda Amichai, “I Want to Mix Up the Bible” (trans. Robert Alter)
(Sample poem excerpts in translation at: http://prezi.com/wdo8n1dx92_r/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share)
(Sample poem excerpts in translation at: http://prezi.com/wdo8n1dx92_r/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share)
Background and Intentions
Amidst the degrees and the language preparation and the travel and the writing and reading of poetry, the experience that grounds me most in this research is my general practice (since childhood) of operating in the world as a contrarian. It is mythic lore in my childhood home, the extent of my stubbornness, and an ongoing constructive friction in my professional life. At its heart, this doctoral study is a contrarian project. It seeks to run counter to staid Christian perspectives on the Hebrew Bible and Jewish devotion, as well as counter to the theopolitical determinism of the State of Israel. It is intended to resist didactic methods of constructing and disseminating biblical theology in favor of the more sidelong efforts of poets and artists. Finally, it is aimed at resisting the common scholarly view that non-statist Israeli poetry of the post-WWII period is at the least antitheological and more commonly atheistic.
The constructive goal of this project is to understand the theological implications of the work of Biblical citation, allusion, and appropriation in some representative poets of this era. It is my instinct that doing so will provide new theological tools to counter the inherited supersessionism of even the most progressive Christian churches. This outcome, I expect, will in part have to do with demonstrating to Christian readers how the Bible is read, internalized, and interpreted in Jewish community through the lens of sociopolitical history, and in part with dislodging rigid Christian views of the theologies and theodicies of the Hebrew Bible. As a cultural vehicle, poetry (and the literary criticism that accompanies its study in the academy) offers expansive opportunities for both transformations. It is my intention to engage in close study of these materials as detailed below for their own sake, and use the period following the completion of my dissertation to do the work of autotranslation—bringing versions of this work into explicit practice in my denomination (Disciples of Christ) and other faith communities, faith-rooted community organizing efforts, and seminary education.
I begin this study with six years of masters’ level work in theology, Christian history, biblical languages, and ministry preparation. I have completed a Master of Theological Studies degree at Harvard Divinity School, with a focus on ancient Christianity, and will complete my Master of Divinity degree at Pacific School of Religion this December. My language study has included Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Coptic, Aramaic, and Spanish. I am a recently commissioned minister in the Disciples of Christ and a member of the ministry team at Tapestry Ministries in Berkeley. This congregation is unique in its focus on the incorporation of the severely disabled into active and visible ministry, its embrace of gender variance and racial diversity, and its commitment to horizontal, team-based leadership. As I complete this degree, I will be continuing in my weekly ministerial duties—preaching, teaching bible study, providing pastoral care, organizing church events, and structuring and scripting liturgy. I anticipate completing full ordination following doctoral coursework in 2018.
I am also a working poet, a social justice activist, a professional fundraiser and executive director in the field of urban economics, and a single mother of two. Each of these roles has informed my commitment to this area of study. My love of poetry and translation will no doubt be the stoke that keeps the fire of this work alight. My simultaneous work, for nearly 20 years, with grassroots community organizing and with senior international real estate executives has attuned me in a unique way to the dynamics of financial and social power. My children, who have been raised observing in both Christian and Jewish religious communities, provide a continual truing of the theological leaps we take in interreligious dialogue. The fact that they are at once entirely comfortable as loving agents in a multireligious world and uncertain of how to reconcile theological realities in an interreligious context reminds me daily of the importance of providing creative conceptual tools for cross-tradition theological dialogue.
Research Statement—Booth/Colomb Formulation
I am studying the appearance of citations, allusions, and appropriations of Hebrew Bible scriptures in post-Shoah poets in the statehood period of Israel because I want to find out how these uses re-work the theological concepts of the Bible in light of multinational trauma in order to help my reader understand new and more liberating approaches to biblical hermeneutics, particularly for progressive Christians in need of an alternative to inherited supersessionism.
The working title for my project is “Mixing Up the Bible: New Theologies and Theodicies in Post-Shoah Israeli Poetry.” A few choices made in constructing this title are worth noting at the outset. First, the concept of “mixing up the Bible” comes from the work of Yehuda Amichai, the poet whose work inspired this study. The passage quoted at the start of this paper demonstrates one sense in which Amichai intends to “mix up the Bible” with poetic voice, as he explores alternative narratives that arise from engaging with the Bible as a living text.
The term “Shoah” has been chosen over the more common “Holocaust” to designate the Jewish genocide. In the case of both terms, capitalization implies the specificity of the event, separating it in common parlance from other genocidal activities. The use of “Shoah” is a response to problematic theological implications of “Holocaust.” As Zev Garber and Bruce Zuckerman have demonstrated, the concept of holocaust originates from the narrative of the binding of Isaac (akedah) and suggests a necessary near-total sacrifice and compliance with the will of God. “Shoah” on the other hand indicates a “darkness” or a “catastrophe,” which does not import sacrificial redemption into a description of a yet-to-be-fully-understood historical event. It is also meaningful to note that this term places Jewish historical memory in a more mutually sympathetic relationship with the Palestinian “Nakba” (catastrophe) of 1948, which signals the largest single expulsion of Palestinians from the land of what is now the state of Israel.
The choice to confine my primary study to the works of poets within the state of Israel has not come without internal conflict. I am deeply concerned about engaging in an Israel-centric academic study given the current state of Israeli-Palestinian relations and the likelihood of a dramatically more hawkish American foreign policy in the Middle East near term. My spiritual and ethical commitments remain with the dispossessed and vulnerable in the present tense, even while I struggle to understand the formation and sustenance of the militarized Israeli state in the wake of the near-extermination of the European Jewish population. It has been, at various times, my intention to expand this study into contemporaneous Arabic literature in Palestinian territories and refugee communities. Increasingly, however, I am seeing the need to confine my language and cultural studies to the Hebrew and Yiddish that are more proximate language acquisition goals for me. It is my intention, however, to center on the voices on a spectrum of dissent against the Israeli state as a colonial power, incorporating Arabic works in translation as they emerge in the field of study.
Finally, it is important to note that I am separating out the work of “theology” (which the modifier “new” implies is largely constructive theology in this setting) from the work of “theodicy” (which wrestles with God’s relationship to evil in the created world). I intend to maintain these as separate fields of inquiry, rather than seeing theodicy as a subset of theology. Using this approach leaves room for poets who wish to engage one without the other—who, in the period following genocide, must tread carefully in the acceptance or deconstruction of religious belief. At any given moment, one can have a relatively well-formed theology without a solid theodicy, and vice-versa. I want to honor these steps of resistance and embrace of faith in the wake of the Shoah for what they have to teach us about biblical stories.
The primary audience for this doctoral project will be academics and students in the fields of biblical studies, Jewish studies, biblical theology, comparative literature, and—to a much lesser extent and more aspirationally—homiletics. With the exception of Jewish Studies, these fields are largely dominated by Christian scholars, ministers, and students, and it is precisely into this echo chamber that I hope the project will speak. While I intend my study to be deeply rooted in the linguistic and cultural norms of Jewish studies, it will be my goal to make the study relevant to Christian thinkers in a position to put its outcomes to work.
The primary “data” for the project will be the appearance of citations, allusions, and appropriations of scripture in the subject body of literature. A substantial part of the initial effort will be seeking out these “data” in the original language texts, attending to the many subtleties of reference often lost in translation and differences in biblical literacy. Having defined a relatively limited but representative body of literature, I will gather these extracted sources and investigate them with various interdisciplinary tools.
The central evaluative tool will be comparative literature, which brings with it literary criticism, translation theory, critical and postcolonial theory, queer and feminist theory, and a variety of other approaches. It will be essential, however, to maintain a focus on the biblical theology at play in literary interpretation in this body of work—not a broadly accepted move. Using these two strategies, I will attempt to activate and highlight the theological work being done in these text, not necessarily to demand recognition from the largely secular field of comparative literature, but to promote the value I believe these texts have for contemporary progressive biblical theology.
Artists of Interest
My primary interest in the statehood age of Israeli literature is to engage those poets operating outside of the nationalist narrative, but whose work still enjoys significant prominence in the literary historiography of the period. Statehood in Israel presumes both nationalist narratives and a kind of appropriated theological orthodoxy. Anti- or non-statist literature of the period then can be seen to resist either or both, in varying degrees. At the same time, I hope to become conversant in works that represent the significant influence of statist lyric poetry. The following poets will form the initial body of literature for study:
· Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000): Widely understood as Israel’s greatest and most prolific modern poet. Immigrated to Mandate Palestine from Germany in the early 1930’s. First published in 1955.
· Esther Raab (1894-1981): Born in Palestine, and lived in the emerging state with some brief exceptions. First published in 1930. Generally viewed as a pastoral poet whose engagement with the Jewish homeland implicitly supports the Israeli state.
· Yona Wallach (1944-1985): Born and died (at a young age, due to breast cancer) in and around Tel Aviv. First published in the 1960s. Her poetry offers a strong feminist, sex-positive voice and an ethic of resistance to Israeli state determinism.
· Dahlia Ravitkovitch (1936-2005): Born in Mandate Palestine to Russian immigrant parents. First published in the 1950’s. Her work invokes ritual and scriptural elements of Jewish life in the context of her commitment to peace activism and reconciliation.
· Natan Zach (1930- ): Immigrated from Berlin to Mandate Palestine as a young child. Has exercised substantial impact on Hebrew Modernist poetry as an editor, translator, writer, and critic. Controversial figure who has theorized an arguably racist cultural rift between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewry.
· Natan Yonatan (1923-2004): Born in Ukraine, but immigrated to Mandate Palestine as a young child. Represents the lyric, state-promoting voice in this period. His poems have often been set to music and used for national occasions.
Additional poets will be incorporated as the study proceeds. I will not attempt to offer a balance between voices of state-support and voices of resistance, but instead to engage those poets whose approaches to scripture depart from the Bible and religious experience as cultural artifacts and instead offer constructive theological concepts. I do not exclude atheism, antitheology, or agnosticism from this field of constructive theology, particularly in the experimental mode of Modernist poetry.
Three particularly helpful anthologies are:
· Burnshaw, Stanley, et. al., eds. The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself, Second Edition (2003)
· Glazer, Myra, ed. Burning Air and Clear Mind: Contemporary Israeli Women Poets (1981)
· Kaufman, Shirley, et. al., eds. The Defiant Muse: Hebrew Feminist Poems from Antiquity (1999).
Finally, the study will also include seminal works of literary fiction in, or in reference to, this period in the history of the Israeli state (particularly the works of Amos Oz), and works of visual and performance art that further the analysis of the artist’s relationship to statehood.
It is significant that I have chosen to align with biblical theology as a central discipline rather than biblical studies—which currently enjoys greater legitimacy in both secular and seminary-based higher academics. While contemporary scholars offer significant exceptions, biblical theology as a discipline can be seen as antiquated based on the burdensome assumptions of scriptural inerrancy, divine provenance, and the supersession of the Hebrew scriptures in light of the New Testament. It is, however, precisely the continuation of these practices that I plan to explore, with the aim of challenging them through the lens of contemporary literary endeavors rather than biblical studies methodologies.
Outdated efforts to study and teach biblical theology remain largely inaccessible or uninteresting to non-Christian readers, because the effort of the field is to provide a foundation for homiletics, pastoral leadership, and seminary education that presumes faith-rootedness. Its origins date back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries, with the works of the early church fathers, so that the field remains active primarily in orthodox communities.
The contemporary historical critical project of biblical studies, however, often aims too far toward the complete demystification of scripture and remains largely inaccessible to Christian faith communities. While some of the resources of contemporary biblical hermeneutics that have emerged from the field will be of value in this project, the aims of my work are quite distinct from the field of biblical criticism.
Comparative literature is a well-established contemporary field of study that will provide the essential components of my methodological approach to my doctoral study. The practice of comparative literary study has its origins in transnational literary community in 19th Century Europe. It remains a vital field of study, though often considered too methodologically broad to provide a critical mass of direct academic dialogue. Its natural concerns with sociology, anthropology, history, literature, translation, religious studies, international relations, etc. create a wide field for topical focus.
While many contemporary comparatists focus on transnational literary criticism—and thus the concern of intercultural communication, translation practices, power relations, etc.—my focus will be primarily the comparison of literary culture across time and political experience (particularly the Shoah, the Jewish diaspora, and the creation of the state of Israel). There is, no doubt, a comparative concern in the relationship between Israeli (Hebrew, Yiddish) and Palestinian/Arabic sources in the post-war period in land increasingly being claimed as Israeli territory. However, the central question of the project is how the literary intent of the bible is renewed, reinterpreted, reappropriated, and undone in later literary sources.
Additional Fields of Inquiry/Sources of Methodology
The project will require exploration of several other disciplinary fields, including:
· translation studies (biblical Hebrew, modern Hebrew, modern Arabic, Aramaic, Yiddish, and English)
· critical theory (feminist, postcolonial, queer, and literary theory)
· border studies (diaspora and the nature of modern-contemporary Israel/Palestine)
· Jewish studies (hermeneutic traditions, literature in society, Jewish mysticism, secularization and post-secularism)
· Middle Eastern studies (modern and contemporary political concerns)
I will engage these additional fields as sources of alternate perspectives and critique, particularly for where they point to sites of marginalization and erasure, to the political and social implications of my work, and to the translation of my work into contemporary religious practice communities. Each of these fields is itself by nature interdisciplinary, calling on a variety of methodologies. Most notable are the foundations of linguistics, political theory, political science, religious studies, history, psychology, gender studies, and textual studies.
Translation studies and critical theory are in large part embodied in the practice of comparative literature, and will not represent a significant departure from that primary field (though each is dramatically broad in its own bibliographic and conceptual reach). Jewish studies and Middle Eastern studies are unavoidable as fields of consultation/critique as I pursue study in this literary field.
I am particularly interested in the work to be done with queer theory and queer theology in my area of study. One of the foundational realities of the Israeli state is a return, in the wake of the Shoah, to a cultural hyper-masculinity, an equation of national sovereignty with virility. One sees the theme throughout the statehood period (as well as in contemporary history and historiography), understood by many Jewish studies scholars as a reaction against anti-Semitic tropes that feminized Jewish men. Gender play and linguistic and theological queering are used widely in the poetic works that comprise this study. Some work has been done to explore secular queer theory in this context, but the activation of queer theology remains to be done (again, largely due to the presumed antitheology or secularism of this body of work.)
Border studies has consolidated quite recently as an academic field focused on the formations of physical and effective political boundaries in international power relations. It simultaneously investigates both practical social and political circumstances and the metaphorical significance of border-making and -breaking. It is a particularly meaningful field for my work given the dramatic impact of post-war nation-state delineation during the period of my study, as well as the contemporary concern of the expansion of the Israeli state and Palestinian sovereignty.
There is the potential for my work to benefit the field of border studies with an investigation of the theological and rhetorical effort at play in the construction of boundaries. The theological foundations of the history of Jewish sequestration in the West and contemporary practices of Palestinian containment are explored more frequently in literary responses to social circumstances than in political ones. This study has the potential to free some of those underutilized literary resources.
Multivocationality has been the reigning logic of my entire working life, in part due to financial necessity and in part due to the significant divergence of my interests. I have embarked on this doctoral study with the intention to remain multivocational for the foreseeable future, although it is my hope that the fields of my interest will begin to converge more naturally over time. Ideally, I would like to find a meaningful but not exclusive place in academic dialogue and teaching in undergraduate or seminary settings. I have mostly ruled out the option of seeking employment solely as an academic in a larger research institution, both because I am much more committed to teaching than to academic production and because I hope to continue to engage in other efforts, including active part-time ministry and housing equity activism.
The most critical area for my immediate growth as a scholar in this field is in the mastery of Hebrew and Yiddish. This is not exactly “terra incognita” but rather a recognition of the need for a near native-speaking mastery of the languages so as to be highly attuned to subtle biblical references and their cultural implications.