Tuesday, October 31, 2006

As Promised, Jews Love: Halevi

(If anyone has the full text of ,יעלת חן, רחמי לבב please attach it in the comments section; I could not, for the life of me, find a usable text online. Thank you.)

At first glance, Halevi’s love poetry contrasts with the piety of his theological poetry; however, a closer reading suggests that his love poetry is likewise theocentric (1). Read in isolation, יעלת חן, רחמי לבב simultaneously conveys the speaker’s obsession with his lover and reveals her malice in return, creating an unsettling ambiguity. His veneration of her in the face of her cruelty to him suggests a terminal myopia on his part. Yet, the unwavering loyalty coupled with justifiable anger recalls the interaction between God and Israel during the time of the covenant. Read as an allegory for God’s relationship with Israel, the poem resonates with the theocentrism and particularist message of Halevi’s other writings. Halevi’s focus on God’s perspective in this relationship inverts the expected power dynamic and brings Israel’s treatment of God into sharp relief. In this version of their relationship, Israel acts as the aggressor, wielding power over God. In contrast, God remains passive: He is at Israel’s mercy, the recipient of her vitriol and her pity (2). This perspective underscores Halevi’s insistence on God’s particularism. Not only is Israel God’s Chosen People, but without Israel, God is without purpose, without meaning.

God and Israel as lovers is a well-established allegory that provides theological and philosophical fodder for Halevi, who inverts the power dynamic. Halevi imagines God’s response to Israel’s defiance. Whereas the biblical God is wrathful when spurned, Halevi’s God painfully bemoans His fate and continues to re-establish the relationship, in spite of His repeated mistreatment. Israel acts as the aggressor: ensnaring God, violating His laws, pleading for Him to return, and then rejecting Him, once again. This cycle recalls the biblical relationship, but that interaction is defined by defiance and punishment, in which God wields absolute power and Israel lay prostrate at His mercy. The Bible records His anger, but Halevi records his pain and sorrow: the mirror image of the biblical portrayal.

In יעלת חן, רחמי לבב the imagery depicting Israel’s actions towards God are wholly negative; yet, God’s devotion is bottomless. The first three verses demonstrate the harm that Israel has done her lover. In the first, God pleads for her pity (רחמי), but the snakes that protect her cheeks sting Him with poison. The verb for pity, רחם, is reserved to describe God’s compassion (for example: Ex 33:19, Dt 13:18, II K 13:23, Is 9:16, Je 12:15); however, Halevi’s God requests רחם from Israel, implying that Israel holds the power in this relationship. Halevi employs dynamic parallelism to heighten the dramatic tension as Israel’s physical violations of God increase. In the first verse, Israel’s guards pursue God; in the second, her fiery nipples drink his blood; in the third, “תמיתני בצדיה...[עפעפים שלה] נפשי בקשו.”

After her misbehavior, Israel repents in the fourth verse, but biblical precedent demands that her repentance be short-lived. The term Halevi uses for messengers, שלומיה, refers to making peace with God, especially in covenantal relation (Nu 25:12; Ex 34:25, 37:26; Mal 2:5). When her envoys return, she cries out for prophecy, as if she were ready to truly hear God’s word. Halevi writes, “מלאכי שלום, פגעו בי, שנו גם שלשו.” The phrase מלאכי שלום alludes to Isaiah 33:7, in which the מלאכי שלום, the prophets, weep bitterly because God renounced the covenant (cf. Is 42:19, 44:26). Even after God returns, Israel remains faithless. Her דדים, which in the second verse ensnared God, in this verse lead to his rejection. In Ezekiel 23, God reprimands Israel and Samaria for whoring themselves out to Egypt, particularly for letting Egyptians fondle their דדים. Throughout the poem, God’s verbs are passive and Israel’s active; she is the subject and he the object. Although He narrates, Israel maintains the power in this relationship.

God’s continued devotion, in spite of Israel’s unquestionable malice, raises a question as to his motivation. Why would God continue to love and be devoted to Israel under these conditions? Halevi states the case explicitly, “תדעי כי יום תנודי—אסוני בנדודך.” The crux of the poem is not God’s particular love of Israel, but God’s imminent ruin if Israel abandons Him. Beyond particularism, the poem is exclusivist. God does not love Israel more than other nations; rather, God loves Israel alone. Halevi demonstrates through this allegory that Israel grants God purpose. Without Israel to love and care for, God ceases to have purpose and, by implication, meaning.

(1) Theocentric poetry includes the poetry where the poet openly addresses God and his Zionist poetry. I include the Zionist poetry because Halevi demonstrates therein that a return to Zion is a return to God’s covenant and that he cannot fully express his piety outside the confines of her walls.

(2) As Halevi uses the masculine singular for God, I address God throughout the paper using masculine singular pronouns to maintain consistency with the text. This choice does not reflect my personal theology.

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