This Is What It Sounds Like When the Rabbis Cry: On Piyyutim and Aesthetics

by sboyarin

In the documentary about Norwegian Black Metal Until the Light Takes Us, one of the main characters, Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell, expresses his dislike for art made by artists whose art reflects the bad circumstances of their surroundings: artists living under oppressive political regimes, or poverty (he gives the example of Frida Kahlo’s art). His art, by contrast, is derived, he says, from the banality of his easy life in an upper middle-class Norwegian family. This scene reminds me, mutatis mutandis, of a comment I read in an introduction to an edition of medieval Hebrew poetry published in Palestine in 1946: A Selection of Hebrew Poetry from the Moment the Holy Scriptures Were Sealed Until the Exile of Israel from the Land of Spain in the Year 5252.

The volume as I have it appears is an abridged edition of an earlier, longer edition that I have not seen, but the original edition was edited by Hayim Brody and Meir Viner, the newer abridged edition by Abraham Moses Haberman, who added the introduction. In this, Haberman briefly summarizes some key points about the poetry included in the volume. Towards this end, after a very brief discussion of the prosody of the Hebrew poetry of al-Andalus, he comments:

The masters of the slihot [a genre of poems used for penitential liturgy] of Ashkenaz, who suffered seven levels of grief, did not surrender in the face of the harsh laws of rhyme and meter and freed themselves somewhat from the burden of perfect form. The crying and groaning over communal suffering broke from the heart without any restraint ­— and the time was not right for the niceties of form, and therefore it is somewhat lacking in the piyyutim of the Ashkenazim, especially in their slihot and kinot [a genre of lamentation written in response to attacks on Jewish communities]. But, for this very reason, a true warm feeling is preserved in them, the heartbeat of the nation, wondering, hurt, and complaining before its creator, almost to the point of protest. These expressions of sorrow and moaning are beloved by us more than the calm beauty of the piyyutim of Sepharad.

–A.M Haberman, Introduction, in A Selection of Hebrew Poetry (Jerusalem: Reuben Mas, 1946), p. 7. My translation.

In the 70 years and more since this was written, there has been much historical work that challenges the simple dichotomy between Jewish life in Ashkenaz and Sepharad, but that is not my main topic here. I want to focus on the (perhaps obvious) aesthetic assumptions behind this comment: Haberman’s argument is that the Ashkenazi poets were not able to focus as much on issues of form, rhyme, and meter, because their lives were hard. Their poems, though less polished, are more direct, however: they express “true” emotion, because they are spontaneous expressions of the suffering community (and the nation as a whole, though that is another issue of course). I read behind this the influence of one (post-Romantic?) idea about art: real art is an expression of true emotion, while art that shows the artist’s skill, training, and learning is artificial, somehow stale.

Of course, the whole dichotomy can be easily turned on its head, and in fact I would say that, by and large, the case in contemporary studies of medieval Hebrew poetry is the inverse: the poetry of al-Andalus, particularly the “secular” branch of it, is viewed as art because it is seen as freed from the formal, liturgical constraints of communal needs and is the expression of individual trained artists, masters of their craft, who are writing poetry for poetry’s sake—this reflecting an attitude about what constitutes art that is rather like that of the Norwegian metalhead “Fenriz.” The Ashkenazi poets, by contrast, did not have the ability to create true art, because their existence was defined by suffering.

The goal of this post is not necessarily to paint one position as wholly right and the other as wholly wrong, but to meditate on the way our preconceptions of what and how “art” exists enters into the way we treat our materials, and on how such preconceptions change over time. Both approaches I’ve mentioned here have something to stand on, and both are, at the same time, problematic. More musings soon.