A while back I received a note from Rabbi Jack Riemer, author of one of my favorite revisionings of Unetaneh Tokef, and co-author with Sylvan Kamens of We Remember Them, which I use at every funeral. He had written a new review of 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011), and his review was published in the South Florida Jewish Journal.
It's always a gift to receive a review of a book some years after its publication -- and especially so when the author of the review is someone whose work I so respect. Thank you, Rabbi Riemer! And thank you also for giving me permission to reprint the review in full on this blog.
Reviewed by Jack Riemer
We have had women rabbis for more than a generation now. We have a generation of young people who have never known it any other way. But if we stand back, we can see at least three contributions that women rabbis have made to our spiritual lives.
One is that women rabbis have given a whole new emphasis to the spiritual side of healing. We knew that rabbis were supposed to visit the sick, but women rabbis have given us a whole new perspective into the spiritual dimension of healing. A second contribution they have made is their emphasis on prayer as a matter of the inner life, which was always there, but which was and is often neglected. And a third contribution that women rabbis have made is the creation of poems that see God in a whole series of bold new images that we were not accustomed to seeing before.
This collection of poems by Rachel Barenblat, one for each sedra of the year, is a good example. No male rabbi would have written a poem that says:
Postpartum depression caused the Flood.
God was elated when creation was born
every facet unfolding a reflection
light and darkness, as above so below
But God ached all over, God felt hollow
God walked in the empty garden disconsolate
already nothing was the way God planned it
and Abel's blood cried out from the soil
Could the whole project be a wash?
In God's heart, regret bloomed hot
and a tempest of sorrow rained down on earth
Still, some simple sweetness in us
roused divine compassion like milk
found favor in God's tired eyes.
It is a tender image of the creation that we have in this poem, is it not?
God the mother gives birth with elation, and then God goes through the feeling of emptiness that follows after every birth, and the sense of disappointment at the way things turn out that follows some births, and then, when regret blooms hot, and God is tempted to wash the world away, a compassion for us, something like the milk that every mother feels inside-- that needs to pour out for her own sake as well as for her child’s sake, comes out and saves us.
Let me share just one more poem from this collection. In order to read it, you must put aside your politics, at least for a moment. You must forget the fact that self-defense is a necessity in Israel and that searching those who would go through its checkpoints is an essential task, a matter of life and death for Israel. Try to forget for just a moment, if you can, that those who come to the checkpoints may, and often are carrying hidden weapons. Try to forget for a moment, if you can, that America does the very same thing that Israel does, before it lets anyone board a plane. Try to forget all these undeniable truths for just a moment, and try to focus if you can, as this poem does, on the damage that doing these searches does to the minds and the souls of the eighteen year old Israeli soldiers who must do these searches all day, every day. And then, after you have winced at the painful truth expressed in this poem, you may go back and reaffirm all these facts and you may understand that these searches are absolutely necessary and yet you can understand that it is sad that this is so.
The poem is called ‘Downside” and it is based on the warning at the end of the book of Bamidbar that you must guard yourselves against the people who live in the land that you are about to take possession of, or else they will harass you.
Here's the part
God apparently didn't say
at least not aloud
where anyone could hear:
not as easy as it sounds
and tends to have
occasional side effects
feelings of guilt
among the tender-hearted
and a certain hardening
of those who do battle
persisting for generations
breeding bitter fury
which tends to explode
and don't forget
the damage done
to your chelek Elohim,
the eternal spark in you
which dims a little bit
with each interrogation
of another face of God.
You have to wince for a moment when you read this poem, and then you can shake it off if you want to, and you can go back to the practical world, the world in which searches may be ugly but in which they are necessary. But this poem will go with you, and on occasion it will make you wish that it were not so.
Read the rest of the poems in this collection and they will help you see the portion of the week in a new light. Some will make you smile; some will make you angry, but all of them will make you see the words of the Torah in a fresh and different light, and that is what Torah study is meant to do for us each year.